Robert Hunziker is a widely published writer and environmental journalist whose work has been translated into multiple languages and has appeared in over 50 journals, magazines and sites worldwide.
Mr Hunziker explains to Sputnik that the Japanese power company responsible for managing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been "overwhelmed by the crippled nuclear reactors" and face a very difficult choice in terms of how to deal with an ever growing amount of radioactive water. He also warns that mass dumping of the contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean may well endanger human beings across the world for generations to come.
Sputnik: The Japanese government appears to have decided that they are going to dump radioactive waste from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. Haven't they already been doing this since the 2011 nuclear accident?
Robert Hunziker: Since 2011, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has managed to control most of the flow of radioactive contaminated water, but an indeterminate amount spews into the ocean on a daily basis. In point of fact, controlling the radioactive water has been, and remains, a logistical nightmare.
For example, seawater is constantly circulated to cool the crippled reactors and turbines, where radioactivity is so high that on occasion it has disabled robotic underwater drones used to view the damage to the reactors.
Contaminated water leaks out of the reactor coolant systems and into buildings that house the reactors and turbines on a daily basis. TEPCO pumps 800 tons/day out of the reactor building basements. The 800 tons is thereafter desalinated and filtered, as much as possible, to remove radioactive caesium. Of the 800 tons, 400 tons/day is pumped back to cool the reactors and is contaminated once again. The balance of 400 tons, containing high concentrations of Stronium-90 (a deadly isotope) and tritium is pumped to a massive storage tank farm.
Additionally, groundwater flows into and out of the basements of the reactor buildings from which some contaminated water leaks out into the soil and surrounding groundwater beyond the facilities. This is contaminated water, including radioactive caesium, strontium, and tritium.
Furthermore, there have been instances of storage tanks leaking highly contaminated water.
Thus, the most direct straightforward answer to the question is: Yes, TEPCO has been dumping radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean but not as an organised plan of action, not intentionally. It happens simply because TEPCO is overwhelmed by the crippled nuclear reactors and the necessity of keeping radioactivity from literally spewing throughout the surrounding countryside.
As such, Fukushima Daiichi is a prime example of humanity's worst nightmare come true, like the fabled China Syndrome, as one of the worst industrial accidents in history.
It remains a serious threat to this day, which is explained in more detail in my most recent article: "Dumping Fukushima's Water into the Ocean... What Could Possibly go Wrong?".
Sputnik: How are they justifying this policy of dumping even greater amounts of radioactive water into the Pacific?
Robert Hunziker: According to numerous sources, dumping Fukushima Daiichi's radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean will start in 2022 and continue for decades. This approach was recommended by scientific advisers and approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Japanese government justifies dumping the radioactive water into the ocean on the following grounds:
- Nuclear power plants around the world routinely dilute and dump radioactive tritium-water into the ocean. (There is nothing positive about that rationale.)
- A panel of experts advised TEPCO that dumping it into the ocean is the most "realistic option." (Experts are readily available for anything and everything. First, pick a side to an argument, then plug-in the expert.)
- TEPCO's experts claim tritium, the most prominent isotope amongst the 62 isotopes found in Fukushima Daiichi's radioactive water, is only harmful to humans in extremely large doses, and they believe it will become relatively harmless due to massive dilution in the ocean. (That is speculation and most likely not entirely true.)
- The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) approves it. (Hmm)
However, many scientists claim tritium, as well as other radionuclides, will never be completely removed from the water in storage tanks, certainly not enough to satisfy the scrutiny of critics. The brutal truth is that dangerous radionuclides, like strontium-90 and iodine-129, will most likely not be completely removed, contrary to claims by TEPCO.
Furthermore, and of major concern, proper monitoring by independent third parties will likely be a virtual nightmare. To date, the Japanese government has not indicated it will allow independent testing of treated water. Alas, this attitude creates suspicion within the ranks of critics throughout the world.
Meanwhile, according to a recent article by the International Atomic Energy Agency – "IAEA Reviews Management of Water Stored at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station":
"Once the Government of Japan has decided on its preferred disposition option, the IAEA is ready to work with Japan to provide radiation safety assistance before, during and after the disposition."
However, isn't that like letting the fox into the hen house to check security and safety?
