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The health and geopolitical impacts of Japan’s Fukushima wastewater release

A shoreline is pictured from Futaba-machi, Fukushima Prefecture, around 5 km away from the crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant on August 24, 2023, the day on which Japan's government plan to begin releasing wastewater from the stricken plant into the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)
A shoreline is pictured from Futaba-machi, Fukushima Prefecture, around 5 km away from the crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant on August 24, 2023, the day on which Japan's government plan to begin releasing wastewater from the stricken plant into the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite protests in Japan and other nations, the Japanese government is releasing radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear powerplant into the ocean.

“Because everybody’s doing it. China’s doing it. South Korea’s doing it. The U.S., France, the U.K,” Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science, says.

But does that mean the plan is safe?

Today, On Point: The health and geopolitical ramifications of Japan’s Fukushima wastewater release.

“Propaganda usually has a kernel of truth to it, and kind of exaggerates the whole thing. In this case, there isn’t even really a kernel of truth,” Naoko Aoki, a political scientist, says.

Guests

Jim Smith, professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., specializing in radioactivity.

Naoko Aoki, associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, specializing in Northeast Asian security issues.

Also Featured

Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Shihoko Goto, acting director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan. It was the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan. A massive tsunami followed.

NEWSCAST: This is from our camera reporter in Miyagi. And it looks like the tsunami has engulfed several cities.

CHAKRABARTI: The solid wall of water peaked at almost 130 feet high. Nearly 20,000 people died. The giant wave crashed into a 1,200-mile stretch of Japan’s coastline. Including the east coast of Honshu Island. There, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, took a direct hit. The tsunami wiped out the plant’s emergency generators.

NEWSCAST: Fuel rods are now exposed, and if they stay that way, they could release radioactivity and a disaster of unknown proportions.

CHAKRABARTI: Though on the coastline of an earthquake prone country, Fukushima’s emergency power supplies were not in watertight containers. Soon the plant’s operators couldn’t pump water to cool the reactor. The plant’s reactors went into meltdown. Within three days all three cores were almost completely melted. An uncontrolled release of dangerous radioactive pollution into the air forced 164,000 people to evacuate their homes. Fukushima was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Twelve years later, Fukushima’s story is not yet over.

(PROTEST SOUND)

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Fukushima, and nearby areas, have been closed for a dozen years. The damaged fuel rods and core still need to be continuously cooled with water. So, in August, the Japanese government and the plant’s operators announced that they would begin dumping treated radioactive wastewater, which had been building up on the site for more than a decade, into the Pacific Ocean.

Protestors in Japan and neighboring countries recoiled at the plan. You just heard a protest from South Korea, where thousands took to the streets last month. Health advocates and the fishing sector, too, worry about the impacts of the wastewater.

FISHERMAN: (JAPANESE) When they release the wastewater, I think we won’t be able to sell the fish at the main market again. What happens to us then?

CHAKRABARTI: That was one Fukushima fisherman, speaking to PBS Newshour. Japan’s government defends the plan, saying they can’t store the treated wastewater any longer. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, says the plan meets international safety standards.

RAFAEL GROSSI: Tritium is present there in a very low concentration, and it will be diluted even further to a point that it would be negligible.

CHAKRABARTI: But the geopolitical impacts of this wastewater release have already been far from negligible. Politics has often roiled the public’s understanding of nuclear safety. China is one of Japan’s most vociferous critics, even as China regularly engages in the same practice of sending nuclear wastewater into the sea. So today, we want to better understand the science, the safety, and the global ripple effects of Japan’s Fukushima wastewater release.

We’ll begin with Jim Smith.

He’s a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. He specializes in radioactivity. He studied the impacts of the Chernobyl meltdown since 1990, and he joins us from Portsmouth again in the U.K. Professor Smith, welcome to you.

JIM SMITH: Hello.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s first off start with the most basic question, but I like to be sure that that we and our listeners have a common basis of understanding. Why is the Fukushima plant still closed, but still forming this radioactive wastewater?

SMITH: So initially after the accident, water needed to be cooled. So the cooling water going through the reactors was initially put into the Pacific Ocean directly. But then since about 2012, it’s been treated and stored, and this has been going on ‘because the reactors are very slightly warm and so they still need cooling.

