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A radioactive problem in Japan

Officials debate what to do with water from Fukushima disaster

A worker in a hazmat suit at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong (file)

A radioactive problem in Japan

Following an outcry from local fisheries and farmers, Japan walked back plans to release more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive water into the sea.

A massive earthquake generated a tsunami in 2011 that hit the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northern Japan. The resulting triple core meltdown was the second-worst accident in the history of nuclear power.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company must indefinitely pump water onto the damaged reactors to keep them cool. Groundwater and rainwater also gather in the compromised structures that house the defunct reactors. That water must be pumped out so it doesn’t seep back into the ground and cause further contamination. All told, the damaged plant creates about 170 tons of radioactive liquid every day that is stored in about 1,000 tanks on the site. A filtering system has removed most of the radioactive material from the water except tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that is harmful to humans only in large doses. No existing technology can remove it.

Tokyo Electric Power is building more tanks, but it estimates the complex will run out of storage space by mid-2022. On Oct. 16, Japanese officials announced a plan to release the filtered water into the sea over a period of three decades, beginning most likely in 2022. The announcement drew outrage from local farmers and fishermen, who say consumers would stop buying their seafood and produce. South Korea already bans imports of seafood from the area.

Some experts say the concern is warranted. Tilman Ruff and Margaret Beavis, both professors at the University of Melbourne and associates of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, say the water purification system has demonstrated little success. To date, 72 percent of the treated water exceeds regulatory standards for radioactivity, and some of it has tested 20,000 times higher, they said. Radioactive material can disperse widely in the ocean and concentrate up the food chain, resulting in some “fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in,” they wrote. According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, researchers found radioactivity from Fukushima in tuna caught as far away as the coast of California.

Japanese Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama quickly paused the plan to release the water into the sea: “We are not at a stage where we can announce the specific timing of a decision on how to deal with the stored water. We want to proceed with the matter carefully.”

Julie Borg

Julie is a World Journalism Institute graduate. She covers science and intelligent design for WORLD and is a clinical psychologist. Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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