Sputnik: Would they be dumping radioactive waste into the ocean anyway, even without the accident, or is this a direct consequence of the disaster following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami?
Robert Hunziker: It is a direct consequence of the 2011 meltdown. Along those lines, it is important to note that ocean disposal of nuclear/radioactive waste has been banned via international treaties, e.g., The London Convention bans dumping radioactive waste in the seas.
However, there are loopholes, which clever lawyers use to abuse the true spirit behind treaties. In the case of the London Convention (Japan is a signatory) it does include a special provision banning radioactive waste, but the stated "ban at dumping at sea" covers dumping from "vessels, aircraft, and other manmade structures at sea". However, Fukushima is a land-based discharge. This inconspicuous loophole in language provides weird (questionable) comfort to Fukushima Daiichi to violate the ban on dumping radioactive waste at sea.
Nevertheless, on a strict morality basis, and as importantly, for worldwide opinion purposes, banning should be honoured whether from sea or land so as not to compromise the spirit of the treaty, meaning, no radioactive waste should ever be dumped into the ocean. Why else draft the treaty in the first instance?
Sputnik: According to a report given to the IAEA by Japan, analysis by the power company of sea and groundwater shows "confirm that the radiation level of sampled water is substantially below the operational targets set by TEPCO". How do you respond to this? Isn't it possible that the level of radioactive discharge being released will simply be diluted by the ocean and won't dangerously contaminate sea life and the food chain?
Robert Hunziker: That is questionable. It is very probable that the discharge will not be effectively diluted in ocean water. Rather, the ocean will simply carry radioactive ingredients to the shorelines of other countries.
According to knowledgeable sources with boots on the ground in Japan, leaked internal TEPCO documents have shown that efforts to reduce radionuclides to non-detect levels have not entirely eliminated numerous radioactive elements, including iodine, ruthenium, rhodium, antimony, tellurium, cobalt and strontium. These are deadly isotopes. (Source: Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace).
Regardless, at the end of the day, TEPCO has publicly stated it will dump "radioactive wastewater in the ocean". It is their stated intention. They claim that tritium, the main remaining radionuclide after processing, will dilute, emphasising the fact that it is relatively harmless to humans.
This posturing by TEPCO is where the "rubber meets the road", splitting world opinion into two opposing or warring camps.
On the one hand, advocates of dumping can be found throughout the internet, for example in articles in Forbes magazine, claiming that dumping the contaminated water in the ocean is the only reasonable answer, assuming that it will be diluted enough, especially with the majority of the remaining isotopes, tritium, relatively weak and deemed to be relatively harmless.
The opposing camp, e.g., fishing interests, neighbouring countries like South Korea and China, and environmentalists, do not agree that the ocean is a universal dumping ground, especially for radioactive water.
After all, even assuming that TEPCO is able to remove the most dangerous isotopes, like Stronium-90, leaving only tritium, similar to all radioactive substances, tritium is:
(1) a carcinogen (causes cancer),
(2) a mutagen (causes genetic mutation) and
(3) a teratogen (causes malformation of an embryo).
This is indisputable medical fact.
Moreover, it takes years and years for the damage of radioactivity to show up in human bodies. That is how nuclear power advocates get a "free ride". It takes years and decades before the true impact of radioactive isotopes are fully recognised in humanoids.
Chernobyl is a prime example of this latent impact of radioactive exposure, to wit:
A BBC special report, "The True Toll of the Chernobyl Disaster," dated July 26 2019 explains: "The official, internationally recognised death toll, just 31 people died as an immediate result of Chernobyl while the UN estimates that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster." Keep those two numbers of deaths, 31 and 50, in mind while reading ahead.
According to that same BBC article, the Russian Academy of Sciences said as many as 112,000-125,000 Chernobyl victims died by 2005, not 50 or 31 deaths. Therefore, the real death count is 2,500 times more than the official report by the UN. As it happens, radiation takes its merry ole time blasting, destroying, and/or altering human cell structure before it shows up as chronic illness or death.
Moreover, in the BBC article, Ukrainian authorities claimed death rates of Chernobyl cleanup workers rose from 3.5 to 17.5 deaths per 1,000 over 24 years from 1988 to 2012 on a database of 651,453 cleanup workers. That equates to another 11,392 deaths, not 31 or 50 deaths.
