Fukushima releases radioactive waters into the sea
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, ravaged by a devastating tsunami, has initiated the release of its first batch of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. This contentious decision is expected to extend over decades.
The unfurling crisis
This move, sparking substantial controversy, is currently underway. Various groups of Japanese workers, most notably local fishermen, have steadfastly opposed this plan, voicing concerns about the potential damage to their seafood's reputation. Meanwhile, groups in China and South Korea have raised diplomatic and political concerns.
However, both the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintain that releasing the water is necessary to create space for the decommissioning of the plant and to avert accidental leaks. Mariano Grossi, the head of the IAEA, asserts that "treatment and dilution will render the wastewater safer than international standards, with a negligible environmental impact." Yet, he followed this assertion with a stark caveat, acknowledging the arduousness of this undertaking and the lack of guaranteed security. This admission provides a glimpse into the extent of risk the agency, led by Argentina's Grossi, is willing to shoulder. What remains unclear is the precipitous speed at which this complex administrative and technical decision was reached—a decision that carries immense financial commitments alongside potentially irremediable risks.
Global community's concern
The international community has sounded alarms regarding the long-term repercussions of low-dose radioactivity lingering in the water. This release begins more than a decade after the nuclear meltdowns in March 2011, precipitated by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami.
The ever-expanding reservoir of radioactive water faces the daunting task of removing fatally toxic molten waste from the reactors. The initial batch of treated water undergoes dilution in a mixing pool before being transferred to a secondary pool. From there, it is discharged into the ocean via an underwater tunnel.
A tide of risks
The collected water is partially recycled as cooling water post-treatment, with the remainder stored in approximately 1,000 tanks that are already 98% full, nearing their 1.37 million-tonne capacity. To facilitate the decommissioning process, these tanks, which occupy a substantial portion of the plant complex, must be emptied.
In light of the risks and potential mishaps associated with this intricate process, agencies must be vigilant and implement initial contingency measures to mitigate any leaks or unforeseen consequences. Accidents in such operations are an inherent risk, sparking a pressing need for public discourse. Citizens must have a say in the level of risk they are willing to accept with their lives, potentially necessitating an international vote under the auspices of UN bodies during events such as the September G20 or COP28.
Experts and lobbyists have suggested that this decision may primarily be financially motivated. It is evident that the IAEA's action to release radioactive wastewater lacks clear objectives, seemingly driven by the prospect of substantial financial disbursements for a process shrouded in official secrecy. However, one thing is abundantly clear: recklessness or ambition has triggered a situation from which there may be no return—an ominous legacy echoing in the words, "A bomb has been activated in the sea."
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About the author
Dr. Diego Balverde is an Economist at the European Central Bank and has extensive experience in climate finance. He is currently also an Advisory Member of the Council of Foreign Trade at The World Bank. Diego is very active on the international sustainability stage having attended COP27 as a Circular economy for Climate Change specialist and will also be attending the G20 Conference in India as part of the Energy, Sustainability and Climate Task Force. Diego holds a PhD in Foreign trade from Chapman University and an MBA degree from Cambridge Judge Business School.