It has been 10 years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but Japan is still dealing with the aftermath of an incident with such longstanding effects. The disaster released radioactive materials into the surrounding environment and generated high amounts of toxic waste. The Japanese government recently announced that they would be releasing 1 million tons of it into the Pacific Ocean as it is the “best way to dispose” of it. This plan is supposedly the best way to dispose of water that would be used to prevent the already damaged nuclear cores of the nuclear plant from melting. It has met backlash both from other governments and the general public, who have urged Japan to consider alternative methods that are more environmentally friendly and less detrimental.
On March 11th, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami triggered the active reactors at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to automatically shut down. The tsunami subsequently flooded the reactors, causing various nuclear meltdowns, a hydrogen explosion and radioactive contamination in the plant’s close vicinity. In the days following the incident, the government was forced to declare an evacuation zone for the area around the nuclear plant. The 150,000 residents in the area had to evacuate as they could have become subject to radioactive materials contaminating the air they breathed or the food and water they consumed. Although the health effects of the incident are reportedly not severe, there is currently a long-term plan in place to decontaminate the area. The incident also garnered large amounts of toxic wastewater.
The disposal of the wastewater had been delayed by long debates over how to dispose of it. The government had to come to a decision soon because the space they are using to store the wastewater is expected to run out next year, making it an urgent matter. Fishing crews are particularly adamant about their opposition of this plan, as it could severely impact their livelihoods and the detrimental damage to the ocean. They worry about how the toxic water could affect seafood from Fukushima and how consumers would react. Environmental activists, like Kazue Suzuki from Greenpeace Japan, are strongly against this plan because they claim that the Japanese government is ignoring the risks of radiation and therefore ignoring human rights. Suzuki further accused the government of opting for the cheapest option – to simply dump the waste into the ocean – instead of investing money and utilizing their best technology to minimize the dangers of radiation and store and process the toxic water. Currently, in the storage area, there are 1.24 million tons of wastewater in at least 1000 tanks.
The Japanese government’s plan has also raised concerns among other governments. Japan has historically had a complicated relationship with their neighboring East Asian countries, China and Japan, and they often debate territorial issues. Therefore, it is no surprise that both countries have taken a strong stance against Japan’s decision, especially because their safety and maritime environment would also undoubtedly be affected. The decision was also made without discussion with other countries, which means it lacks transparency. South Korea has urged Japan to rethink their decision and ensure that they take concrete measures to prevent any potential damage to the maritime environment. Similarly, China is worried about the longstanding negative consequences of one of the most serious nuclear accidents – far-reaching implications on the marine environment, human health and food safety. They also acknowledge the fact that Japan made this decision even in the midst of opposition and doubts and call them “irresponsible.” However, the US is backing up Japan’s decision and argues that Japan has been transparent in their decision and they are following nuclear safety standards. They announced that they would work closely with Japan to dispose of the water.
Instead of dumping the wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, Japan should consider an alternative method that would not be as harmful to the environment and fishermen’s livelihoods. Japan is not the only country with tons of nuclear waste piling up, although their situation is unique and the most urgent at the moment. The UK has a new geological disposal facility for the storage of their wastewater, located underground so that it does not interfere with the maritime environment or human populations. The radioactivity will take more than 100,000 years to decay to safe levels. According to Claire Corkhill, a research fellow at the University of Sheffield specializing in geological disposal, the best way to get rid of wastewater is to contain it within impermeable rocks, thereby isolating the waste away from the population. In the US in 2019, senators sued the Federal Government for not constructing a disposal facility because it allowed nuclear waste to build up.
When it comes to disposing of wastewater, Japan should consider all their options and what would be best for the environment and the human population. They should be transparent in their decision because what they choose to do has repercussions for neighboring countries and their own people. Building a disposal facility underground might be costly, but the benefits outweigh the costs in the long run as the toxic materials would be isolated and people and the environment would not be at risk. It is also not fair to burden future generations with these problems. Considering the fact that climate change is becoming a larger concern everyday, the government needs to take action to ensure that the environment is not further harmed.
Feature Image: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg