Storage tanks for contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are near capacity. Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images hide caption
Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
Storage tanks for contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are near capacity.
Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
Workers in Japan have started releasing treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. The plant was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake and massive tsunami, and water has been accumulating ever since.
On Thursday, the Chinese government announced it was immediately suspending aquatic imports, such as seafood, from Japan.
A review by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog says the discharge will have a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment, but some nations remain concerned. Here's what the Japanese government is doing, and why.
Why is there water at the Fukushima plant?
After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, several reactors melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. To avert further disaster, workers flooded the reactors with water, and that water quickly became highly contaminated. The plant is now offline and the reactors are defunct, but they still need to be cooled, which is why wastewater continues to accumulate. In the years since the accident, groundwater has also filtered into the site, and some of it has become contaminated as well.
Dealing with all this radioactive water has been a huge technical challenge for the Japanese government. Currently, some 350 million gallons are being stored in more than 1,000 tanks on-site, according to Japanese authorities. The tanks are nearing capacity and the site can't fit any more, so some of the water needs to be released, according to the government.
Japan has built an elaborate system to filter out radioactive contamination from the water. But some forms of radiation cannot be filtered. Philip Fong /AFP via Getty Images hide caption
Philip Fong /AFP via Getty Images
Japan has built an elaborate system to filter out radioactive contamination from the water. But some forms of radiation cannot be filtered.
Philip Fong /AFP via Getty Images
Can't they just filter the radioactive particles out of the water?
The government has been working on a complex filtration system that removes most of the radioactive isotopes from the water. Known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (or ALPS, for short), it can remove several different radioactive contaminants from the water.
The authorities have used ALPS and other systems to remove some of the most hazardous isotopes, like cesium-137 and strontium-90.
But there's a radioactive isotope that they cannot filter out: tritium. Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, and hydrogen is part of the water itself (H20). So it is impossible to create a filter that could remove the tritium.
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So how does the Japanese government plan to release this water safely?
There are a couple of parts to the plan. First, they are going to dilute the water with seawater, so that there's a lot less tritium in every drop. The government says they will bring tritium levels well below all safety limits, and below the level released by some operating nuclear plants. Second, they're taking that diluted water and passing it through a tunnel under the seafloor to a point off the coast of Fukushima in the Pacific Ocean. That will dilute it further.
Finally, they are going to do this slowly. It will take decades to empty all these tanks.
South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party members hold electric candles and a sign reading "No Fukushima nuclear contaminated water!" during a rally against Japan's plan on Wednesday. Other Pacific nations are also worried by the release. Jung Yeon-Je /AFP via Getty Images hide caption
Jung Yeon-Je /AFP via Getty Images
South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party members hold electric candles and a sign reading "No Fukushima nuclear contaminated water!" during a rally against Japan's plan on Wednesday. Other Pacific nations are also worried by the release.
Jung Yeon-Je /AFP via Getty Images
Do others think this process is safe?
The Japanese government maintains that, especially when compared to some of the other radioactive material at the site, tritium isn't all that bad. Its radioactive decay is relatively weak, and because it's part of water, it actually moves through biological organisms rather quickly. And its half-life is 12 years, so unlike elements such as uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700 million years, it won't be in the environment all that long.
Given all that, the government believes that this is the safest option available.
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The International Atomic Energy Agency has peer-reviewed this plan and believes it is consistent with international safety standards. The IAEA also plans to conduct independent monitoring to make sure the discharge is done safely.
"The risk is really, really, really low. And I would call it not a risk at all," says Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth. He's spent the past few decades studying radioactivity in waterways after nuclear accidents, including at Chernobyl.
"We've got to put radiation in perspective, and the plant release — if it's done properly — then the doses that people get and the doses that the ecosystem get just won't be significant, in my opinion," Smith says.
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Edwin Lyman is the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. He says that out of the limited options Japan has for this wastewater, none of them are good, but: "In my view, I think that their current plan, unfortunately is probably the least bad of a bunch of bad options," he says.
"The idea of deliberately discharging hazardous substances into the environment, into the ocean is repugnant," Lyman says. "But unfortunately, if you do look at it from the technical perspective, it's hard to argue that the impacts of this discharge would be worse than those that are occurring at nuclear power plants that are operating worldwide."
But not everyone agrees that discharging the water is the best option. Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, thinks it would have been better to keep the contaminated water on land, "where it's much easier to monitor." Options could have included mixing it into concrete to immobilize it.
Buesseler doesn't think the water will pose a risk across the Pacific. "We don't expect to see widespread direct health effects, either on humans or on marine life," he says. But he does think that non-tritium contaminates missed by the ALPS system could build up over time near the shore.
"Nearshore in Japan could be affected in the long term because of accumulation of non-tritium forms of radioactivity," he says. That could ultimately hurt fisheries in the area.
And Buesseler worries about the message sent to other nations that may be eager to dispose of nuclear waste at sea.
How are other nations responding to Japan's decision?
Other nations have expressed concern over Japan's plan. South Korea has seen mounting public protests over the decision.
