In 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated northeast Japan, taking the lives of more than 18,000 people and triggering one of the worst industrial accidents in history: the crippling breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Three of the plant’s six reactors sustained perilous nuclear core meltdowns and hydrogen gas explosions, releasing radionuclides into the air, water and soil. More than 160,000 people were evacuated — nuclear power refugees, many having lost trust in their government’s pronouncements about “safe to return.”
FIVE YEARS LATER
Considered the most complex industrial cleanup, not even robots were able to enter the radioactive fuel-debris areas by 2016. Regional farming and fishing industries collapsed. Permissible levels of radiation for children were raised in a callous move to keep schools open.
Three hundred tons of groundwater, containing large amounts of radioactive material, including cesium, strontium, iodine and other substances, poured daily into the Pacific Ocean from 2010 until the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s owner, decreased it to one-tenth that volume by 2015. On site, over 1,000 mammoth storage tanks hold wastewater treated by a filter process TEPCO devised to remove more than 60 radioactive chemicals to so-called safe internationally regulated levels. Only the treatment has left 70 percent of the filtered wastewater still contaminated above regulatory levels. Nor can it remove tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.
In September 2015, ocean surges from Typhoon Etau overwhelmed the site’s drainage pumps; hundreds of tons of radioactive water leaked from the reactors site and ultimately into the ocean. What, then, of more severe typhoons and the reality of sea level rise for the oceanside plant?
On April 13, 2021, the Japanese government announced that TEPCO has the government’s permission to release 1.38 million U.S. tons of its filtered radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, beginning in 2023. The company states that its storage capacity will run out in two years, which critics dispute.
Ultimately, the discharge will rely on dilution with ocean water as the solution to radioactive pollution — in denial of the food chain phenomenon in which plankton absorb the released radioactive elements in sea water, fish eat the plankton, bigger fish eat smaller fish, and humans and marine animals eat the fish.
One week after Japan’s announcement on April 13, fish caught off Fukushima waters were found to contain high levels of radioactive cesium many times above permissible levels.
Nearby countries that share the seas and ocean with Japan are irate, with some planning international legal action. Japan retorts that they plan to re-filter and dilute the water before releasing it, until the contaminated water is “safe to drink.” That being the case, “Then please drink it,” countered Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a news briefing. “The ocean is not Japan’s trash can.”
An observer of this verbal parry pointed out with some irony, in an article carried in Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021, that Japan has about 100,000 massive dams for flood control, water supply, crop irrigation and hydroelectric power with more than enough capacity to dilute TEPCO’s oversupply of radioactive wastewater to drinking water acceptability by Japan’s standard. Re-filter the contaminated wastewater and dilute it in the mammoth dams until it is “safe enough” to drink, he proposes. Then use it for the country’s drinking water supply. Problem solved. No angry neighbors.
With the back and forth about “permissible” levels of exposure in drinking water, the ocean and so on, let us keep this fact in mind: Decades of research have shown that there is no safe level of radiation, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Any exposure to radiation increases an individual’s risk of developing cancer.
The two major supporters for Japan’s decision to further contaminate the Pacific Ocean with its oversupply of radioactive wastewater are the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United States. The IAEA’s mission is “to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies,” in other words, to sustain the illusion — despite Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and concern about Iran — that nuclear power can be safe and secure and its waste never at risk of being processed for nuclear weapons. The United States, the largest owner of nuclear power plants, promotes nuclear power as “safe and clean energy,” a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Let us remember with immeasurable gratitude those in our region whose unyielding protest helped shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
H. Patricia Hynes is a retired professor of environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health and current chair of the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. She has written and edited seven books, among them "The Recurring Silent Spring." She writes and speaks on issues of war and militarism with an emphasis on women, the environment and public health.