The other source of radioactive water is from the groundwater. So during the accident, groundwater on the site became contaminated and the Japanese have been pumping out that contaminated groundwater to prevent it from getting into the sea, and that water also has to be treated and stored.

So since about 2012, the Japanese have been storing all this treated wastewater in about 800 giant tanks on the site containing about 1.3 million cubic meters of slightly radioactive water.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we’ll come to the treatment in just a second, but when you say the reactors are still slightly warm, I mean in terms of nuclear technology, what does that mean? And does it mean that even after this release of the treated wastewater, the reactor will still need to be cooled into the foreseeable future?

SMITH: The site will keep generating smaller amounts, but significant amounts of wastewater. The reactors stay warm because of what we call fission products. So the things that uranium breaks up into when the reactors are operating still remain warm over years after the accident.

And so they’ll be generating water for the coming decades, but at much smaller amounts than in the past and much less radioactive than in the past.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So from my understanding, the radioactive elements in the wastewater pre-treatment include, and correct me of course if I’m wrong, we heard tritium.

Is there cesium, strontium, other things as well?

SMITH: Yes. Yes. So there’s various things. There’s things like Carbon 14, which is a natural radionuclide. There’s things like C-137, Strontium-90 that they’re artificial, so they’re only made by people in nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. So there’s a wide range of radioactive elements. In the same ways as there’s a wide range of radioactive elements in Wastewaters from other nuclear sites.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so then unfortunately we don’t have the time to go into much detail about the treatment process, but when you’re treating radioactive water in generally, what does that mean?

SMITH: They have a series of what we call iron exchange columns. So these are giant columns that contain chemicals which absorb the radioactive elements.

And so things like radioactive cesium, radioactive strontium, plutonium, they all get absorbed in these columns and taken out very efficiently from the wastewater. And what you’re left is what’s called treated wastewater, which can contains tiny amounts of these other elements because the treatment isn’t 100% efficient.

And it also contains a thing called tritium or tritiated water. And tritium is a form of hydrogen, it’s a radioactive form of hydrogen. And what happens in nuclear reactors is a very small proportion of the water molecules in the reactor turn into tritiated water. So one of the hydrogens in the H2O turns into the radioactive form of hydrogen, which is tritium.

And the point about tritiated water is that it behaves chemically identically to normal water. And so it’s pretty much impossible at this scale to separate the slightly radioactive water from the rest of the water. And just to give you an idea of that, in that 1.3 cubic million cubic meters of water, there’s about three grams of tritium.

CHAKRABARTI: Three grams of —

SMITH: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Of the tritium meaning of the tritiated hydrogen.

SMITH: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

SMITH: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

SMITH: And that’s pretty much impossible to separate. So what nuclear sites all over the world do is to discharge that to a local river or lake or the sea.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so that tiny amount of tri hydrogen is verified in terms of that’s how much is in the Fukushima treated wastewater?

SMITH: Yes. Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

SMITH: Yeah. Carry on.

CHAKRABARTI: Forgive me. I’d like you to continue. Forgive me.

SMITH: Okay. So what the plan for Fukushima and what’s already begun is that there will be 22 tera. So we measure radioactivity in a thing called a becquerel. So there’ll be 22 terror terabecquerel, that’s 22 with 12 zeros after it, of tritium discharged into the Pacific per year.

And that sounds like a really huge number. But then if we look at other nuclear sites around the world. It’s not such a huge number. So there’s a plant in China that emits about 100 terabecquerels per year of tritiated water. There’s one in the U.K. that emits about 200 terabecquerels per year. There’s one in France, a reprocessing site, that discharges about 10,000 terabecquerels per year into the English channels.

So that’s about 450 times greater than the Fukushima release will be.

CHAKRABARTI: And what’s the background radiation in the Pacific Ocean? Is it, is that a relevant measure even?

SMITH: It is. So it’s quite hard to do comparisons because the number’s so big, because the Pacific’s so big. But for example, I’m going to introduce another unit, which is even bigger, which is called the petabecquerel.

So that’s a one with 15 zeros after it. So in the Pacific there are 3,000 petabecquerels of tritium, and in all the tanks at Fukushima, there’s about one petabecquerel.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

SMITH: But tritium isn’t the biggest radioactive element in the Pacific. There are 7.4 million petabecquerels of radioactive potassium 40, which are a natural radioactive element like tritium.

