Radioactive water: Fukushima authorities considering ocean discharge

Radioactive water accumulating at the Fukushima nuclear site is raising international concern, as recent media reports indicate Japanese authorities are considering discharging the water into local oceans.

Fukushima power plant in 2007 prior to the nuclear meltdown. Source: Wikimedia Commons

While most radioactive elements in water can be treated using well-established ion-exchange resins, one element – tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen – currently has no known method of treatment.

Water storage tanks at Fukushima are expected to reach capacity in 2022, and with no options for treatment, authorities have been scrambling to find an acceptable solution for the contaminated water.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred on 11th March 2011 when a large tsunami hit the plant causing irrevocable damage. A melt-down occurred in the following days as the plant’s cooling systems failed and tonnes of radioactive material spilled into the local area.

Since then, the Japanese government has spared no expense in remediating the site, with a 2016 government report estimating $76 billion USD would be spent on the clean-up.

Fukushima site clean-up and remediation crew. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, as is often the case with contaminations, radioactive elements contaminating the water have been extremely difficult to manage.

With the nuclear plant situated on Japanese coastline, the immediate aftermath of the disaster saw large amounts of radioactive material leak into the ocean. Radioactive substances from Fukushima are still detected off the coast of Japan and in other parts of the Pacific Ocean today.

By containing the ocean leakage, over 350 thousand litres per day of radioactive water has since been accumulating on-site, stored in a forest of large water tanks.

An advisory panel to the Japanese government has recommended that once storage capacity is reached on-site, the only option is to treat the water to the best degree possible, then discharge it into the ocean, where tritium can be diluted down to very low levels.

Fukushima plant today with hundreds of tanks storing radioactive water. Source: Peshakoff Studio

Naturally, the approach has outraged many environmental groups, with Japanese fishing communities also worried that consumers will refuse to buy local produce. However, some scientists say tritium poses very little risk to human and animal health, and would quickly be diluted in the vastness of the ocean.

It poses the question: Despite all our advances in technology and knowledge, is dilution still the only solution for some of mankind’s worst pollution?

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