The International Atomic Energy Agency has just concluded that the proposed release over the next 30 years of over 1.3 million metric tonnes of cooling water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors into the Pacific is ‘safe’. Many international experts and officials, and the fishing communities from surrounding countries disagree.
The sequence of events at Fukushima is well known. An enormous earthquake, a dai jishin, occurred in the Pacific off the eastern Honshu coast on 11 March 2011. It created a double tsunami, packing an estimated 10 billion tonnes of water, which crashed with the speed of a jet plane onto the coastlines of the three northern Honshu prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi, causing many deaths and huge property damage.
The tsunami also caused widespread blackouts. At the six-nuclear reactor complex of Fukushima Dai Ichi, it flooded back-up generators, effectively cutting off power to pumps that cooled the reactors. Three of the reactors were in cold shut-down, but three were online. Starved of cooling water, these three overheated, reaching temperatures of 2,500 degrees Celcius. Fuel rods disintegrated, their zirconium cladding melted, and hydrogen gas blew the tops off their containment shells, releasing a toxic stew of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.
Repercussions from the accident were widespread. By May 2012, public scepticism about the safety of nuclear power reached an all-time high. Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors generating 30 percent of the nation’s electricity, were shut down. The cost of removing radiated soil from the plant and surrounds was enormous. So was the cost of wider clean ups: radioactive top soil and hot spots had to be removed from school playground as far away as Tokyo and from Ibaraki, Saitama, Gunma and Yamagata prefectures. The Tohoku region’s reputation as Japan’s highest quality producer of beef -more highly prized than beef from Kobe – took a nose-dive. So too did its reputation as the country’s producer of the best fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry.
The reputation of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) as a safe generator of electricity was also shot. It had lied about its safety record. It was hit with huge compensation claims. It reported a AU$ 15.3 billion loss for the financial year ending 31 March 2012. Plans for new nuclear reactors were scrapped.
However, through financial blandishments and relentless propaganda, the Japanese nuclear industry has since managed to persuade some of the public that ten reactors could be re-commissioned with onerous new security protocols.
TEPCO may yet survive. But it remains burdened with one growing problem. For the last 12 years, robots have been unsuccessful in extracting the remains of decaying uranium fuel rods from the three melted reactors. More than 1.3 million tonnes of cooling water has had to be pumped into the wreckage to prevent further uncontrolled nuclear fission. This highly irradiated water has then been transferred to a growing number of tanks, now in their thousands, surrounding the Fukushima plant. The process seems almost endless. Cooling water must continue to flow through the reactor vessels until the melted fuel rods are finally removed.
Meanwhile, TEPCO has developed an elaborate system of water treatment called an Advanced Liquid Processing System that allegedly attenuates radiation from the many actinides in the water, leaving only the radioactive isotope tritium, a beta emitter. Starting from 2023, this water will be pumped into the Pacific for the next 30 years.
In his exoneration of the long-term dumping arrangement, Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Commission, said during a visit to Japan on 4 July that the process is ‘clean, consistent with international safety standards, and will have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment’.
But many remain unconvinced. Komeito, Japan’s fourth largest political party, has demanded that the government provide concrete evidence that this is so. Japan’s sizable fishing community is not happy; nor are the fishing communities and governments of China, Taiwan, the Philippines and a number of island states in the Pacific. In South Korea, 84 percent of the population disapprove of the long-term dumping. The Gwangjang fish market in Seoul has halved its trade. Korean authorities have angrily asserted that the Pacific is neither Japan’s dustbin nor its sewer.
Environmental groups are also vocal in their objections to the dumping. Greenpeace rejects Japan’s claim that all nuclear isotopes except tritium have been removed from the waste water. It claims that at least one other radioactive actinide, Carbon -14, remains, and that many more, including Strontium 90 and Caesium 137, remain as yet untreated in most of the storage tanks.
Neither these hazards, nor the stupendous costs of remediating the Japanese countryside around Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures, has deterred the international nuclear industry from spruiking nuclear technology. In Australia, apart from the excitement of learning about nuclear propulsion for submarines, nuclear acolytes are busy ramping up the ‘benefits’ of developing small scale modular reactors installed in factories in industrial zones. They suffer from cognitive dissonance. It has not occurred to them that these could also melt-down if deprived of coolant, and spew the same nuclear poisons into surrounding country. Nor have they considered how difficult it would be for the International Atomic Energy, which has limited funds, to oversee a multitude of new reactors to prevent the possible theft of nuclear material.