There’s 3,000 petabecquerel of Carbon-14. There’s 22,000 petabecquerels of uranium. So the Pacific is already slightly radioactive.

CHAKRABARTI: I see.

SMITH: And what will be added every year by Fukushima won’t be noticed beyond a few kilometers from the pipeline.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We have to take a break in about 30 seconds, Professor Smith, but just briefly, those columns that you mentioned that remove the other radioactive materials.

How are they disposed? Because it sounds like those are actually more dangerous. What happens to them?

SMITH: They’ll have much more concentrated radioactivity than the water will, and they’ll be buried. That’s the usual plan. It’ll be either, depending on how active they are, they’ll either be in a low level, kind of surface disposal site, which I imagine they will be.

Really high-level radioactivity is planned for underground storage in most countries.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Jim Smith joins us. He’s a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, specializing in radio activity, and we’re talking about the science. And then a little bit later in the show, we’ll talk about the geopolitical implications, but of Japan’s decision to release treated radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Professor Smith, just so that you say it clearly and not me, are you then in support of the decision to release the wastewater and do you not believe that it poses any danger to sea life, human life or the environment around that portion of Japan’s coastline?

SMITH: I’m absolutely in support of this. I think it’s the right decision. It’s what nuclear sites all over the world have been doing for decades, and we haven’t seen significant impact. The doses to people will be about one microsieve per year, to people consuming seafood from that area. And that compares to about 2,400 microsieves from natural background radiation to the whole world’s population.

It compares with 1,800 in the U.S. from medical diagnostic procedures to each person every year. It’s really very trivial. And in terms of the pacific ecosystem itself, we’ve studied lakes at Chernobyl, including the cooling pond of the reactor and looked at fish and aquatic invertebrates. So the small insects living in the sediments of those lakes.

And we haven’t seen significant impacts of radiation. So the fish, we think we see some damage to reproductive organs in one species of fish. But it’s really very subtle and it’s not preventing the fish from reproducing, the fish population’s diverse. The aquatic insect population is as diverse and healthy as in other lakes in the region.

So even in Chernobyl, and we’ve studied this for decades, we find it very hard to see significant radiation impacts on fish at levels which are thousands of times higher than this Fukushima release will be.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I’d like to just very briefly go through some of the other options that the plant’s owners may have had but chose not to pursue.

Again, just briefly, almost like a bullet list here. So first of all, why not just leave it there? Because I understand that tritium has a half-life of just a dozen years. It’s not like a 10-million-year half-life. You could ostensibly just leave it there for, I don’t know —

SMITH: You’d have to.

CHAKRABARIT: Go ahead.

SMITH: Yeah, you’d have to, you’d have to keep it there for decades. And because the water’s still being generated, you would have to keep building tanks and they’re just basically running out of space on the site.

CHAKRABARTI: And why do they need the space though? But why do they need the space?

SMITH: They need to get on with decommissioning the reactors on the site, which I think is a more important issue. The other issue is that tanks can leak. You can have another earthquake, tsunami, typhoon that would cause an uncontrolled leak of radioactivity. So I think, I don’t think that’s the best option. So even if, though, tritium has a relatively short half-life in comparison to others, it is taking up space and preventing the decommissioning of Fukushima.

Okay. That’s interesting.

SMITH: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: What about, could the tritiated water just be used to create, I don’t know, giant concrete blocks, let’s say, and bury those in the ground much as the columns that you were talking about earlier would be.

SMITH: That’s been suggested, but that would, producing concrete causes evaporation.

So after the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S., tritiated water was evaporated and a subsequent study found that led to higher doses, about 300 times higher doses to people than there would’ve been if the tritium had been discharged into the local river. And so I’m not saying it’s not possible, but at this stage it’s not used.

It’s not done by any other nuclear site around the world, and it’s certainly untested. And I would expect it to lead to bigger doses to the operators then will be from this release to the sea.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. So don’t evaporate it. Don’t try to get it into concrete. Not it’s taking up space, so you not just leave it there. Are there any other options that could have been plausible for Fukushima?

SMITH: I think they tried a kind of way of separating the tritium from the ordinary water, and that’s been tried at very small scale and worked, but it’s very energy intensive. It’s extremely expensive, and it’s not feasible at this scale, which is why nobody in all those nucleus sites around the world does it.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Okay. Yeah, because it’s always, so the null choice is only one of them, right? I just wanted to get the pros and cons of the other possible ways to deal with this situation. So Professor Smith hold on for just a second, because while it seems that generally the scientific consensus is, as you said, that the danger is relatively low, it’s not a 100% consensus.

