Examining the consequences of Fukushima’s Pacific Ocean wastewater discharge

Examining the consequences of Fukushima’s Pacific Ocean wastewater discharge

By: Emeritus Prof. Dr. Ng Kwan Hoong

Despite concerns from neighbouring countries and environmental groups, Japan is pressing ahead with plans to dispose of the treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was wrecked by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Expected to begin this summer and continuing for the next 30 years, the government will gradually release more than one million metric tonnes of the water that it once used to cool the damaged reactors into the Pacific Ocean. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima power plant, has been storing the radioactive wastewater in large tanks on the site. However, the storage capacity has reached its limit, and the Japanese government has been exploring various options to manage the wastewater.

Scientific analyses have identified as many as 64 radioisotopes in the water, including those of great concern to human health, namely carbon-14, iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60 and hydrogen-3 — also known as tritium. The Japanese government claims that it has filtered the water and removed most of the isotopes through a process known as ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System). However, traces of tritium still remain as it is very difficult to separate from water. Some of these radioisotopes have a relatively short half-life and would already have decayed in the 12 years since the disaster. But others take longer; carbon-14 for example, has a half-life of more than 5,000 years. Tritium, a weak radioisotope with a half-life of 12.3 years, is also found in the environment in very small concentrations.

Japan’s solution is backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been providing technical advice since the beginning of the disaster. The IAEA has stated that the controlled release of treated wastewater into the ocean is technically feasible, safe and in line with international safety standards. However, there has been great opposition to this plan, both domestically and internationally. Some of the issues raised by various stakeholders include:

Environmental impact and safety concerns. Critics argue that releasing the treated wastewater could have adverse effects on marine ecosystems. The main concern is “Will the treated wastewater still be able to affect the ocean and subsequently harm humans?” Opponents argue that even though tritium is relatively low-risk compared with other radioisotopes, its release into the environment could still pose health risks through consumption of contaminated seafood or exposure to contaminated water.

Lack of public trust. The Fukushima disaster has significantly eroded public trust in the Japanese government and TEPCO. Many people in Japan and neighbouring countries have doubts over the transparency of the decision-making process and accuracy of information provided by the authorities. Additionally, TEPCO has not been held fully accountable for the disaster, even after the top management apologised for their shortcomings. As a result, the authorities have been perceived as lacking empathy and displaying incompetence in leadership, contributing to the negative perception of their handling of the disaster.

Role of social media. Social media platforms have become the main tool in disseminating information, as well as misinformation and disinformation. It can be considered a “double-edged sword” in this context. However, most of the language used has further contributed to building negative perceptions by casting the authorities as authoritarian and neglectful of the long-term ill-effects of their decision. In many cases, social media has become echo chambers that amplify opposition to the wastewater release decision.

Finding alternative solutions. Critics argue that there are better ways of handling the wastewater and releasing it into the ocean should only be the last resort. These include further purification to remove tritium or expanding the storage tanks to contain the water longer until better methods of processing it could be discovered. The opposition to releasing the treated wastewater into the sea stems from people’s desire to protect the environment and ensure their safety.

International dialogues. Countries opposed to the plan have called on Japan for thorough assessments on the potential environment and health impacts, as well as more transparency in decision-making. All of us depend on valuable marine resources, hence engagements with local and global communities are vital for the successful resolution of the issue. A continuous holistic engagement with various stakeholders, including affected communities, experts, policymakers, and civil society groups, is recommended.

Timely and reliable scientific information. In a crisis, citizens want to know if their lives are safe, as well as the safety of the environment and food. Setting up real-time monitoring and broadcasting of radiation measurements at the reactor site, coastal areas, and international waterways, similar to delivering weather information, is one strategy to lessen mistrust. Readings of radiation levels from foodstuff, marine creatures and plants should also be disseminated to the international community and be audited independently.

We should prioritise people’s lives, not just in Japan but also the whole region, when finding a solution to the treated wastewater. This approach fosters trust and transparency in the communication process, and helps to address the power imbalances that often exist between the authorities and affected communities. The authorities should effectively listen to the concerns and feedback of stakeholders, and incorporate their perspectives into decision-making processes. This, in turn, can help to build a more collaborative and inclusive approach to solving this complex issue.

The author is an Emeritus Professor at the Department of Biomedical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya. He is a medical physicist with expertise in radiation risk communication and the recipient of 2020 Merdeka Award. He may be reached at [email protected]


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