Failed Fukushima System Should Cancel Wastewater Ocean Dumping

Image of cloud.

Image by Fukushima Central Television.

From the Fukushima-Daiichi triple-reactor meltdown wreckage, Japan’s government and “Tepco,” the owner, are rushing plans to pump 1.37 million tons (about 3 billion pounds) of radioactive wastewater into the Pacific.

Their record is poor. Their lies are documented. This is not safe, at all.

To keep the three meltdowns’ wasted fuel from melting again, Tepco continuously pours cold water over 880 tons of “corium,” the red-hot rubblized fuel amassed somewhere under three devastated reactors. “That water leaks into a maze of basements and trenches beneath the reactors and mixes with groundwater flowing into the complex,” Reuters reported Sep. 3, 2013.

Most of this water is collected and put through Tepco’s jerry-rigged mechanism dubbed ALPS, for Advanced Liquid Processing System, which it turns out hasn’t processed much of anything.

Tepco, Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and much of the media endlessly repeat that ALPS removes over 62 radioactive materials from the ever-expanding volume of wastewater. Reports regularly claim the planned dumping is routine, safe, and manageable.

This unverified PR loop has fooled a lot of people, but the ALPS is a fraud. As early as 2013, the filter system stalled and the IAEA reported that April that ALPS had not “accomplished the expected result of removing some radionuclides,” Reuters reported.

In September 2018, the ALPS was revealed to have drastically failed, forcing Tepco to issue a public apology and a promise to re-filter huge volumes of the waste.

According to Reuters, Oct. 11, 2018, documents on a government committee’s website show that 84 percent of water held at Fukushima contains concentrations of radioactive materials higher than legal limits allow to be dumped.

Among the deadly isotopes still in the waste are cesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60, ruthenium, carbon-14, tritium, iodine-129, plutonium isotopes, and more than 54 more.

In a June 14, 2023 op/ed for the China Daily, Shaun Burnie, the Senior Nuclear Specialist at Greenpeace East Asia, reported that the ALPS “has been a spectacular failure,” and noted:

“About 70 percent or 931,600 cubic meters of the wastewater needs to be processed again (and probably many more times) by the ALPS to bring the radioactive concentration levels below the regulatory limit for discharge. Tepco has succeeded in reducing the concentration levels of strontium, iodine, and plutonium in only 0.2 percent of the total volume of the wastewater, and it still requires further processing. But no secondary processing has taken place in the past nearly three years. Neither Tepco nor the Japanese government has said how many times the wastewater needs to be processed, how long it will take to do so, or whether the efforts will ever be successful. … none of these issues has been resolved.”

Tepco says it will re-filter more than 70 percent of the wastewater through ALPS again, a process that itself leaves massive amounts of highly radioactive sludge that must be kept out of the environment for centuries.

Hoping to slow the rush to dump, Professor Ryota Koyama from Fukushima University, said in an interview with China Media Group last May, “If the Japanese government or the Tokyo Electric Power Co. really wants to discharge contaminated water into the sea, they need to explain in more detail whether the nuclides have really been removed.”

International law governing state-sponsored or corporate pollution of the seven seas is relatively useless in challenging Tepco’s outrageous transfer of private industrial poison into the public commons. The global ban on ocean dumping of radioactive waste adopted in 1993 applies only to barrels. It has allowed Britain and France to pump billions of gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Irish Sea and the North Sea respectively, for decades.

The Law of the Sea might be able to bring Japan’s deliberate poisoning to an end only after a victim or class of victims harmed by Tepco’s meltdown waste brings a lawsuit that proves it. But showing that your illnesses or cancers were caused by ingested or inhaled radiation is so difficult that the nuclear power and weapons industry has skated along for 70 years — routinely and legally venting, leaking, releasing and dumping radioactive materials — without comeuppance.

Radioactivity is colorless, odorless, and invisible. Birth defects and cancers caused by exposure to ionizing radiation are entirely too visible.

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