Nuclear water into Pacific Ocean
30 May, 2023, 7:00 pm
On the coastline of Bougainville’s capital, Buka, small dinghies carrying men back and forth from the ocean are a common sight.
The people here rely on fish for their income. Their daily catch is proudly put up for sale at a local market, keen to attract the eyes of wandering customers.
“Our culture is different from others,” fisherman Vincent Kelly explained. “Most times we survive on fish. If we catch fish, we will have some money to buy the little things that we need.”
But there’s growing angst in this town about a decision that’s being made some 5000 kilometres away, in the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima.
Operators of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which was destroyed by a massive tsunami followed by nuclear meltdowns in March 2011, are set to release treated wastewater into the ocean in coming months.
“We are hearing Japan is releasing waste into our ocean,” Mr Kelly said. “It is not right. It is not right with us. It may lead to some sickness for us here.”
The concern on Buka Island is not unique. Japanese authorities have been facing a barrage of criticism from fishermen in the Fukushima prefecture, South Korea, China, and across the Pacific Islands.
Operators have had to use water to continuously cool the highly radioactive melted fuel and fuel debris from the destroyed Fukushima Plant since 2011.
The problem is that all of the water that touches the highly radioactive molten fuel also becomes contaminated, including rain and groundwater.
There are now 1.3 million tonnes of wastewater sitting in huge storage tanks at the Fukushima power plant, and by next year, the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), say they will run out of space.
‘If it wasn’t salty water, you could drink it’
Japan has been on a public relations frenzy to try and quell concerns, explaining the water to be released will be safe. TEPCO has used a highly specialised filtration system, called Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), to remove 62 radionuclides from contaminated water.
The only contaminant that cannot be removed is a radioactive form of hydrogen called tritium, which can cause damage to DNA cells.
But TEPCO says the amount of tritium found within the treated wastewater set for release will be heavily diluted and falls well within ‘safe’ drinking standards by the World Health Organisation.
Only once water meets strict safety standards, and is checked from third party inspectors, will it be pumped out from the ocean floor, some 2km from the Fukushima plant, where it will be even further diluted.
Jim Smith, a professor of Environmental Science from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, said he had no concerns about the safety of the water to be released, presuming TEPCO fulfils its promises.
“We measure radioactivity amount in becquerels,” he said.
“The planned release will be around 1,500 becquerels per litre of tritium. That’s about seven times lower that the WHO drinking water standard.
“So, in theory, if it wasn’t salty water, you could drink it.”
Selling the water release plan to the Pacific
Nuclear experts from South Korea, which has been hostile to the planned discharge, have this week been given an unprecedented sixday personalised tour of the Fukushima plant.
Pacific Island leaders are also being courted, after the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna urged Japan in January to delay any planned release until “all parties verify it is safe”.
“We must prevent action that will lead or mislead us towards another major nuclear contamination disaster,” he said.
The prime minister of the Cook Islands and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Mark Brown, said there had been an increase in “more intense dialogue” with Japan, and he was presently happy with the level of transparency.
“This water’s going to be discharged first and foremost closest to Japan,” he said.
“Japan has assured us that they would not do anything that would see their food chain or their biodiversity being affected by this water.” Professor Smith said it was safer to release the treated water than keep it stored in large tanks, where it was under threat from typhoons, tsunamis, and earthquakes. “I don’t think this is at all a significant release in comparison to what we see worldwide from nuclear facilities,” he said.
“The La Hague facility in France discharges about 450 times more tritium every year than this planned released from Fukushima. Sellafield in the UK discharges about 45 times more to the Irish Sea.
“We know quite a lot about how tritium accumulates in the marine system. It doesn’t biomagnify. So, that means the amount in an organism is the same as the amount in the water.”
He added ‘overcautious assumptions’ predicted the release would expose Japanese people to about four microsieverts per year, a measurement tool to define risk of radiation-induced sickness and cancer. On average, people are exposed to about 2500 microsieverts a year simply from natural radiation.
Dozens rally against water release
However, a series of public relations disasters by TEPCO have fuelled public distrust in the plan.
There have been numerous cases where TEPCO failed to reveal that tainted water had leaked into the sea. Local media also exposed that most water storage tanks did contain water still contaminated with dangerous radioactive elements, such as the cancer-causing strontium-90, despite TECPO’s assurances this was not the case.
TEPCO now says about a third of the tanks are ready for release, and water not up to standards will be reprocessed until it is.
“They don’t provide true information,” said Gen Hirai, a protester who gathered outside the company’s headquarters in May. “It’s a company that blocks information to citizens.”
What do surrounding countries think of the plan?
Earlier in May, the Solomon Islands reportedly rebuked an offer from Japan to step up maritime cooperation, citing the planned Fukushima discharge.
“Japan keeps emphasising the significance of maritime security, they still decided to dump the radioactive wastewater into the ocean,” the Solomon Star reported from a government source. But PNG Prime Minister James Marape couldn’t be drawn on whether the country would support Japan’s plan, saying it was “another conversation.”
“As far as the pacific is concerned, we want our waters to be safe,” he said.
• JAMES OATEN is the ABC’s North Asia correspondent, YUMI ASADA in the producer for the ABC’s bureau in Tokyo and TIM SWANSTON is the ABC’s Papua New Guinea correspondent. The views expressed in the article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.