Japan to Delay Ocean Dumping of Contaminated Waste Water from Fukushima

Photograph Source: IAEA Imagebank – CC BY-SA 2.0

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno announced in January that his government would delay its plan to pump over 1.37 million tons of watery radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean from the devastated six-reactor complex at Fukushima-Daiichi. With the country facing harsh international pressure to cancel the dumping, Matsuno acknowledged “the need to gain public support,” for the plan, the Associated Press reported January 12. The wicked water is now being collected in large tanks that were hastily built near the wrecked reactors.

Fierce criticism of the deliberate pollution scheme has come from China, South Korea, other Pacific Rim countries, scientists, environmental groups, UN human rights experts, and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), an alliance of 17 Pacific island nations. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also indicated that the government wants a postponement of the dumping operation — designed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) — until it is “verifiably safe to do so,” Thomas Heaton reported February 16 for Civil Beat.

The PIF, independent states where according to Reuters up to half of the world’s tuna is sourced, was crucial in forcing Japan’s apparent retreat. The PIF warned that contaminating the Pacific could harm the fishing that its economies depend on. Mary Yamaguchi reported on January 12 for the AP: “Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to tritium and other radionuclides on the environment and humans is still unknown and the release plan should be delayed. They say tritium affects humans more when it is consumed in fish.” A scientific expert panel assembled by the PIF urged a reconsideration of the dumping “because it was not supported by data and more information was needed,” Ken Buesseler, with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in January.

Japan announced in April 2021 that it would allow Tepco to pump the nearly 1.4 million tons of liquid radioactive waste into the public commons of the Pacific Ocean beginning in spring 2023. Tepco says it intends to dilute the material and pump it into the sea for the next 30 to 40 years using an underground tunnel now under construction. Media attention has focused on the tritium (radioactive hydrogen) in the wastewater which cannot be removed by Tepco’s (failed) filtering system and has generally ignored mention of the long-lived carbon-14 in the water, which likewise cannot be removed.

Often unreported about the plan is the failure of Tepco’s wastewater filer system, dubbed the “Advanced Liquid Processing System,” which has not removed the dozens of long-lived radioactive substances — including ruthenium, cobalt-60, strontium-90, cesium-137, and even plutonium – that the company said it would filter.

The water becomes radioactively contaminated (150 tons more every day) after being poured over hundreds of tons of melted, ferociously radioactive uranium — and in reactor #3 plutonium — fuel, the hot wreckage amassed deep inside the foundations of the three destroyed nuclear reactors, units 1, 2 and 3. All three suffered catastrophic meltdowns following the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Some of the contaminated waste is groundwater that reaches the melted fuel after pouring through cracks in the reactors’ foundations caused by the earthquake. Dr. Buesseler Science magazine in 2020, “Many other isotopes are in those tanks still, and over 70 percent [of 1.37 million tons] would have to be cleaned up further before they might consider even releasing….”

Moreover, reactor 3 which was packed with “mixed oxide” fuel made of combined uranium and plutonium, suffered a huge hydrogen explosion at 11 a.m. on March 14, and Tepco announced that on March 21 and 22, in soil collected on the Fukushima site, plutonium was detected. Hydrogen explosions also caused severe damage to reactors 1 and 2, and to the waste fuel pool of reactor 4. (Three additional hydrogen explosions caused severe damage: to reactor 1 on March 11, and to reactor 2 and to the waste fuel pool of reactor 4 on March 15.)

In April 2021, Cindy Folkers, a radiation and health hazards specialist at Beyond Nuclear in Maryland, told Brett Wilkins of Common Dreams, “TEPCO data show that even twice-through filtration leaves the water 13.7 times more concentrated with hazardous tritium — radioactive hydrogen — than Japan’s allowable standard for ocean dumping, and about one million times higher than the concentration of natural tritium in Earth’s surface waters.”

Secretary Matsuno said in his January statement that the delayed dumping plan “includes enhanced efforts to ensure safety.” This vague reassurance comes from the same authorities that caused the triple meltdown and consequently the worst radioactive contamination of the Pacific Ocean in history; it follows two years of iron-clad declarations from Tepco and government regulators that contaminating the ocean will be safe. The plan to add more radioactive poisons to the Pacific in order to save money has also been approved by the U.S. government and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.