by Konstantin Asmolov, New Eastern Outlook:
At one time the author wrote about the fate of the radioactive water accumulated at Fukushima-1 and that sooner or later the Japanese government would decide to drain it. Finally, it happened. On April 13, 2021, the Japanese government decided to allow a significant amount of water from the damaged nuclear power plant’s storage tanks to be discharged into the ocean. A government statement released by Japanese media claims that the water is generally clean of radioactive substances, so the discharge needed to dispose of the damaged reactors will be done safely.
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There was a “well-orchestrated hysteria” about it in South Korea, and it came to accusations of nuclear terrorism. But before describing the details, let us recall the situation and examine the extent to which Tokyo’s actions actually pose an environmental threat.
The Fukushima accident occurred in March 2011, when the plant’s power supply and cooling systems failed as a result of the tsunami. To cool the reactors, water is continuously pumped into them, which is stored on the territory of the plant, but already now the storage tanks for contaminated water are almost full, and there is no way to build new ones. The volume of treated water exceeded 1.2 million tons and in February 2020, a government commission presented a plan to dispose of the water by discharging it into the sea or evaporating it into the atmosphere after the concentration of radioactive substances has been reduced to levels acceptable under environmental and other regulations.
The Korean media like to mention the “highly contaminated” or “radioactive” water, but through using adsorbing equipment, the power plant operator TEPCO is freeing the water from cesium and strontium, which make up the largest portion of radioactive materials. The ALPS treatment plant then removes the rest of the radioactive substances. Water is then stored in tanks more than ten meters high, which are densely packed in the NPP area. As the Japanese media wrote, the forest of these containers as tall as a three-story house is a depressing sight.
Even in the immediate vicinity of the cisterns, the radiation level is no different from the normal background on the streets and in the houses of the Japanese capital. Although the water is not completely cleaned of radioactive substances, it already meets the state standard of radioactivity, which, if complied with, allows this water to be released outside the NPP facilities. One thing ALPS cannot remove is tritium, but TEPCO is considering diluting the treated water by a factor of 500 before discharging it into the sea. Because the energy of its radioactive radiation is low, it does not penetrate the body through the skin, and if the substance does enter the body, it passes through it and is excreted without accumulating. Unlike strontium/potassium/iodine, tritium does not accumulate anywhere.
The Japanese media note that water containing tritium is also produced in conventional nuclear power plants, so diluting it to below the standard level and discharging it into the sea is an internationally accepted practice. Experts say that discharging treated water into the ocean is the cheapest and, therefore, the most tempting method. Nevertheless, talk about the safety of the water discharge process still worries both Japanese fishermen and international environmental organizations, but it is the ROK that is making most of the fuss over this issue.
The first outburst of outrage and concern came after the media reported on October 16, 2020 that the Japanese government had decided to release the water into the sea. It has been noted that even if the government makes a positive decision, it will take at least two years to release the water, including the preparation phase, and the release will most likely begin in October 2022. An official announcement was expected by the end of October 2020, but it was probably postponed because of the scale of the outrage.
The ROK sent a number of letters to the IAEA and other international organizations expressing concern, summoned a high-ranking embassy official to explain, and maintained a ban on seafood imports from the Fukushima area while considering tougher inspections of Japanese seafood in general. The main argument was that the international community should have a good look at the whole process to see if the water discharges really comply with international standards.
On November 4, Presidential Chief of Staff Noh Yong-min said that South Korea is considering joining the IAEA monitoring of Japan’s plan to release radioactive water: Japan will ask international institutions, including the IAEA, to play a role in ensuring public confidence in the process, and South Korea is considering participating in related activities.
On November 20, 2020, a high-ranking official at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul said on condition of anonymity that Japan was ready to work with the ROK to monitor the treatment of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant and its discharge into the Pacific Ocean. Exactly how the monitoring will be conducted and how the results will be transmitted to other countries has not been announced, plus the process is unlikely to take place before 2022, when the recycling process will begin in earnest.
However, on December 7, an anonymous South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told the press that “the information Japan has been providing us with so far is too little to judge that their plan is safe … We’ve been asking them very specific and scientific questions and Tokyo has been responding within their possible extent“.
On March 3, a Japanese government official said that Tokyo could not continue to postpone the disposal of contaminated water, and on April 13 the decision was announced. The government statement claims that the water is generally cleared of radioactive substances, but contains tritium isotopes that cannot be purified. Nevertheless, tritium concentrations will be reduced to permissible limits and meet the standard set by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The preparation process will take about two years, while the draining itself will continue until 2041-2051, i.e. until the complete disposal of the damaged reactors.