And so we did want to give voice to some scientists who continue to have concerns about the wastewater, treated wastewater release from Fukushima.

Ken Buesseler is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has studied radioactivity from the Fukushima site for more than a decade. He’s skeptical about Fukushima’s wastewater release plan.

Now that wastewater is currently stored in nearly a thousand tanks at the site, and we’ve just discussed some alternatives that the Japanese government had to releasing the treated wastewater into the ocean, and there’s one of those that Buesseler actually agrees with, and he’d rather have them do that because he’s not confident that those tanks we just talked about can be treated adequately.

KEN BUESSELER: I don’t think they’ve released enough data on what’s in the tanks and the reliability of their cleanup system to give it the blanket okay from my perspective. The purification system called ALPS, the Advanced Liquid Processing System that they’ve had, and they can show in one or two tanks that it’s been sufficient to bring levels below operational standards.

But they’ve had 12 years and two thirds of the tanks are still above those limits, and they already have been treated by the same, or at least a version of ALPS. I’ve been always saying, why don’t they treat the water first? Basically, I don’t think they’ve demonstrated that they could clean up this water in 12 years. Why should I assume they can clean it up in the next 30 plus years that this is gonna be going on?

CHAKRABARTI: Now there are other options as we just discussed with Jim Smith and one of them Buesseler supports, and that is to solidify the wastewater.

BUESSELER: The simple way would be to make concrete. Concrete, as people may know, is often used to shield us from radioactive materials. And so by embedding the tritium in a concrete matrix, it certainly would have a lifetime of 40, 50 years to allow both for decay and the additional benefit of shielding. Up and down that coastline, tsunami barriers are being built en mass with these big, giant, multi, you know, bus-size, concrete blocks. And so there’s a demand for concrete, and I think that’s something that could be done — at least the engineers I’ve talked to — could be done safely.

CHAKRABARTI: Perhaps most importantly, Ken Buesseler is a marine scientist and he thinks overall what the Fukushima plan indicates is that human beings continue to see the ocean as a dumping ground, and he wants that to stop.

BUESSELER: It’s just this also a precedent that, you know, we’re slowly adding more and more pollutants in the ocean. And we’re not allowed to dump radioactivity, by the way, in the ocean, say from a ship. Operational nuclear power plants are allowed, at some level, to put radioactive in the ocean, but they’re providing a basic electricity function. You know, there’s a benefit from nuclear power. That’s not the case here. This is an accident site. There’ll never be power generated at Fukushima Daiichi. And Japan is choosing to put radioactive waste in a pipe in the ocean, and that’s really what I object to.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Professor Smith, I’m going to give you one last chance here. Would you like to respond to Professor Buesseler’s concerns?

SMITH: Yes. I would. Yes, I would. The concrete option, people don’t tend to like radioactive concrete. Generally, when we try and dispose of radioactive elements on land where people are walking, living, people don’t like it.

So that’s another reason apart from, I’m not sure it’s technically feasible not to do it in this case. I don’t think, I’ve asked scientists like Ken Buesseler what the evidence is that this is a significant risk to the Pacific and I haven’t had any evidence. There’s no evidence from all the decades of similar releases, actually much higher releases.

And I don’t see why people are particularly picking on Fukushima, and it’s not true that this is done only at generating electricity sites. It’s done at reprocessing sites all over the world where waste is treated, and that’s what the Japanese are doing here. I think from an environmental perspective, this is the best option.

And we should be getting on with it and worrying about the real environmental problems in the Pacific, which are overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change, and sewage going into the Pacific. I think this is a distraction and I think we should be getting on with it and not worrying about the really low radiation doses that it’s gonna incur.

CHAKRABARTI: Jim Smith is a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. specializing in radioactivity. He studied the impacts of the Chernobyl meltdown since 1990. Professor Smith, thank you so very much for joining us today.

SMITH: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: Of course, a purely scientific perspective is not how the world works. Sometimes, but rarely.

