▲ Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants, Provided by TEPCO
The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 alerted the world of the dangers concerning nuclear radiation. Caused by a flawed reactor design, the explosion and fire discharged radioactive materials into the air, leading to dire consequences for citizens. The tragic results of the exposure to high levels of radiation are tangible even years after the disaster. However, the deadly outcomes of Chernobyl may be what the world will encounter in the near future again. With Japan’s decision to dispose of radioactive water in the ocean, many concerns regarding marine contamination have arisen from neighboring countries as well as international environmental organizations.
On September 10, the Japanese environment minister Yoshiaki Harada stated that there is no choice but to drain the hitherto saved radioactive water into the ocean. Currently, the estimated amount of radioactive water is more than one million tons according to The Guardian, and it is suggested that the Japanese government regards dumping the contaminated water into the ocean as the cheapest and fastest way possible to take care of the water.
Status Quo of the Radioactive Water
Originally, Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) had been collecting the contaminated radioactive water. However, with the water increasing by 170 tons every day since 2013, the storage capacity of the tanks is expected to lack space to store the additional radioactive water in the very near future. Although the Japanese government is stating that the disposed water will be diluted so that it will not pose any threats to humans or nature, the concerns regarding the influence of the water do not seem to be solved.
For instance, Greenpeace, a non- governmental international environmental organization, stated its concerns by notifying South Korea of the critical results that may follow after Japan decides to dispose of the contaminated water into the sea. Shaun Burnie, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace, commented that there is an immense risk of the ocean being contaminated with the radioactive elements, causing a serious nuclear water crisis. Burnie further advised South Korea to combatively fight against the disposal of liquid radioactive waste into the sea, as it has a high possibility of being affected.
Japan’s Plan to Discharge the Water
According to Reuters, an international news organization, “Japan is resuming efforts to disperse a build-up of contaminated water at TEPCO’s wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant that is stalling progress on cleaning up the site.” In order to examine the status of the water and find feasible solutions to take care of the radioactive water, the Japanese government called together a subcommittee consisting of experts from the nuclear science field.
Professor Cheong Jae Hak (Department of Nuclear Engineering, Kyung Hee University) stated that there are five plans the Japanese government has considered to manage the contaminated water — earth strata injection, reclamation after cement solidification, evaporation to the atmosphere, discharge of hydrogen gas after electrolysis, and marine discharge. Professor Cheong additionally commented, “Although the five plans all fundamentally seems technologically feasible, differences exist when considering factors such as cost, time, the possibility to operate the plan on a commercial scale, and actual previous cases of application.”
However, at the current stage, the disposal of water into the ocean has been regarded as the most realistic and cost-efficient solution. According to Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), TEPCO has proposed a test to discharge the water with the lowest level of tritium concentration — a radioactive form of hydrogen. It further rejected an opposing plan to enlarge the storage capacity due to the difficulties to acquire the necessary land and equipment. As such, Japan has been showing a favorable attitude toward selecting the release of radioactive water as the most viable solution.
Concerns Arising within Japan and Around the World
Angry responses regarding the water disposal appeared not only internationally, but also domestically from Japanese citizens. In particular, the Fukushima fishing industry has expressed its opposition to the discharge of radioactive water into the ocean, as it may critically influence the region’s fisheries. The fishing industry is known to have faced difficulties after the nuclear accident in 2011, when the earthquake and a following tsunami disabled the three Fukushima nuclear reactors. Although the industry strived to overcome its bruised reputation ever since, as the disposal of nuclear water is predicted to cause a second blow to the industry, Fukushima fishermen are strongly opposing the government.
After the radioactive water enters the ocean, the water is expected to further impact the countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Professor Cheong explained, “Once the radioactively contaminated water is discharged into the ocean, the radioactive materials contained in the water will enter the sea and then spread and move along with the current into the Pacific Ocean. This will ultimately influence the waters of South Korea as well.” Due to the potential influence of the radioactive water to South Korea, the South Korean government has delivered a resolute stance against the disposal to Japan.
On September 16, Minister Moon Mi-ok of the South Korea Ministry of Science and Information and Communication Technologies (MSICT) made this viewpoint clear at the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By stating that the release of the water is a critical international issue, Minister Moon commented that Japan must pursue a scientific and objective method to examine the status of the contaminated water and its influence on the ocean. Moon further emphasized the importance of safety, health, and environmental protection of the entire world regarding the issue.
▲ Professor Cheong Jae Hak, Provided by Professor Cheong Jae Hak
Professor Cheong mentioned, “The Korean government should endeavor to thoroughly examine the various technological measures the Japanese government is planning to implement for the contaminated water. Subsequently, it is desirable for the Korean government to continuously request the Japanese government to decide on a technically feasible and socially acceptable method for the disposal of the water.” Furthermore, he stated, “In this process, it is necessary to take the Oslo-Paris (OSPAR) Convention into account, which is a multilateral cooperative system among European countries aimed to reduce various pollutants in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean.” The OSPAR Convention follows the precautionary principle, which emphasizes actively implementing measures on uncertain issues causing serious or irreversible threats. Likewise, Professor Cheong suggested the plans of handling the radioactive water to be discussed based on such principle.
By looking into Japan’s plan and the international situation, it is advisable for the Japanese government to find a method to cooperate with the international community when deciding on the disposal of the radioactive water. Japan should put effort into finding transparent measures in order to resolve the concerns of the world and reach a conclusion which will satisfy and protect the rights of every government and citizen worldwide.