Fukushima: Dumping into the Sea

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In the safe, sanitized world of nuclear industry brochures, this was surely not supposed to happen: As it struggles to keep four reactors from melting down and thousands of spent fuel assemblies from blowing up, Tepco announced today that it has been forced to dump 11,000 tons of low-level radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

This, now,  is what constitutes the best option in the Fukushima crisis.

The water has a (relatively) low-level of radioactivity of about 100 times the regulatory limit. Though the dumping would normally be illegal under the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter,” the Japanese government issued Tepco an exemption so that it could clear space to drain and store more highly radioactive water that has been seeping into the turbine buildings—water so hot with radioactivity it sent three workers to hospital two weeks ago with radiation burns. But the dumping heightens concern about the marine environment near the plant; by last Saturday, a radioactive leak of water from reactor No. 2, combined with radioactive gas vented from the plant that settled in the sea, brought the radioactivity of water near the plant to 7.5 million times the legal limit, though officials say that level is falling fast.

“There was no choice but to take this step to prevent (other) highly radioactive water from spreading into the sea,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said of the decision to intentionally discard radioactive water. “The fact that radioactive water is being deliberately dumped into the sea is very regrettable and one we are very sorry about.”

Fukushima has been awash with radioactive water since crews began dumping and spraying seawater in a desperate effort to keep reactors and spent fuel assemblies cool. But given the urgent threat of meltdown of the reactors, or ignition of the spent fuel assemblies, there seems to have been no plan about how to safely clean up the water.

Amid public health concerns about the contamination of the sea, the government announced on Tuesday it was setting radiation safety standards for fish. This followed news that a fish was caught last Friday off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture, halfway between Fukushima and Tokyo, that contained high levels of radioactive iodine 131. The  fish contained 4,080 becquerels per kilogram — about 2 pounds — of iodine 131. The new standard allows up to 2,000 becquerels per kilogram of iodine 131, the same standard used for vegetables in Japan, according to the New York Times.

Some campaigners raised concerns today that  the government limits are not strict enough. “It’s likely that the health impacts of the contaminated seafood will be bigger because the models are built on effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where most of the radiation was externally received. Generally the risks of internal contamination are less certain,” Jan Beranek, Head of Greenpeace International’s Nuclear Campaign, told Ecocentric.

Whatever the local threat, Beranek and other experts say that the radioactivity in the ocean will dissipate farther offshore and not pose problems beyond Japan’s coastline. (In the U.S., the FDA has said it will test all imported food products coming from Japan.) But that’s no consolation for Japanese fishermen. According to Bloomberg News, at the Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo, sales of fresh fish fell to an average 583 metric tons per day in the week ending March 17, 28 percent lower from a year earlier. Sales dropped by 44 percent in the week to March 24. Total trading volumes fell by 25 percent and 23 percent.

Understandably, fishermen are irate about plans to intentionally release more radioactivity into the sea. “We lost lots of loved ones, ships, ports, facilities and on top of that, we are suffering from marine damage caused by the incident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant,” Tetsu Nozaki, chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, said in a letter to Tepco shown to the media today. “We strongly protest and urge you to stop dumping into the sea.”

There are other options to dumping, says Greenpeace’s Beranek. Russian media reported Tuesday that Japan has asked the country’s nuclear energy giant Rosatom to send a floating radiation treatment plant, which can solidify contaminated liquid waste. Suzuran, which has been used to decommission Russian submarines in Vladivostok, treats radioactive liquid with chemicals and stores it in a cement form. Tepco is also rushing tanks to the plant, though they may not arrive until mid-April, the New York Times reported. The company also plans to station a giant barge off the coast to store contaminated water in the next week. And engineers also plan to build two giant polyester “silt curtains” in the sea to block the spread of more contamination from the plant, Reuters reported.

“It’s difficult to second guess the situation. But I would assume that there would be options to increase the storage capacities–such as big floating barge or tankers to take up the water. That would be safer solution,” Beranek says.

Meanwhile, analysts at UBS published a report this week on the future of the nuclear industry and, according to the Financial Times, it predicted that the  industry will face even greater credibility issues in the future as it did after Chernobyl. The report pointed out that Fukushima occurred in an advanced economy using American reactor technology, rather than Chernobyl which occurred in a totalitarian state.

And in a further indication of the global reverberations from Fukushima, Germany has become a net importer of power since its nuclear moratorium, which involves seven old reactors been shut for at least three months, utility industry association BDEW said on Monday, according to Reuters.