The release of radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant by Japan on Thursday shows the country’s government is not ready to prioritize environmental protection and human rights. Instead, the interests of the nuclear-power industry, ostensibly supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, have decided Japan’s policy to pollute rather than take the responsibility of disposing of the nuclear-contaminated water in an eco-friendly way.
The immediate consequences of Japan dumping the radioactive water into the sea will be borne by the coastal communities in Japan, especially in Fukushima. Due to no fault of theirs, they will suffer the immediate economic impact, as well as the long-term consequences of their environment being further contaminated by man-made radiation. Through complex and powerful marine currents, the radioactive water will disperse through the wider Pacific. To decide to deliberately contaminate the world’s largest ocean, based on limited and flawed environmental science assessments, as the Japanese government has done, is inexcusable.
There are however, reasons to believe future policies will be based on protecting the marine ecosystem, instead of destroying it. The global media’s focus on Japan’s Fukushima facility is a reminder to the world that the nuclear disaster at Fukushima continues and more broadly, what can happen when nuclear energy runs out of control. The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima plant losing all electrical power and cooling function, resulting in complete nuclear fuel meltdown in three operating reactors, is a nuclear crisis that continues to this day and will do so in the future.
The earlier and what remains the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history at Chernobyl in Ukraine, took place in 1986. Nearly 40 years later, the radiological consequences are still being investigated at the site and in the radioactive exclusion zone, with new understandings and new threats being identified almost every year. The melted nuclear fuel inside Chernobyl reactor number 4 remains highly dangerous with no technology yet invented to remove it. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima are in the early stages of such disasters. Managing them takes thinking and government policies that can be measured and is focused on future generations.
But considering that the half-life of some of the radionuclides discharged from Fukushima is measured in millions of years, it is largely beyond human comprehension to grasp the reality of these matters. Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of Fukushima plant, plans to remove the estimated 600-1,100 tons of melted nuclear fuel at three of Fukushima’s reactors (the precise amount is not known) are not based on any credible engineering analysis – there is effectively no workable plan. And while the 2011 disaster released very large amounts of radioactive elements into the environment, most of the radioactive inventory remains inside the melted fuel at a severely damaged nuclear power plant on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
This is a uniquely hazardous long-term radiation threat to the environment, especially the marine ecosystem, including the Pacific Ocean. This threat will not decrease with the plan to discharge the radioactive water into the Pacific or with the TEPCO’s current decommissioning plan. Yet the TEPCO and the Japanese government continue to ignore such fundamental problems. This reality was highlighted again last week when the TEPCO announced that about 31,000 cubic meters of radioactive water stored in the tanks at the Fukushima facility will be discharged this year. But this will not reduce the amount of tank water in storage at the Fukushima plant, because every day ground water continues to enter the nuclear plant and become contaminated with radioactivity.
This year an additional 32,000 cubic meters will accumulate in storage tanks effectively cancelling out the amount of water discharged into the Pacific. And there are no feasible plans in place to stop groundwater contamination – because there are no effective plans for the removal of the source of the radioactivity – the hundreds of tons of melted nuclear fuel inside Fukushima reactor units 1, 2 and 3. The decommissioning plan for the Fukushima plant is not attainable, nor within the official (and delusional) timeframe of 2041-2051, or beyond. And a return to pre-2011 accident conditions is not possible.
The Fukushima site is, and will remain effectively for very long timeframes (centuries at least) a permanently contaminated nuclear waste facility. The TEPCO and Japanese government agencies, as well as the IAEA, have the wrong priorities and must embark on a comprehensive reassessment of the entire decommissioning plan. Ultimately, the plant must be isolated from the environment, efforts at Chernobyl included the construction of a shelter over the entire reactor site. Effective measures should also be taken to prevent groundwater from coming in contact with nuclear fuel that will remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years. At some point in the coming years, a Japanese government will confront this reality and be forced to change policy.
By proceeding to dump the radioactive water into the ocean, the Japanese government has exposed its failed policies on nuclear energy. Public communications efforts, including advertisements across multi-media platforms in Japan, have raised public awareness (and unease) that there is a nuclear crisis less than a few hours’ drive north of Tokyo. The world has been made aware of the existence of people in Fukushima, their way of life and the environmental conditions they’ve been living in. The Japanese government abandoned the people of Fukushima long ago and continues to violate their human rights, which the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Special Rapporteur have highlighted on multiple occasions, including this year during the Universal Periodic Review of Japan.
All of this the Japanese government wanted to erase from public debate and media scrutiny. To secure support for its “new energy policy” of relying on old nuclear technology to generate electricity, it had to make the Japanese as well as the global public forget about Fukushima nuclear crisis. That strategy has clearly failed. The radioactive water Japan is pumping down a 1-kilometer pipeline is almost certainly the most reported discharges of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea in the history of atomic energy. The world knows that nuclear plants discharge radioactivity into the environment. The Japanese government rightly, condemned on many levels for its outrageous decision, has also helped to educate the planet.