Fukushima: Japan’s Triple Threat in Spades

Image by Joseph Barrientos.

Pacific Ocean pollutionism launched to wide protest

In August Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) began pumping some of its partially treated radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, raising international protests and prompting bans on Japanese fish imports that may last the 30 or 40 years it will take to dump all the waste. China and four other Pacific Rim countries fully banned fishery products from Japan from August 24 when the dumping started.

Over 1 million tons of radioactive cooling water have accumulated in huge tanks at Fukushima. It is collected after groundwater and cooling water has poured over or run through the 900 tons of melted reactor fuel wreckage now lost somewhere under the three power reactors that were rubbished by the March 2011 earthquake-tsunami-melt-through at Fukushima-Daiichi.

Tepco said October 24 that it has finished dumping the second, 7,800-ton batch of radioactive wastewater, according to The Diplomat and AP. The company plans to release 31,200 tons of the wastewater by the end of March 2024. This would drain merely ten of the 1,000 huge tanks that were built onsite since the radiation disaster began. Due to the need to continually cool the ferociously radioactive melted uranium/plutonium fuel cores, follow-on collection of the highly contaminated wastewater will continue indefinitely.

Dumping prompts major seafood import bans

Japan intends to disperse over 1.34 million tons of the contaminated wastewater to the Pacific. The government and international regulators have declared that the pollution will have a “negligible” impact on sea life and human health. Skeptical governments in 15 countries maintain import restrictions on Japanese fish and other seafood. China fully banning imports of fishery products from Japan from Aug. 24 when the wastewater discharge started. According to Food Navigator online, five states with the strictest bans are geographically close to Japan and fiercely oppose the radioactive waste dumping. They are South Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Ten others — Indonesia, French Polynesia, the U.S., the European Union (27 states), Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Russia, and Singapore — require certification, inspections, etc. before allowing imports.

China’s ban has had a serious impact on Japan’s fishery. According to the BBC, China imported over 100,000 tons of scallops from Japan last year. The South China Morning Post reports that China had been the world’s biggest buyer of Japanese seafood, but now “says its ban is due to food safety fears.”

Another micro dosing of mushrooms

Mushrooms grown in Yamahashi prefecture, 172 miles southwest of Fukushima, were found with high levels of radioactive cesium, Japan’s Ministry of Health reported. The edible mushrooms had 150 becquerel of cesium-per-kilo, but the state allows 100 “Bq/kg”. The United States is more at ease with people eating cesium, and allows 1,200 Bq/kg. The U.S. doesn’t even make an exception for baby food.

Fisheries minister apologizes for stating fact

Information control and media manipulation by Japan’s government was on display in August, after Minister of Fisheries Tetsuro Nomura said publicly that Tepco was dumping “contaminated water” into the Pacific.  Nomura was immediately attacked by editors, industry, and politicians for his “error” in not speaking of “treated water” — the state’s official term of art. In fact, the wastewater is poisoned with radioactive tritium, carbon-14, and (before “treatment”) some 62 radioactive elements picked up through contact with mounds of melted uranium and plutonium reactor fuel. The minister publicly apologized for his “gaffe” after being scolded by the Prime Minister himself, Fumio Kishida.

Third round of wastewater dumping protested

In November, Tepco began its third major discharge. The group Korean Peoples’ Action Against Japan’s Ocean Dumping of Radioactive Wastewater said problems with the process include clogged wastewater filters, and an increase in the concentration of radioactive material in the third discharge compared to the second. Likewise, the Pacific Collective on Nuclear Issues, composed of civil society groups, NGOs, and others in the Pacific region, said in a statement, “If the Japanese government and Tepco believe the radioactive wastewater is safe, they should be prepared to safely dispose of it within terrestrial Japan.”

The Collective also reminded the 52nd meeting of Pacific Island Forum states in Cook Island that the panel of scientific experts commissioned by the Forum found that “data provided so far, to support Japan’s claim that the treated wastewater is safe, is inconsistent, unsound, and therefore far from reliable.” Additionally, the Polynesian bloc attending the Forum (including Niue, Cook Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu and Tonga) demanded a pause in Japan’s dumping.

Wastewater accident contaminates five workers

Tepco has reported that five workers accidentally came in contact with radioactive “fluid” while cleaning ocean dumping discharge pipelines. Two of them were contaminated enough to be kept under medical observation, China Daily reported November 6. According to Tepco, a doctor said there was a possibility the two men sustained burns due to radiation exposure. The Daily, which has been highly critical of Japan’s wastewater discharging, demanded to know: “[S]ince four of the five workers ‘were wearing protective gear and full-face masks, which prevented ingestion of the fluid,’ how could the ‘fluid’ splash and burn the ‘lower body and both arms’ of one of them, and why the other worker, whose  ‘entire body was found to be exposed,’ was allowed to do the dangerous work without wearing any protective gear?” The Daily’s editors declared that the “Accident proved Japan’s toxic water plan dubious.”

Editors plaster “safe” over risky discharge

“IAEA confirms safe tritium levels in latest ALPS treated water release at Fukushima,” was the November 7 headline Nuclear Engineering International magazine used in its report on Tepco’s wastewater dumping. However, the article itself had no such confirmation. IAEA experts monitoring the discharge only said that the concentration of radioactive tritium in the waste was “far below Japan’s operational limit.” The word “safe” did not appear in the article or the IAEA report. The article’s text was factually accurate since there is no safe level of radioactive contamination. Like hundreds of others in the safe position, the magazine’s editors put the word “safe” into the IAEA’s mouth and turned the reporter’s story into a lullaby.

Area forests are a re-contamination source

Jim Smith, a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth, wrote in The Conversation October 23, that “Radiocaesium [cesium-137], which is the most important long-lived radioactive element emitted by the accident in terms of radiation dose, adheres to soil particles very strongly. Consequently, the decontamination of agricultural land primarily involved removing the top 5cm [about 2 inches] of topsoil. In urban areas, decontamination efforts entailed the removal of soil from sports fields”, school yards and other public areas.

However, as much as 71% of Fukushima Prefecture is covered by forest, and most of it remains contaminated. “Restrictions on the consumption of forest products have lasted for decades following the 1986 Chernobyl incident. And they are expected to persist in many forested areas of Fukushima too,” Prof. Smith wrote. Rainwater runoff from these forests creates routine downstream re-contamination of previously decontaminated areas. Additionally, forest fires can redistribute radioactivity still on trees and the forest floor creating inhalation risks — the same way fire regularly plagues the radioactive exclusion zone around the Chernobyl wreckage in Ukraine.

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