As the minibus carried me deeper into the complex, the readings on the dosimeter climbed. Biohazard suits are no longer needed in most areas of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but I was still given a helmet, glasses, an N95 mask, gloves, two pairs of socks, and rubber boots. Nothing is too safe on the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The road to the factory passes abandoned houses, convenience stores, gas stations, and cracks in the asphalt overgrown with weeds. Inside, an ironic sign warning of the danger of tsunamis was put up after the disaster. In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Japan, flooding power plants, shutting down emergency diesel generators, initiating cooling system failures and causing a fatal triple reactor meltdown. Caused.
Now, looking down from a high platform, I could see the crumpled roof where a hydrogen explosion pierced the Unit 1 reactor the day after the tsunami hit. The eerie stillness of the place was punctuated by the clatter of heavy machinery and the chirping of seagulls descending on the water’s edge. There, a huge metal containment tank was messed up like a dog chew toy. Huge waves crashing against the distant breakwater shook the metal deck of the shore. Looking at this spectacle made me feel like I was standing in the forecourt of hell.
Twelve years after waves about 50 feet high hit Fukushima Daiichi, water remains the biggest problem. Nuclear fuel left over from a meltdown tends to overheat and must be continuously cooled with water. That water becomes radioactive in the process, as does groundwater or rain that accidentally enters the reactor building. All of them must be kept away from people and the environment to prevent contamination. About 1,000 sewage storage tanks of various sizes cover the complex for this purpose. In total, he now has 343 million gallons in storage, with an additional 26,000 gallons added to his total each day. However, power plant operators claim they are running out of space.
On August 24, its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), began operations. let go of water. Radioactive wastewater first passes through a chemical filter system to remove hazardous constituents before being discharged into the ocean and potentially local fisheries. Although the plan has formal backing from the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency, many in the region fear the consequences, including local fishermen and their potential customers.
“The IAEA said the impact of this on people and the environment would be negligible,” said Junichi Matsumoto, a water treatment official at Tokyo Electric Power Company, at the Daiichi plant during my visit in July. told reporters at a press conference. Only water that meets certain purity standards is released into the ocean, he explained. The rest is re-passed through filters and pumps as needed.However, no matter how many opportunities there are, TEPCO Advanced liquid handling system Tritium and carbon-14, which are radioactive forms of hydrogen produced by nuclear power plants during normal operation, cannot be purified from water. These residual contaminants are a continuing cause of concern.
Last month, China, the largest importer of Japanese seafood, Total ban There have been reports of Japanese seafood, with Japanese news media reporting that domestic seafood chains have received a number of harassing phone calls from China.The problem is exacerbation of tension bilaterally. (Japanese public broadcasting NHK responded In 2021, each of China’s 13 nuclear power plants reported releasing more tritium than the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant releases in a year. ) In South Korea, the government tried to ease the unrest of thousands of people. protest in seoul water release.
Opponents in Japan have united over the potential harm to local fishermen. With the trawl season just beginning in Fukushima, workers fear that seafood consumers at home and abroad will see their products as contaminated and boycott them. An elderly fisherman who brought in the catch told Fukushima Broadcasting, “Despite falling prices and damaging rumors, we have to do everything in our power to appeal for safety and security.”
Government officials are doing everything they can to protect the brand.Representatives of the Japanese Environment Agency and Fukushima Prefecture announced Another test last week showed no detectable levels of tritium in local seawater after the water discharge began. But even if its presence is observed, many experts say the environmental risk from its release is negligible. According to the IAEA, tritium poses a radiation hazard to humans only when ingested in large amounts. Jukka Lehto, Emeritus Professor of Radiochemistry at the University of Helsinki, is a co-author of the detailed paper. study TEPCO’s cleanup system was found to work efficiently to remove certain radionuclides. (previous studies of rate played a role Tritium is “not completely harmless,” he told me, but the threat is “very small.” Discharging the purified wastewater into the ocean does not, in effect, “create a radioactive problem for any organisms.”Regarding carbon 14, the Japanese government To tell Its concentration in untreated wastewater is at most only one tenth of the national regulatory standard.
