Ever since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the country has struggled with containing its contaminated water. But it’s running out of room—and time.
The Fukushima nuclear plant’s crisis may have ended in 2011, but the event continues to have ramifications in Japan today. The Tokyo Electric Power Co, also known as TEPCO, should dump radioactive water from the destroyed plant into the Pacific Ocean, says environmental minister Yoshiaki Harada. The action is necessary, Harada says, because the government is running out of storage.
“The only option will be to drain it into the sea and dilute it,” Harada, who is also minister of Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, told a news briefing in Tokyo, as reported by Japan Today. “The whole of the government will discuss this, but I would like to offer my simple opinion.”
As the Japanese government awaits a report on recommendations for what to do with the accumulated water, no opinion is simple. Rather, the Japanese government has been dreading this moment since the initial incident.
A refresher: Following a major earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s own power supply was disabled. This sparked a series of disastrous events, leading to three of the plant’s six reactor cores to mostly meltdown within three days. While there haven’t been any official deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the incident, as many as 164,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes for their safety.
Beyond cooling the meltdown, the main issue facing the plant became the contaminated radioactive water it was holding.
Water is crucial to the nuclear energy process. It’s used for extracting and processing uranium fuel, producing electricity, and waste storage. The Fukushima reactors were known as GE boiling water reactors, designed in the early 1960s by General Electric, Toshiba, and Hitachi. When the reactor core began melting, engineers were able to stabilize them by adding even more water.
All that water adds up to a difficult containment. In 2013, TEPCO came under fire when it was revealed that 300 tonnes of the highly contaminated water had leaked. By 2014, Fukushima had two mobile strontium removal systems installed. The systems have aided in lessening the problem, and radiation levels around the area have fallen.
But issues still remain. In fact, TEPCO continues out of necessity to pour more water on the melted cores. To contain the problem, the government has stored the water in tanks. By 2018, it had accumulated 850 tanks, containing 850,000 tons of radiated, or tritiated, water. These tanks have begun to create structural concerns, holding 1 million of the facility’s 1.1 million-ton total capacity. TEPCO believes it’s possible to keep the water there until 2021, but the risk is being felt right now.
Harada’s opinion has come under fire from local fishermen. Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, called the comments “thoughtless, in light of his position” in the government, according to the Japan Times.
After the initial 2011 incident, the fishing industry around Fukushima was devastated. Over the years it has launched a small comeback, reaching around 10 percent of the average prior to 2011.
Takayuki Yanai, an official of a fishery cooperative that’s involved in the operation of the Onahama fish market in the city of Iwaki in Fukushima, says the trust that the fishing industry has tried to build up would disappear because of the action. Yanai told the Times that “any safety measures we have taken and our sales promotion efforts would be shattered instantly, and our businesses will be destroyed.”
Dumping the water could also have international implications. Namely, it could infuriate Japan’s neighbors in South Korea.
“We’re just hoping to hear more details of the discussions that are under way in Tokyo so that there won’t be a surprise announcement,” a South Korean diplomat told Reuters.
This article was written by David Grossman and was by Popular Mechanics on 12/09/2019