Moreover, Belarus had 99,693 cleanup workers, which equals another 1,732 deaths, once again, not 31 or 50 deaths.
Furthermore, disability amongst workers on Chernobyl showed 5 per cent of workers were still healthy in 2012, meaning 95 per cent unhealthy, with commonality of cardiovascular and circulatory diseases and nervous system issues.
By 2008, in Belarus alone, 40,049 "liquidators" Chernobyl cleanup workers registered cancer illnesses.
Viktor Sushko, deputy director general of the National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine based in Kiev, Ukraine, described the Chernobyl disaster as: "The largest anthropogenic disaster in the history of humankind". That is not an overstatement. It is true.
"As of January 2018, 1.8 million people in Ukraine, including 377,589 children, were considered victims of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, according to Dr. Sushko. Not only that, there was a rapid increase in the number of people with disabilities, rising from 40,106 in 1995 to 107,115 in 2018."
For further evidence of the latent impact of exposure to radioactive isotopes, and a good reason not to dump radioactive substances into the ocean, according to a USA Today article in 2016: "Chernobyl's Legacy: Kids With Bodies Ravaged by Disaster":
"There are 2,397,863 people registered with Ukraine's health ministry to receive ongoing Chernobyl-related health care. Of these, 453,391 are children — none born at the time of the accident. Their parents were children in 1986. These children have a range of illnesses: respiratory, digestive, musculoskeletal, eye diseases, blood diseases, cancer, congenital malformations, genetic abnormalities, trauma."
Many of the children are hidden away deep in the forested countryside in orphanages in Belarus.
All of which supports the viewpoint that radioactive contaminated water should never be dumped into the ocean.
TEPCO and their experts say tritium is not necessarily dangerous, assuming enough dilution of the isotope; however, there is evidence to suggest beta particles emitted by tritium are more effective at causing cancer than high-energy radiation such as gamma rays. Low-energy electrons (tritium) produce a greater impact because they don't have the energy to spread impact. At the end of its atomic-scale trip it delivers most of its ionising energy in one relatively confined track rather than shedding energy along its path like higher-energy particles. This is known as "density of ionisation." As such, scientists say any amount of radiation poses a health risk.
In the final analysis, radioactive isotopes accumulate in living tissue, whether fish or human, and over time disrupt DNA and alter genes to the extent that chronic illnesses overwhelm functionality, as such, given enough time, malformation and/or death ensues. As discussed previously, examples of that happening in the aftermath of Chernobyl are far-reaching. One can only conclude that any amount of tritium dumped into the ocean will become part of the "accumulation process" within living creatures.
Further to the point, dumping Fukushima Daiichi's contaminated water into the ocean will likely result in the worst PR stunt ever committed by a major nation/state, the worst since human writing started 5,000 years ago.
Sputnik: What realistic alternatives are there to releasing this waste into the Pacific?
Robert Hunziker: At the end of the day, there are no good alternatives. Radioactive isotopes simply do not go away until decay sets in for years and sometimes decades and sometimes centuries.
Some suggested alternatives include evaporating the water into the atmosphere or mixing it into concrete and storing it underground. Neither alternative has been pursued for various unstated reasons.
Environmentalists, and scientists, suggest building as many storage tanks as required and suffer the consequences within Japan, not the world.
After all, the world community did not choose to build one of the world's largest nuclear facilities on the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean in a country sitting on top of the infamous volcanic zone known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, the most active earthquake belt in the world. It's why Japan experiences 1,500 earthquakes per year, proving the validity of the saying, "think before you design/build".
Sputnik: Does Japan have a plausible alternative to continuing to make use of nuclear power?
Robert Hunziker: Of course they have alternatives to nuclear power, as do most countries of the world. More to the point, they've gotten along just fine since 2011, almost a full decade, without nuclear power, other than a recent startup of a plant or two. Japan should send a delegation to Norway, which produces 98 per cent of its energy from renewables or to Iceland, which is a world leader in renewable energy. It's an island, same as Japan.
Seven countries are at, or very nearly, 100 per cent renewable power, to wit: Iceland, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Norway, Austria, Brazil, and Denmark. Japan needs to explore the world. Solutions are already at work and fully operational for all to see in the field.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.