Fukushima water problem
Japan is expected to release 1.25 million tonnes of radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean this year as part of a $76-billion project to decommission the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The project, which has received the Japanese cabinet’s approval, has been controversial due to its suspected impact on the marine life, fishing industry, and surrounding countries. Despite the Japanese government’s claim that the water has been treated to remove most radioactive isotopes, there is still concern about the potential health impacts on those who come into contact with it.
Why is the Water a Problem?
- The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged in March 2011 after a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami caused radioactive materials to leak from the reactors and expose themselves to the environment and local population.
- The water that is to be released into the ocean was used to cool the reactors and contains radioactive isotopes from the damaged reactors. There is no known safe threshold for radiation exposure, and any release of radioactive materials increases the risk of cancer and other health impacts.
Can the Water Be Treated?
- The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima plant, has claimed that the water has been treated to remove most radioactive isotopes. The Japanese government has required the water to have 1/40th as much tritium as the permitted limit.
- However, tritium is difficult to remove and is easily absorbed by living creatures and rapidly distributed via blood. There are also other radionuclides in the water, such as isotopes of ruthenium and plutonium, that cannot be entirely removed by TEPCO’s treatment process.
What are Japan’s Other Options?
- Some have asked why the Japanese government cannot store the water for longer and then discharge it. This is because the half-life of tritium is 12-13 years, and the quantity of other radioactive isotopes in the water will also decrease over time.
- The Japanese government has declared the land around the Fukushima plant to be uninhabitable, but there are tanks available that could hold the water until it is less radioactive. However, in 2020, authorities decided that flushing the water into the ocean was the way forward, over storage and vaporization.
Impact on the Pacific Ocean
- The release of radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean has raised concerns not only about the waterbody but also the surrounding region.
- Countries such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan have expressed their concerns, and a representative of the Pacific Islands Forum, a bloc of Oceania countries including Australia, has called the release “simply inconceivable” based on their experience with nuclear contamination. Researchers have also called for more studies to be conducted to understand the potential long-term effects on the Pacific Ocean and its ecosystem.
The release of radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean is a controversial issue that has raised concerns about its impact on the water, marine life, fishing industry, and surrounding countries. Despite the Japanese government’s claims that the water has been treated to remove most radioactive isotopes, there is still concern about the potential health impacts on those who come into contact with it. As with any release of radioactive materials, there is no known safe threshold, and more studies are needed to understand the potential long-term effects on the Pacific Ocean and its ecosystem.
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