Buesseler consults for the Pacific Islands Forum, a coalition of nations including the Marshall Islands and Tahiti that are also apprehensive about Japan's decision. He notes that many of these countries were subjected to high levels of radioactive fallout as a result of atmospheric nuclear tests during the Cold War. "There are islands they can't return to...because of legacy contamination," Buesseler says.
Moreover, "they're suffering in many ways from climate change and sea level rise more than the rest of the world," he says. From their perspective, Japan's release into the Pacific "is just one insult, environmentally, among others."
The March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami sparked a humanitarian disaster in northeastern Japan and initiated a severe nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors at the plant sustained severe core damage and released hydrogen and radioactive materials.What ocean was affected by the Fukushima disaster? ›
Japan's controversial plan to release treated waste water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean has sparked anxiety and anger at home and abroad. Since the 2011 tsunami which severely damaged the plant, more than a million tonnes of treated waste water has accumulated there.What did Fukushima do to the environment? ›
The reactor accident in Fukushima in 2011 resulted in the release of radioactive material (radionuclides) into the atmosphere. The radioactive fallout was dispersed locally, regionally and globally over land and sea by the weather (wind and precipitation).What did the Fukushima disaster release into the atmosphere? ›
In 2014 Fukushima University's Institute of Environmental Radioactivity said that the total amount of Cs-137 released was 20.5 PBq, 17 PBq to the air, and of the total, 12 to 15 PBq ended up in the Pacific Ocean. The 17 PBq to air, coupled with the I-131, would give 810 PBq (I-131 eq).What caused the problem at Fukushima? ›
Following a major earthquake, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident beginning on 11 March 2011. All three cores largely melted in the first three days.Why is Fukushima important? ›
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident reinforced the importance of having adequate national and international safety standards and guidelines in place so that nuclear power and technology remain safe and continue to provide reliable low carbon energy globally.What are the long term effects of Fukushima? ›
The WHO report released in 2013 predicts that for populations living around the Fukushima nuclear power plant there is a 70% higher relative risk of developing thyroid cancer for females exposed as infants, a 7% higher relative risk of leukemia in males exposed as infants, and a 6% higher relative risk of breast cancer ...How many people died in Fukushima? ›
The unduly rushed evacuations caused a near-immediate death toll among vulnerable patients, and more than 2300 indirect disaster-related deaths have been recognized.How long did it take to evacuate Fukushima? ›
Over 50,000 people were evacuated during 12 March. The figure increased to 170,000–200,000 people on 13 March, after officials voiced the possibility of a meltdown. On the morning of 15 March, the evacuation area was again extended.How did Fukushima impact humans? ›
Strikingly, no one died from radiation exposure following the incident. But the disaster had a tragic secondary impact on people living in the area. Nearby residents had to be immediately evacuated and many were permanently relocated, resulting in significant mental and physical harm to many of them.
A sharp increase in mortality among elderly people who were put in temporary housings has been reported, along with increased risk of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and mental health problems. The lack of access to health care further contributed to deterioration of health.How did Fukushima change the world? ›
Thirty percent of Japan's energy came from nuclear power plants, which were supposed to provide half of the country's energy supply by 2030. That changed after the March 2011 disaster. Public support for nuclear energy plummeted, and, a year later, all of Japan's fifty-four reactors had been taken offline.How did they clean up Fukushima? ›
On 10 April 2011, TEPCO began using remote-controlled, unmanned heavy equipment to remove debris from around reactors 1–4. The debris and rubble, caused by hydrogen explosions at reactors 1 and 3, was impeding recovery operations both by being in the way and emitting high radioactivity.
TEPCO, encouraged by Japanese regulators, could have taken some or all of the following actions: Protected emergency power supplies, including diesel generators and batteries, by moving them to higher ground or by placing them in watertight bunkers.How far did Fukushima radiation spread? ›
The highest levels of cesium (10 Bq/m3) attributable to Fukushima that we have measured were found 1,500 miles north of Hawaii. Swimming every day in the ocean there would still result in a dose 1,000 time smaller than the radiation we receive with a single dental x-ray. Not zero, but still very low.How did the Fukushima nuclear disaster affect the sea? ›
The impacts on the ocean of releases of radionuclides from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plants remain unclear. However, information has been made public regarding the concentrations of radioactive isotopes of iodine and cesium in ocean water near the discharge point.What areas were affected by Fukushima? ›
Futaba County consists of eight towns and villages (the towns of Namie, Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka, Naraha, and Hirono, and the villages of Kawauchi and Katsurao) and is located on the eastern coast of Fukushima Prefecture. This was the area most affected by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP).Did radiation from Fukushima reach California? ›
Pravikoff said. While the radioactive cloud from the disaster floated over the Pacific Ocean to California, settling on grapes there, the radioactive levels were low and drop with each passing year. “These levels are so low, way below the natural radioactivity that's everywhere in the world,” Mr. Pravikoff said.Did Fukushima radiation reach the US? ›
Air currents carried radiation across the Pacific to the United States. Radioactive iodine and cesium were detected in air, rainwater, surface water and some food samples collected in California within a few days of the Fukushima disaster.