The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011 terrified the world and turned many away from nuclear power. Photo: AFP / Lafforgue / Hans Lucas

Japan and South Korea have found yet another front for their endless bilateral row, which already encompasses history, diplomacy, trade and security. That front is the environment – more specifically, the Pacific Ocean.

The sanctity of that vast body of water is under threat given Japan’s consideration of plans to discharge into the sea millions of gallons of irradiated water from the March 11, 2011, triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Fears have already been raised by environmental NGO Greenpeace. Now, a national government – Seoul – has waded into the debate.

This week South Korea’s Foreign Ministry summoned an official from the Japanese embassy in Seoul for clarification of the issue.

“Our government very gravely recognizes the impact that the results of the disposal of contaminated water from the Fukushima plant may have on the health and safety of both countries’ citizens, and by extension on the entirety of countries linked along the ocean,” a statement from the Korean ministry said.

Tomofumi Nishinaga, the Japanese embassy’s minister for economic affairs, said he was only too happy to explain the matter “transparently” to South Koreans and the international community.

However  there is little transparency at  present. Tokyo is still reviewing how and when to dispose of the water in question, the Korean foreign ministry said, citing remarks from Nishinaga.

Don’t panic (yet)

South Korea was reportedly moved to act by Greenpeace, which claims that Japan is preparing to imminently discharge stored water that is contaminated with  tritium – a radionuclide, or atom that has excess nuclear energy – from its damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, after having determined that disposal at sea is the quickest and cheapest way to solve the problem.

That concern may be overwrought. In fact, a government committee looking into the issue has specifically called for continued on-site storage.

And it is a stretch to say that there is any imminent governmental plan in the sense of having a budget, a timetable and, most importantly, a decision on which method to use. What there is, so far, is dialog and a lot of hand wringing.

“We all know that [ocean discharge] is what the utility and even the Nuclear Regulation Authority want to do,” Caitlin Strowell, spokesperson for the anti-nuclear Citizen Nuclear Information Center, told Asia Times. “But there is so much opposition that they haven’t been able to come up with an acceptable plan.”

Clock ticking

Still, there is urgency. The utility in question, Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, says it will run out of space to build more storage tanks in about three years.

At issue are more than 1.1 million tons of contaminated cooling water now held in 960 steel tanks. The water is ground water that accumulated in the basements of the three damaged reactors, where it mixes with the water used to keep the damaged core from overheating again.

Ever since the March 11, 2011, earthquake/tsunami disaster impacted the plant, Tepco has struggled with what to do about this contaminated water.

The firm has tried multiple ways to stem the flow of ground water in the area or even divert it around the plants, even using an ice shield. However, these efforts have met with only modest success.

Against this background, Greenpeace’s ringing of alarm bells is not entirely unmerited – and dilution and discharge into the open ocean does have significant high-level support in Japan.

Polluting the Pacific?

The chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, Toyoshi Fuketa, supports the discharge idea as being the most reasonable, indeed the safest option. The water has already been scrubbed of 62 radionuclides, or atoms that have excess nuclear energy, leaving only tritium – a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

The scrubbing system doesn’t work with tritium, which has a chemical affinity with water. But compared with other radionuclides, tritium is considered relatively harmless since, in humans, it quickly washes out of the body in urine and perspiration.

Until Seoul stepped in, the main opposition to discharging contaminated water had been environmentalists and Japanese fishermen, worried that people won’t buy their fish.

Now, it is an international issue.

Problems, solutions, timings

Tokyo has been studying the discharge issue for years without making any official commitment. Several commissions have been formed to advise the government. It was at one such meeting in early August that Tepco sounded the alarm about running out of storage space by 2022.

And there is another timing issue: In reality, the utility does not have even that much time. If the decision to discharge were made today, it would take about one year to build the dilution equipment and the pipes needed to discharge the diluted water in deep ocean current.

This means a 2022 date for discharge is cutting things fine.

There are also problems with expanding storage. Some experts are worried that the construction of new tanks would take up so much space that they would seriously impede the decommissioning of the actual nuclear facilities.

“Whether the tanks will eat up so much space that it drags down the decommissioning work needs to be considered,” said Tokuhiro Yamamoto, director of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

When Tepco reaches the point where it is ready to remove the highly radioactive melted core debris, there must be a place on the plant side to bury the stuff, as it isn’t likely that any off-site community would volunteer to become home to it. It’s estimated it will take about 80,000 square meters to store the core waste.

Some have suggested expanding the plant site by buying up adjacent land. However, the land is in private hands and Japan has weak imminent domain laws, which probably would make any purchase difficult, even for the public good.

Other suggestions for dealing with the waste water being considered, aside from a controlled ocean release, include evaporating it, turning it to steam and/or injecting it into the ground.

But at this point, discharge is still, by far, the favored option from utility experts. That option has been predicated on eliminating all radionuclides, save tritium, from the treated water.

A new barrier has now been raised: information has recently emerged to suggest that the scrubbing process is not as reliable as advertised.

Media have reported that some of the treated water was left with traces of other radionuclides such as strontium, ruthenium and iodine – and nobody is claiming that these radionuclide are harmless.

Meanwhile, the clock continues its relentless ticking.

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