There’s also the question of a political perspective, the issue of trust that people have between themselves and their governments, and also geopolitics as well, and how national decisions reverberate around the world with both allies and countries who are not allies. So with that in mind, I want to talk a little bit more about the political repercussions of the Fukushima decision within Japan and also in Asia more broadly.

So first of all, there have been repercussions in Japan, protests as we discussed earlier. Enough so that the Japanese government has felt compelled to respond. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last week sat down for lunch with three of his cabinet ministers. On the menu? Seafood, specifically sashimi, flounder, octopus and sea bass, all caught off the coast of Fukushima.

The idea was to show that the fish there was safe to eat, is safe to eat, even with the release of treated wastewater from Fukushima. So let’s listen to that moment.

(CLIP PLAYS)

CHAKRABARTI: This is one of those moments where even though I love audio, we highly recommend you watch the video. Because it looks rather awkward. But the Prime Minister there, you hear him eating the sashimi, nodding his head and declaring the Fukushima fish. Quote, “delicious.” Okay. So he’s eating it on TV to make sure that people believe that the food is safe.

I just want to jump back in history for a moment because that kind of photo op is the go-to crisis PR management technique that politicians frequently use when issues of food safety come up. So let’s jump into the On Point wayback machine and go back to 1990. One of my let’s say ironically favorite pieces of political theater that came out of the United Kingdom. Because back in 1990, concern about Mad Cow disease really reached a peak in the U.K. And that year, U.K. Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, tried in a photo op to feed his four-year-old daughter a hamburger. He tried to feed it to her. Let me emphasize that. But he tried to do it on national television while declaring British beef was “completely safe.”

NEWSCASTER: The agriculture minister John Gummer today enrolled his daughter Cordelia in his campaign to persuade people that eating beef is safe.

It was a little hot for her.

(EXCLAMATION FROM GUMMER)

But later he munched it himself to prove to the world that he at least is confident.

JOHN GUMMER: There’s nothing to worry about. There is no need for people to be worried, and I can say perfectly honestly, that I should go on eating beef. And my children will go on eating beef because there is no need to be worried.

CHAKRABARTI: Let’s say it didn’t work as he planned. I don’t think the British public was ever fully convinced that they could go back to eating British beef in the immediate aftermath of Mad Cow Disease. Joining us now is Naoko Aoki. She’s in Washington. She’s an associate political scientist at the Rand Corporation specializing in Northeast Asian security issues.

Welcome to On Point.

NAOKO AOKI: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, tell me a little bit more about why Japan’s Prime Minister felt compelled to eat Fukushima sashimi on national television there. What is the current domestic climate in Japan? About the wastewater release?

AOKI: Yes, of course. I think the Japanese government is very concerned about this issue in the sense that, for a couple of reasons, there are people in the domestic public who are concerned about the wastewater, the water release.

And it’s important for Japan, not just diplomatically but also because it is trying to restart some of the nuclear power plants that it stopped after the accident in Fukushima in 2011. So this is trying to increase the nuclear energy mix to reduce carbon emissions, for example.

So this is an issue that is very important for the Japanese government.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Now, remind me, in the aftermath of the Fukushima plant failure, I think there were some, there was some revelation that maybe the plant hadn’t been let’s say upgraded to be as fully safe against earthquake or tsunami as other plants around the world.

Was there a break in the trust between the Japanese people and not only the company that owned Fukushima, but the government specifically around nuclear issues at that time?

AOKI: Yes, I think that’s a fair point. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which the operator, which is the operator, and the Japanese government were severely criticized.

And I think it is fair to say that trust, there’s a lot of distrust even today in Japan toward both the government and TECO as it is known, the Tokyo Electric Power Company. The good news is though, that the Japanese public is not as, they trust the IA, for example.

More, a little bit more in terms of the standards and the care and work that went into the release of the water. So there is concern but there is some trust in the science behind it.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. The reason why I asked, I’m glad you mentioned it, was to use a badly formed metaphor here, just as the half-life of various radioactive materials is quite long.

I think people’s memory about nuclear failures is also quite long. So it sounds like this did stir up a little bit of that memory of distrust, in some of the Japanese people.

AOKI: I think that’s a fair point, and this is again, goes back to Japan’s, for the Japanese government, it’s trying to increase the energy mix increase nuclear power in the energy mix to about 20% to 22% by the end of the decade. It’s important for the government to regain that trust.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And they’re trying, they’re in the process of trying to do that, it sounds.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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