Japan plans to pour one million tons of radioactive water into...

The Japanese government recently announced plans to release more than 1 million tons of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea.

The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak, who recently wrote:

I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true advocate for human rights and the environment or not.

In addition to our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimize the damage to health from nuclear technology, including the Fukushima site visits since 2011. We have come to the conclusion that Japan’s plan is uncertain and not based on evidence.

Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a location in regional South Australia – a risky plan that has been widely criticized.

Contaminated water in leaky tanks

In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami caused the collapse of four large nuclear reactors and caused significant damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings in which they are housed.

The tanks store treated water from the crippled power plant. It is not yet clear how the water is discharged into the ocean.
Kyodo via AP Images

Water must be poured on the damaged reactors to keep them cool. However, it becomes heavily contaminated in the process. 170 tons of heavily contaminated water are stored on site every day.

Last month it was 1.23 million tons. Currently, this water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks, many of which are hastily and poorly built, and have leaked in the past.

How does radiation damage marine life?

When radioactive material gets into the sea, ocean currents can dissipate it widely. Fukushima radioactivity has already resulted in widespread contamination of fish caught offshore and has even been found in tuna caught off California.

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Ionizing radiation damages all organisms and causes genetic damage, developmental disorders, tumors as well as decreased fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometers along the coast from the damaged nuclear power plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.

Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those that concentrate the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can make fish thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.

Unsuccessful attempts to decontaminate the water

In recent years, a water purification system – known as advanced liquid processing – has been used to treat the contaminated water that has accumulated in Fukushima and attempt to reduce the 62 major contaminating radioisotopes.

But it wasn’t very effective. So far, 72% of the treated water has exceeded the legal standards. It has been shown that treated water is almost 20,000 times higher than allowed.

Also read: The cherry trees of Fukushima

An important radioisotope that is not removed in this process is tritium – a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means that it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.

Tritium is a carcinogenic by-product of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants and is routinely released into both water and air.

The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to comply with the legal limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. However, this does not reduce the total amount of radioactivity that is released into the environment.

Minister Keith Pitt. Legislation to dispose of nuclear waste in a remote city in South Africa is currently under consideration in the Senate.
AAP Image / Lukas Coch

How should the water be stored?

The Japanese Citizens’ Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organization of engineers and researchers. Once water has been treated to reduce all major isotopes except tritium, it should be stored in 10,000 ton tanks on land.

If the water were to be stored for 120 years, the levels of tritium would drop to less than 1,000th of the original level, and levels of other radioisotopes would also drop. This is a relatively short and manageable amount of time for nuclear waste.

Then the water could be safely released into the ocean.

Nuclear Waste Storage in Australia

Australians are currently facing our own nuclear waste problems arising from our nuclear reactors and the rapidly growing nuclear medicine export business that produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, and scientific and industrial uses.

À lire aussi: Australia should examine nuclear waste before we try domestic nuclear power

This is done at our national nuclear facility in Lucas Heights, Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on site in a dedicated facility managed by professionals and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.

But the Australian government plans to change that. She wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste in a facility in Kimba in the regional South Australia for an indefinite period. We believe that the Kimba plan involves unnecessary duplication and shifts the problem of nuclear waste to future generations.

A nuclear reactor with people in protective clothing
Opal’s nuclear research reactor in Lucas Heights, Sydney, 2008.
AAP Image / Tracey Nearmy

The proposed storage facilities at Kimba are less safe than disposal, and this plan is well below the world’s best practice.

The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials at Lucas Heights have been developed over decades with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural area of ​​Kimba. In addition, the transport of the waste increases the risk of theft and accidents.

And in the last few months, the CEO of the regulator ARPANSA informed a Senate investigation that nuclear waste could be stored in Lucas Heights for several decades. This means that there is enough time to properly plan the final disposal of the waste.

Legislation in the Senate will deny interested parties the right to judicial review. The plan also ignores unanimous opposition from traditional Barngarla owners.

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The interview went to Resource Secretary Keith Pitt, who insisted that the Kimba site consolidate waste from more than 100 locations into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility.” He said that in a few decades a separate permanent disposal facility for medium-weight waste will be set up.

Pitt said the government continues to seek to involve traditional owners. He also said the Kimba community voted for the plan. However, the voting process has been criticized for a number of reasons, including excluding landowners living relatively close to the site and excluding the Barngarla population entirely.

A sign that Kimba is halfway across Australia.
We should take the time it takes to have an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process for the storage and disposal of nuclear waste rather than opting for a quick fix.
Kyodo via AP Images)

Kick the can down the street

Both Australia and Japan should focus on countries like Finland, which is more responsible for its nuclear waste and has been researching potential sites for decades. It is planned to spend 3.5 billion euros on a deep geological landfill.

À lire aussi: Risks, Ethics and Consent: Australia shouldn’t become the world’s nuclear wasteland

Medium-level nuclear waste such as that to be shipped to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from humans and the environment for at least 10,000 years.

We should take the time it takes to have an open, inclusive, and evidence-based planning process rather than a quick fix that will avoidably contaminate our shared environment and create more problems than it solves.

It is only a path for future generations and does not constitute responsible management of radioactive waste.

The following are additional comments from Resource Secretary Keith Pitt on the issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):

(The Kimba Plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. This is international best practice and common sense.

Key indicators showing widespread support from the Kimba community included 62 percent vote support from the local community and 100 percent support from immediate neighbors to the proposed location.

In assessing community support, the government also considered contributions from across the country and the results of the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.

The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is related to nuclear medicine production, which an average of two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.

The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community that will include 45 safety, operational, administrative and environmental monitoring jobs.

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