Japan's Nuclear Water Waste Problem
BY ANDREW MOON '27
On August 24, 2023, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) discharged almost 210 tons of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. Produced during the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the wastewater reached the ocean by going through a ten-meter-deep undersea tunnel located a kilometer away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. This discharge is part of a larger process of the release of wastewater, which is accumulating at an alarming rate. Through the undersea tunnel, the Japanese government plans to release this enormous amount of nuclear waste water into the ocean for the next thirty years. The release of such vast quantities into the ocean, with no clear resolution in sight for decades, is an unprecedented environmental disaster for humanity.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, one of only two International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale level 7 nuclear accidents worldwide alongside the Chernobyl nuclear accident, occurred due to a tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. This disaster led to hydrogen explosions resulting from the disruption of cooling systems in the nuclear power plants. The disaster caused immense damage and widespread nuclear contamination across East Japan, compounding the existing impacts of the tsunami and earthquake. As one of the consequences, a significant amount of nuclear wastewater was produced.
The most significant concern revolves around the various radioactive substances present in the wastewater. Containing sixty-four highly harmful radioactive substances for the human body, the wastewater also contains a substantial quantity of tritium, a compound primarily utilized in nuclear weaponry. These harmful compounds are recognized for their potential to heighten the risk of internal exposure when absorbed into the human body through seafood consumption. Biologists fear that tritium causes biological gene damage at a level more than twice as high as that caused by cesium, a well-known radioactive material. Japan intends to release an annual volume of twenty-two trillion becquerels of tritium into the sea once the discharge process commences. Other examples of harmful radioactive substances are cesium 137 and strontium 90, which are highly detrimental to human health and not typically released by functioning nuclear power plants. These radioactive substances integrate into genetic cells, damaging the very essence of DNA. As a result, this disruption can result in abnormal cell proliferation or even irreversible damage, potentially leading to severe health consequences, including cancer. Radioactive materials such as tritium have the potential to seriously inflict harm upon marine life and potentially their ecosystems: not just impacting humans. Further, when humans consume marine seafood, the radioactive components pass onto them as well. This poses a real threat to the future of seafood consumption in terms of health and DNA concerns.
As Japan discharges wastewater into the Pacific, the U.S., along the Pacific coast, will be directly impacted by this nuclear wastewater. Although the long-term effects of releasing such wastewater into the ocean remain uncertain, it still poses significant environmental concerns. The Japanese government must address these problems and develop a solution amid international apprehension. Astonishingly, discharge is not the only treatment option available for managing nuclear wastewater; there are four alternative methods. Methods for handling the wastewater include solidification via cement mixing and landfilling, electrolysis to convert wastewater into hydrogen and release it into the atmosphere, storage tank expansion for longer-term storage reducing tritium concentrations, and steam release involving boiling wastewater, an approach previously used during the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States. Solidification involves mixing cement with wastewater and landfill it, whereas electrolysis converts wastewater into hydrogen, releasing it into the atmosphere. Also, expanding storage tanks allows for longer-term storage, naturally reducing tritium concentrations. Lastly, steam release involves boiling contaminated water at temperatures exceeding one-thousand degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), releasing it as steam into the atmosphere. Why does the Japanese government persist in choosing wastewater discharge when there are already alternative methods available? This is simply because releasing it to the ocean is the most cost-effective option. The government claims that discharge is the most practical option, but in reality, the harmful implications outweigh any potential positives.
The Japanese government's lack of transparency diminishes trust and hampers its leadership effectiveness. In particular, this discharge can be viewed as a violation of at least three international maritime laws. First, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) mandates environmental protection in its territory and international waters. Second, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1975) prohibits waste dumping in maritime areas. Third, the joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (1996) demands radiation and hazard protection throughout radioactive waste management. Japan's actions undermine its commitment to these international agreements and raise serious environmental and safety concerns.
Additionally, the Japanese government and TEPCO are creating transparency and trustworthiness concerns. They claim to safely dispose of wastewater through scientific methods, but they refuse to allow countries like Korea to independently collect and analyze wastewater samples to monitor changes in radioactive material concentrations. This lack of openness in their process makes it difficult to have full confidence in their assurances. With the Japanese government's mishandling of the situation, neighboring countries have taken a strongly negative stance toward the release of wastewater and criticize the method. For example, in South Korea, there is widespread public opposition to the discharge. Similarly, the Chinese government has strongly denounced the discharge, categorizing it as a 'crime against humanity as a whole.' Consequently, China has suddenly ceased importing Japanese seafood, making the anxieties of Japanese fishermen a grim reality. Moreover, countries like the Philippines and Pacific Islands have growing dissent.
Ultimately, dumping such an immense quantity of nuclear material into the ocean represents an unprecedented and perilous action in human history. Therefore, the Japanese government must immediately end the process of discharging nuclear wastewater to ensure a better future and environment for generations to come. They should implement less harmful methods of disposal to ease public apprehension and create a secure and safe environment for all citizens and marine life.