Japan has commenced the release of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, a plant destroyed in a 2011 earthquake and tsunami, leading to the accumulation of water over time. This decision has prompted global reactions, with some nations expressing concerns. Here are the crucial aspects you need to know:
1. Why is there water at the Fukushima plant?
Following the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns. To prevent further catastrophe, workers flooded the reactors with water, leading to significant contamination. While the plant is now offline and the reactors defunct, they still require cooling, resulting in the continuous accumulation of wastewater. Over the years, groundwater has also infiltrated the site, adding to the contaminated water volume.
2. Can’t they just filter the radioactive particles out of the water?
The Japanese government has developed a sophisticated filtration system known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to eliminate various radioactive isotopes from the water. This system has successfully removed highly hazardous isotopes like cesium-137 and strontium-90. However, a particular radioactive isotope, tritium, remains unfilterable. Tritium, being an isotope of hydrogen, is an inherent component of water (H2O), making its removal impossible.
3. So how does the Japanese government plan to release this water safely?
The plan involves diluting the water with seawater to reduce tritium concentrations significantly. This diluted mixture will then be discharged through a tunnel beneath the seafloor to a location off the coast of Fukushima in the Pacific Ocean, further diluting it. Importantly, this process will unfold gradually, spanning decades to empty the existing tanks.
4. Do others think this process is safe?
The Japanese government asserts that, especially in comparison to other radioactive materials on the site, tritium poses a lower risk. Its relatively weak radioactive decay and rapid movement through biological organisms due to its presence in water contribute to this belief. Moreover, with a half-life of 12 years, tritium won’t persist in the environment for an extended period.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has peer-reviewed this plan and deems it consistent with international safety standards. Independent monitoring by the IAEA will ensure the safe execution of the discharge.
5. How are other nations responding to Japan’s decision?
Several nations have expressed apprehensions about Japan’s plan. South Korea has witnessed public protests against the decision. Additionally, the Pacific Islands Forum, comprising nations like the Marshall Islands and Tahiti, shares concerns due to their historical exposure to high levels of radioactive fallout from past atmospheric nuclear tests. They face challenges related to climate change and sea-level rise, further complicating their perspective on Japan’s ocean release as another environmental concern.