Opponents point to other potential problems.greenpeace japan To tell The biological effects of releasing various radionuclides into water, such as strontium-90 and iodine-129, have been ignored. (When asked about these radionuclides, a utility spokesperson said the sewage was “treated with a cesium/strontium filtration unit to remove most of the contamination” and then “removed most of the remaining radionuclides except tritium. It will be processed to remove it.”) Last December, the Virginia-based National Association of Oceanographic Research Institute said: position paper Neither TEPCO nor the Japanese government have provided “appropriate and accurate scientific data” to prove the project’s safety, claiming it has “deficiencies in sampling protocols, statistical design, sample analysis and assumptions.” claimed. (TEPCO did not respond to a request for comment on these allegations.)
If water from Fukushima actually pollutes the oceans, as these groups fear, scientific evidence may be hard to find.For example, in 2019, scientists report This is the result of a study started eight years ago to monitor iodine-129 released by the Fukushima meltdown in waters near San Diego. Contrary to expectations from currents, nothing was found. When scientists looked elsewhere on the West Coast, they found high levels of iodine-129 in Washington’s Columbia River, but Fukushima is not to blame. The source of the contamination was a nearby site where plutonium for the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki was manufactured.
Concerns about the safety of the released water are also due to Tepco’s history of shaky transparency. For example, in 2016, a commission tasked with investigating utility behavior during the 2011 disaster found that a utility leader at the time told staff: do not use term core meltdown. Ken Buesseler, director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the company still publishes only three-fifths of its analysis of the contents of on-site sewage storage tanks. early this summer. Japan’s Ministry of the Environment claims that 62 radionuclides other than tritium can be satisfactorily removed from wastewater using Tepco’s filtration system, but Buesseler said these contaminations in all tanks We do not believe there is enough information on the level of the substance to make that claim. Instead of flushing the water immediately, he suggests alternatives to dumping, such as first fully analyzing the water and then storing it on-site for long periods of time, or using the water to make concrete for tsunami protection. should be considered.
But that radioactive ship seems to have sailed. The release, which began in August, is expected to continue as long as the reactor remains decommissioned, with contaminated water continuing to flow into the Pacific Ocean until at least the 2050s. In this case, the debate over relative risk and whether Fukushima’s sewage will be clean enough to proceed with dumping is already settled. But nuclear power as a whole continues to be a parallel and unresolved debate. Aside from the wisdom of building nuclear reactors on earthquake- and tsunami-prone archipelagos, power plants like Daiichi provide cleaner energy than fossil-fuel facilities, and proponents of decarbonizing the economy claim to be integral to the process of
About 60 reactors are under construction around the world, according to the paper, joining hundreds of others that currently provide about 10% of the world’s electricity. World Nuclear Association. Meltdowns like those at Fukushima in 2011 and Chernobyl in 1986 are extremely rare. The WNA says these are the only serious accidents to occur in its 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation, and that reactor designs are constantly being improved. But the possibility of disaster is always there, even if it happens during the year. For example, Europe’s largest Zaporizhia nuclear power plant has been threatened by military attacks and blackouts during the Ukrainian war, increasing the likelihood of a meltdown.It took only 25 years for the accident to occur scale The events of Chernobyl will be repeated.
“We will either continue to use nuclear power while accepting that every 20 or 30 years a catastrophic event could occur somewhere else, or the role of nuclear power in slowing the world’s far-reaching climate change. The planet will become uninhabitable in the coming decades,” said Safecast, a nonprofit environmental watchdog that began tracking radiation from Fukushima in 2011. Chief Scientist Azby Brown said.
The Fukushima water release underscores the fact that the risks associated with nuclear energy are by no means zero, that nuclear waste disposal is a dangerous, long-term undertaking, and mistakes can be very costly. I’m here. Tepco and the Japanese government made the difficult and unpopular decision to flush the water. In the decades to come, they will have to show that they were right.