Japan Releasing Radioactive Water
into Pacific Ocean
Despite criticism from several nations and environmental groups, Japan began releasing radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean this month. The water is from the Fukushima nuclear reactor which was damaged by a tsunami in March 2011.
Although the International Atomic Energy Agency has okayed the release of one million tons of water used to cool the damaged reactor, China and Hong Kong have threatened to prevent the import of Japanese seafood.
Japan insists that the water has been filtered and the radioactive isotopes have been removed. Nuclear protestors like Greenpeace insist that the remaining radioactive isotope, Tritium, can’t be easily removed.
So, who is right? Has the water been neutralized so it will not impact nations on the Pacific Rim? Or are we witnessing a case of radioactive pollution?
For years, nuclear reactors were scheduled for decommissioning due to their radioactive waste and the threat of major accidents. However, the attempt to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy caused a major problem. Electric power plants that used fossil fuels were closing due to their carbon emissions. Meanwhile, nuclear energy was providing a smaller percentage of power.
Unfortunately, renewable energy sources were unable to take up the slack and there wasn’t enough electricity to meet demand.
Suddenly, nuclear power became attractive again. It produced much less waste than fossil fuel plants and had a smaller footprint than the conventional electric power plant industry, which also needed large coal mines. The anti-nuclear policy had lost its appeal and pro-nuclear policies had regained its momentum.
Anti-nuclear protestors like Greenpeace highlighted the Fukushima radioactive wastewater release in order to regain the momentum on eliminating nuclear power.
One of the arguments was that the water release of one million tons was massive. However, proponents argue, in terms of the Pacific Ocean, it was minor. The Society of Allied Weight Engineers estimated the weight of all the oceans was 1,450,000,000,000,000,000 tons, of which the Pacific Ocean contains over half of that amount. The percentage of wastewater would only be a quintillionth of a percent of what is in the oceans.
Also, they stress that these one million tons of water will be released over 30 years.
The next argument was that the wastewater was a danger to people because it contained tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. The tritium could bond with oxygen to make a water molecule.
Tritium has a half-life of 12.33 years and decays quickly. During the 30-year release program, the radiation will only be about one fifth of what it was in 2023.
The International Atomic Energy Agency stated the “controlled, gradual discharges of the treated water to the sea,” would have a “negligible radiological impact on the people and the environment.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency will remain on site to monitor the release for the whole 30 years. At the end of that time, the Tokyo Power Company (TEPCO) will be able to start the decommissioning.
So, how is it that the water used to cool the damaged reactor is so safe that releasing it is not a problem? TECPCO has spent the last ten years processing radioactive water with the Advanced Liquid Processing System.
The first step was to remove radioactive cesium and strontium from the water using basic chemical separation processes. Then, the other radioactive isotopes were removed using 16 towers to separate different isotopes. In the end, 62 different radioactive isotopes were removed and sent to storage.
Although the process takes time, it is effective in removing small percentages of radioactive pollutants.
How do other nations treat radioactive waste?
The process for treating radioactive waste is common across the nations with nuclear reactors. They employ well known chemical processes that can isolate small amounts of radioactive isotopes. The waste treatment isn’t a scientific issue as much as it is a political one as most people do not want a radioactive waste dump nearby. There is also the other fact that nuclear waste is also a source for nuclear fuel like Uranium and Plutonium, which is found in spent nuclear reactor rods. This is especially true of high-level radioactive waste, which is a rich source for nuclear fuel.
This high-level nuclear waste is only 3% of the waste, but 95% of the total radioactivity. Low level nuclear waste is usually short lived and is found in paper, rags, tools, clothing and filters. It is 90% of the volume and only 1% of the radioactivity. It is often compacted before disposal.
Intermediate level waste includes resins, chemical sludge, and metal fuel cladding. They are frequently solidified in concrete. They make up 7% of the volume and 4% of the radioactivity in radioactive waste.
Since most of the radioactive waste is low level and has a short half-life, it goes to near surface nuclear disposal facilities in many countries.
Long term storage of high-level radioactive materials that have a longer half-life hasn’t been a major problem as much of this waste has unspent nuclear fuel in it. Current practice is to let this material stay in specially designed water pools for 40 – 50 years so heat, and radioactivity has dropped by 99%.
Highly radioactive liquids that are a byproduct of recycling the fuel rods, are solidified into Pyrex glass and stored in steel cylinders and stored deep underground in areas that aren’t subject to earthquakes. There are many such deep storage facilities in several nations.
Proponents of nuclear energy claim that the improved handling of nuclear waste makes nuclear powered energy much safer. Most of the problems dealing with nuclear waste come from nuclear weapons production in the early years, when highly radioactive waste was placed in drums and stored in a remote area.
They conclude, given the visibility of the Fukushima wastewater release and the national and international monitoring of the project, there isn’t the nuclear waste threat that some claim.
But experts and environmental groups have complained that there has been a consistent lack of sufficient public Input and that some viable alternatives, such a long term Storage in more robust tanks was not seriously evaluated. China. However, has redoubled its criticism, accusing Japan of treating the ocean like a “private sewer”. The Pacific Islands Forum, which represents 18 nations- some of which are acutely aware of the legacy of American nuclear testing- remain opposed.