Japan’s plan to release more than one million tonnes of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean has raised concerns among its neighboring countries and the local seafood industry. The water contains tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and possibly other contaminants that could pose health and environmental risks. The plan has been approved by the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but opposed by China, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands Forum, as well as local fishermen and environmental groups. This report will analyze the potential impacts of the plan on the neighboring countries and the seafood industry, and the challenges and opportunities for addressing them.
What is tritium and why is it in the water?
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that has two extra neutrons in its nucleus. It is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere by cosmic rays, and artificially in nuclear reactors and weapons. Tritium emits low-energy beta radiation, which can be blocked by a sheet of paper or human skin. However, if tritium is ingested or inhaled, it can enter the body and cause damage to cells and DNA, increasing the risk of cancer and genetic mutations.
The water at the Fukushima plant comes from the cooling process of the damaged reactors, which suffered a meltdown after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The water is stored in tanks at the plant, but the space is running out. The water is treated by a system called ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System), which removes most radioactive elements, such as cesium and strontium, but not tritium. Tritium is very difficult to remove from water because it bonds with oxygen to form tritiated water, which behaves like normal water. The only way to separate tritium from water is by using expensive and complex technologies, such as electrolysis or distillation.
The Japanese government says that the water will be diluted to meet international standards before being released into the ocean. The standard for tritium in drinking water is 10 becquerels per liter (Bq/L), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The standard for tritium in seawater is 100 Bq/L, according to the IAEA. The Japanese government says that the water will be diluted to less than 1,500 Bq/L before being released, which is well below both standards.
What are the potential impacts of releasing tritium water into the sea?
The potential impacts of releasing tritium water into the sea depend on several factors, such as the amount, rate, location, and timing of the release; the dispersion and dilution of the water by ocean currents and tides; the uptake and accumulation of tritium by marine organisms; and the exposure and consumption of tritiated seafood by humans and animals.
According to some experts, such as Ken Buesseler from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who has studied the waters around Fukushima, the impact of releasing tritium water into the sea would be minimal, given that tritium is already present in natural background levels in seawater (about 10 Bq/L) and that it has a relatively short half-life of 12.3 years, meaning that it decays quickly. Buesseler argues that other contaminants in the water, such as carbon-14 or strontium-90, are more worrisome than tritium, because they have longer half-lives and higher health risks. He also points out that there are other sources of tritium in the ocean, such as nuclear weapons testing, nuclear power plants, and atmospheric deposition.
However, according to other experts, such as Shaun Burnie from Greenpeace International, who has also studied the waters around Fukushima, the impact of releasing tritium water into the sea would be significant, given that tritium can enter the food chain and bioaccumulate in marine organisms, especially algae and fish. Burnie argues that tritium can cause various biological effects, such as DNA damage, cell death, mutation, cancer, and reproductive impairment. He also points out that there are uncertainties about the actual amount and composition of the water to be released, as well as its long-term effects on marine ecosystems.
The impact of releasing tritium water into the sea would also vary depending on the location and distance from the release site. The closer to the site, the higher the concentration and exposure of tritium. The farther from the site, the lower the concentration and exposure of tritium. However, ocean currents and tides can also transport and disperse tritium over large distances and across borders. For example, some studies have shown that tritiated water released from Fukushima could reach North America within five years.
The impact of releasing tritium water into the sea would also depend on the timing and frequency of the release. The Japanese government says that the release will start in 2023 and last for several decades, depending on the amount of water produced and stored. The release will be gradual and controlled, according to the government. However, some critics have raised concerns about the possibility of accidents, leaks, or sabotage that could cause sudden or large-scale releases of tritium water, which could have more severe consequences.
How would releasing tritium water affect the neighboring countries and the seafood industry?
Releasing tritium water into the sea would affect the neighboring countries and the seafood industry in several ways, such as:
Political and diplomatic tensions: The plan has already sparked protests and criticism from China, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands Forum, which share maritime borders with Japan. They accuse Japan of being irresponsible and unilateral, and of violating international law and human rights. They have called for more transparency and consultation from Japan, and for independent scientific verification of the water’s safety. They have also expressed their intention to take legal or diplomatic action to protect their interests and rights. The plan could also affect the regional security and cooperation in East Asia, especially amid the ongoing disputes over territorial and maritime claims.
Economic and trade losses: The plan could also affect the seafood industry and trade in the region, especially for Japan and South Korea, which are major exporters and importers of seafood. The plan could damage the reputation and marketability of Fukushima seafood, which has already suffered from consumer distrust and stigma since the 2011 disaster. The plan could also trigger import bans or restrictions from other countries, which could hurt the income and livelihoods of fishermen and seafood businesses. The plan could also reduce the tourism and recreational activities in the coastal areas, which could affect the local economy and culture.
Social and psychological impacts: The plan could also affect the social and psychological well-being of the people living in the affected areas, especially in Fukushima. The plan could increase the fear and anxiety of radiation exposure and health risks among the residents, especially children, pregnant women, and elderly people. The plan could also erode the trust and confidence in the government and TEPCO, which have already been criticized for their handling of the disaster and its aftermath. The plan could also exacerbate the social stigma and discrimination faced by Fukushima evacuees and returnees, who have been struggling to rebuild their lives and communities.