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Cleaning up a nuclear mess

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WORLD Radio - Cleaning up a nuclear mess

The Tokyo Electric Power Company plans to release radioactive water into the ocean


Tanks storing treated radioactive water after it was used to cool the melted fuel are seen at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), in Okuma town, northeastern Japan, on March 3, 2022 Associated Press Photo/Hiro Komae

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next: radioactive cleanup. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant.

Now, the Tokyo Electric Power Company is trying to clean up the mess. It plans to release millions of tons of radioactive water into the ocean as soon as 2023.

WORLD’s Mary Muncy reports.

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: In 2011, the tsunami destroyed the cooling mechanisms on Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. The Tokyo Electric Power Company—that’s TEPCO—immediately started pumping water over the reactors to try to keep them cool.

That water picks up radioactive material. It can’t just be pumped back into the ocean.

Most of the radioactive material can be filtered out but tritium is extremely difficult, if not impossible to take out of the water.

JAESCHKE: My name is Benedict Jaeschke. I have a PhD in ecotoxicology, with a specialization in the effects of radiation on the marine environment. I currently work as a consultant with regards to the impact of radioactive wastes from nuclear sites.

For his PhD, Jaeschke researched the effects of tritium on marine organisms. He also studied how it moves through the environment.

JAESCHKE: Tritium is radioactive hydrogen, it's a hydrogen atom with two extra neutrons and chemically, tritium behaves effectively identically to hydrogen.

And, that hydrogen is very reactive and when it reacts with oxygen it creates H2O where one or both of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced with tritium.

JAESCHKE: So chemically, this is water, it's just radioactive water.

Unlike other radioactive materials like strontium or cesium, tritium changes the chemical composition of the water. So trying to filter tritiated water from regular water is like trying to filter water out of water—which sounds like a curse straight from Greek mythology.

No one really knows what to do with tritiated water. TEPCO has been working with the Japanese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and independent contractors to figure out a plan and the best they could come up with is releasing it into the ocean.

But that isn’t as bad as it might sound. Jaeschke said tritium can only damage living things under pretty specific conditions.

JAESCHKE: To damage populations of these organisms would require sustained tritium concentration on on the scale probably a mega becquerels per liter.

He’s saying it would have to be an incredibly high concentration of tritium for a long period of time, something that’s unlikely to happen in the ocean.

JAESCHKE: If you were to imagine putting red dye into water, it diffuses very, very quickly, and gets gets fainter and fainter as it spreads out.

The same thing happens to tritiated water. The radioactive water is seeking to distribute itself evenly throughout the entire ocean.

JAESCHKE: So unless there's very little water to exchange with, so it's a it's a small pond, or there are going to be many, many releases of high concentrations of treated water and wastewater, the chances for sustained high concentration and in that location are quite low.

TEPCO plans to dilute the water to 1/40th of the concentration allowed by the government before releasing it.

Tritium also has a relatively short half-life, which is the time it takes for half of a radioactive sample to decay. For tritium, that’s only about 12-and-a-half years.

So why can’t TEPCO just store the water until the tritium decays?

SEABORG: I'm Don Seaborg. I'm a retired engineer, I worked in nuclear operations or cleanup or waste management or weapons for all of national defense for the career that spanned 45 years, and retired from federal service in 2018 and I’ve been consulting ever since.

Seaborg said, just as there are risks to releasing the water, there are risks to storing it.

SEABORG: Then you run the risk of another tsunami, another earthquake and releasing all this, or at least large portions of this tritiated water at one time in an uncontrolled fashion.

But the fisherman around Fukushima don’t see it the same way. They’re just now getting their fishing ground back after the accident and they say that at the very least, releasing the water would hurt their reputation.

SEABORG: Any area that's subject to a nuclear action like this is always people avoid it, avoid the products, whether they're farm products, or in this case, water fishing products.

But Jaeschke said there is very little risk to humans. If the fish were somehow significantly contaminated, a fisherman could put the fish in a bucket of water. Within a few hours or days, the tritiated water would disperse evenly throughout the bucket, just like it does throughout the ocean. This would make the levels of tritium in the fish negligible.

