Safety doubts shroud plan to release water

Dispersal from Fukushima likened to 'waging nuclear war' on islands 

An official demonstrates the marine organisms rearing test facility of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, on Jan 20. (PHOTO / AFP)

Japan's push to discharge nuclear wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean has drawn criticisms from Pacific islands, and questions over the safety of the dispersal remain.

The wastewater is the byproduct of cooling the plant's nuclear reactors following the strong earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. More than 1 million metric tons of radioactive water is now stored in 1,000 tanks at the site.

Two years ago, when Japan first announced it would release the water into the ocean it raised concerns from its neighbors, particularly Pacific island countries that have suffered greatly from decades of nuclear weapons testing by France and the United States.

At the conclusion of the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji on Saturday, Pacific leaders agreed that science and data must guide any future decision on wastewater disposal.

The forum's outgoing chairman, Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, and other leaders there said the decision is not just a domestic issue for Japan, but concerns South Pacific island countries and beyond.

Motarilavoa Hilda Lini of the group Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific said recently: "We are people of the ocean; we must stand up and protect it."

The advocacy group Youngsolwara Pacific has said the release from the Japanese power plant is tantamount to nuclear war.

Transboundary harm

"How can the Japanese government, which has experienced the same brutal experiences of nuclear weapons in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wish to further pollute our Pacific with nuclear waste? To us, this irresponsible act of transboundary harm is just the same as waging nuclear war on us as Pacific peoples and our islands."

A year ago, the Pacific Islands Forum formed a panel of global experts on nuclear issues, the aim being for it to provide independent technical advice on dialogue with Japanese officials and the owners of the power plant, a forum spokesperson said.

When the earthquake struck the region around Fukushima on March 11, 2011, it sent a 15-meter-high tsunami along the coast, killing thousands and destroying the power supply used to cool the nuclear power plant's three reactors.

For the next two years cooling seawater and later groundwater flowed through the destroyed reactor and was dumped directly into the Pacific Ocean.

"Those first two years were the most dangerous time because long-lived heavy nuclei like cesium-137, strontium-90 and iodine-131 ended up in the atmosphere and ocean," said David Krofcheck, senior lecturer in physics at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

A way of reducing the number of nuclear fission nuclei released was to develop and employ in 2013 an advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, he said.

"A series of filters were designed to remove all fission nuclei except for tritium and carbon-14. The ALPS partially worked."

Both the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed that about 70 percent of the stored water could contain the original nuclear fission nuclei, Krofcheck said.

Professor Jamie Quinton, who heads the school of natural sciences at Massey University in New Zealand, said: "If the release of wastewater into the ocean is to proceed, getting the process correct and within regulations is of particular importance to Japan's aquaculture-based industries.

"It is in Japan's economic interest to ensure that the waterways remain below internationally acceptable levels for background radiation so that food safety is assured, and their capacity for international trade remains unaffected."

Remaining tritium and carbon-14 from the Fukushima reactor may find their way into the food chain, but they have a 10-day half-life, Krofcheck said.

The Pacific has had a long association with nuclear contamination, he said.

After the US tested nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s, large amounts of cesium-137 and strontium-90 are still in the lagoons of numerous small islands.

"These radioactive isotopes can build up in the food chain and lead to cancers in human muscles and bone," Krofcheck said.