Water, water, everywhere…

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An aerial photo shows Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima Prefecture in January, 2021. The Japanese government has decided to get rid of the massive amounts of treated but still radioactive water stored in tanks. Photo: Kota Endo, Kyodo News Via AP/UNB

We call water synonymous to life. Life without water is unthinkable. It is, along with the other vital component that we humans are always in dire need – the air, makes our life what life is. Yet, when this essential element of our survival turns hostile, life might quickly turn into a nightmare, despite its presence all over around. Samuel Taylor Coleridge immortalized this paradox faced by a sailor left in the vast expanse of the sea and not lucky enough to make it to the shore. We are living at a time when a repetition of such earlier tragedies is almost non-existent. Yet, the paradox obviously makes a comeback in a different and probably in a deadlier form. The water issues related to Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant is a classic example of this modern day reality.

More than a decade ago when a quietly functioning and visibly trouble-free nuclear power plant in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture lost its cooling capacity due to a big earthquake followed by tsunami waves, hardly anybody could imagine how long it might take for the radiation genie that the massive power of nature forced out of the bottle to be tamed and put back to its resting place. Ten years on, we still don’t know how many more years it might take for the genie to spare us of its fearful presence and return to its sealed abode. Meanwhile, contaminated water tanks are gradually filling-up all available space inside the power plant and soon there will be nowhere for the water to be stored.

More than nine years ago when I visited the place for the first time soon after media representatives were allowed inside the crippled power plant in February 2012, I had the first-hand experience of witnessing the extent of this evolving problem. Since then, I had been to the power plant a number of times and each of those visits allowed me to see how rapidly water tanks were occupying every empty space the complex had. This is why concerned authorities in Japan had been thinking seriously for quite some time how to get rid of the contaminated water stored in water tanks of the power plant.

Since the initial days of the disaster, water is being constantly used to cool down damaged reactors and melted nuclear fuel. As a result, the power plant continues to generate massive amount of radiation tainted water that needs to be handled carefully. It is estimated that the amount of water is increasing roughly by 140 tons a day and as of March this year, the total volume of water preserved in more than a thousand gigantic tanks inside the premises reached 1.25 million tons. The operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), estimates that with the current pace the storage capacity of water tanks is expected to run out by the fall of 2022. Hence there is the urgency on part of the operator as well as the government to dispose of the deposit. But the problem is; there is no commonly accepted method of how this should be done.

There are at least a number of possible ways for the disposal of radiation tainted water. But before any one of the methods is applied, water needs to be treated so that radiation level is diluted significantly, making water less harmful to human health and the surrounding environment. For this the water is usually treated by applying a special method that removes most of the contaminants. However, the process cannot get rid of one particular element, tritium. It is extremely difficult to separate tritium from water and in Fukushima water tanks; most of the storage tanks now contain water with tritium. And that is what is alarming Japan’s neighbors.

TEPCO plans to decommission the crippled power plant between the year 2041 and 2051. However, how to dispose of the contents of water tanks on the premises has been one of the major challenges in the process. One way of getting rid of the contaminated water is to evaporate and release in the air. This is an expensive endeavor and also poses some risk as it is still not clear how it might affect the surrounding environment, since part the evaporated water is to return to earth in the form of raindrops.

The second available option is to store the tanks deep underground and seal the place for a long period of time. This too is an expensive option with few unknown fallouts. The cheapest way, hence, is to dilute the water further to make tritium contents far less harmful and release it to the sea. This is exactly what Japan is now planning to do. The Japanese government made an official announcement on April 13, disclosing the intention of releasing the water after getting clearance from concerned authorities.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was sounding supportive to the idea by hinting that the organization was prepared to send a monitoring team, should there be a request, Japan’s regional neighbors – China, South Korea and Taiwan have voiced concern over the possible negative impact on public health, as well as fishery business. Chinese foreign ministry termed the decision as extremely irresponsible and harmful to neighboring countries. South Korea, on the other hand, summoned the Japanese Ambassador to lodge a formal complain.

Even Taiwan, which is commonly perceived as friendly and cordial to Japan, also voiced strong opposition. The tussle between Japan and her neighbors continues amid uncertainty surrounding Japan’s decision. All three neighbors of Japan are among 15 countries and territories that continue to impose restrictions on the import of Japanese agriculture and fishery products following the nuclear disaster. Many in Japan, however, see such decision more as a politically motivated punitive action resulting from the tense neighborly relationship. Hence, the war of words continues and there is no sign of either side calling the game over.

However, the voice of opposition to the Japanese decision of releasing Fukushima water to the pacific is not only echoing from neighboring countries. Fisheries cooperatives within Japan are also unhappy with the decision and want the government to reverse the plan. Fisheries communities are worried that they might face new hurdles as the release of water will surely fuel bad publicity.

Whatever logical position various sides might continue to hold, we should not forget the fact that open sea is the common heritage of mankind and no single country is in a position to justify unilaterally its standing that might be seen by others as threatening to marine environment and marine life. As long as Japan’s relationship with her neighbors remains tense, political equation will continue souring the mood. Hence, a better choice for Japan would possibly be to find an alternate way to get rid of the accumulated contaminated water. But how it should be done? Nobody is probably sure about right at this moment.

(Tokyo, April 28, 2021)

  • Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)
  • Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
  • Power Plant

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