TEPCO estimates that cleaning up Fukushima will take another 50 years and it will have to continue running water over the reactors until it’s completely decommissioned.

So until technology to separate tritiated water from regular water is perfected, TEPCO sees releasing it as its best bet.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next: radioactive cleanup. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant.

Now, the Tokyo Electric Power Company is trying to clean up the mess. It plans to release millions of tons of radioactive water into the ocean as soon as 2023.

WORLD’s Mary Muncy reports.

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: In 2011, the tsunami destroyed the cooling mechanisms on Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. The Tokyo Electric Power Company—that’s TEPCO—immediately started pumping water over the reactors to try to keep them cool.

That water picks up radioactive material. It can’t just be pumped back into the ocean.

Most of the radioactive material can be filtered out but tritium is extremely difficult, if not impossible to take out of the water.

JAESCHKE: My name is Benedict Jaeschke. I have a PhD in ecotoxicology, with a specialization in the effects of radiation on the marine environment. I currently work as a consultant with regards to the impact of radioactive wastes from nuclear sites.

For his PhD, Jaeschke researched the effects of tritium on marine organisms. He also studied how it moves through the environment.

JAESCHKE: Tritium is radioactive hydrogen, it's a hydrogen atom with two extra neutrons and chemically, tritium behaves effectively identically to hydrogen.

And, that hydrogen is very reactive and when it reacts with oxygen it creates H2O where one or both of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced with tritium.

JAESCHKE: So chemically, this is water, it's just radioactive water.

Unlike other radioactive materials like strontium or cesium, tritium changes the chemical composition of the water. So trying to filter tritiated water from regular water is like trying to filter water out of water—which sounds like a curse straight from Greek mythology.

No one really knows what to do with tritiated water. TEPCO has been working with the Japanese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and independent contractors to figure out a plan and the best they could come up with is releasing it into the ocean.

But that isn’t as bad as it might sound. Jaeschke said tritium can only damage living things under pretty specific conditions.

JAESCHKE: To damage populations of these organisms would require sustained tritium concentration on on the scale probably a mega becquerels per liter.

He’s saying it would have to be an incredibly high concentration of tritium for a long period of time, something that’s unlikely to happen in the ocean.

JAESCHKE: If you were to imagine putting red dye into water, it diffuses very, very quickly, and gets gets fainter and fainter as it spreads out.

The same thing happens to tritiated water. The radioactive water is seeking to distribute itself evenly throughout the entire ocean.

JAESCHKE: So unless there's very little water to exchange with, so it's a it's a small pond, or there are going to be many, many releases of high concentrations of treated water and wastewater, the chances for sustained high concentration and in that location are quite low.

TEPCO plans to dilute the water to 1/40th of the concentration allowed by the government before releasing it.

Tritium also has a relatively short half-life, which is the time it takes for half of a radioactive sample to decay. For tritium, that’s only about 12-and-a-half years.

So why can’t TEPCO just store the water until the tritium decays?

SEABORG: I'm Don Seaborg. I'm a retired engineer, I worked in nuclear operations or cleanup or waste management or weapons for all of national defense for the career that spanned 45 years, and retired from federal service in 2018 and I’ve been consulting ever since.

Seaborg said, just as there are risks to releasing the water, there are risks to storing it.

SEABORG: Then you run the risk of another tsunami, another earthquake and releasing all this, or at least large portions of this tritiated water at one time in an uncontrolled fashion.

But the fisherman around Fukushima don’t see it the same way. They’re just now getting their fishing ground back after the accident and they say that at the very least, releasing the water would hurt their reputation.

SEABORG: Any area that's subject to a nuclear action like this is always people avoid it, avoid the products, whether they're farm products, or in this case, water fishing products.

But Jaeschke said there is very little risk to humans. If the fish were somehow significantly contaminated, a fisherman could put the fish in a bucket of water. Within a few hours or days, the tritiated water would disperse evenly throughout the bucket, just like it does throughout the ocean. This would make the levels of tritium in the fish negligible.

TEPCO estimates that cleaning up Fukushima will take another 50 years and it will have to continue running water over the reactors until it’s completely decommissioned.

So until technology to separate tritiated water from regular water is perfected, TEPCO sees releasing it as its best bet.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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