The Dumping Grounds of Asia
On 11th March 2011, the 9.1 Richter Tōhoku Earthquake hit the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, followed by tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 meters in Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture. The damage from the tsunami had dire impacts on the reactors. The cooling system of the first three Fukushima Daiichi reactors broke down, and by 14th March, their cores had largely melted. The radioactive release over the next 4 to 5 days tallied up to approximately 940 PBq (Petabecquerel), marking the beginning of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.
Three weeks into the nuclear disaster, removal of contaminated water accumulated due to the tsunami inundation and leakage from the reactors was underway by TEPCO ( Tokyo Electric Power Company). About one thousand storage tanks were set up, each having a holding capacity of 1200 cubic meters. It was found that the Unit 2 reactor and the turbine were the main source of highly contaminated water. In order to free up storage for this, 10,400 cubic meter of slightly contaminated water (0.15 TBq) was released into the ocean, with government approval and subsequent oversight by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to ensure that the released water didn’t increase the radioactivity of the sea beyond the approved safety limits.
Early in 2013, TEPCO started to test and commission the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), a new wastewater treatment facility built to treat the contaminated water. ALPS-treated water is currently stored in tanks onsite, which are estimated to reach full capacity by the summer of 2022.
After intensive water treatment, the contaminated water would show only traces of tritium. This isotope is harmful only when digested in large quantities. In November 2019, the Trade and Industry Ministry of Japan released a report stating that the microsieverts released by disposal of this water in the atmosphere will be higher than the levels when disposed of in sea. Thus TEPCO released a report stating the disposal methods that are viable in this case.
On 13 February 2021, the Japanese government officiated a decision and announced it globally. TEPCO plans on releasing the water offshore, starting 2023. The water will be further filtered and diluted until then.
After the Declaration
Japan’s decision faced severe criticism from two countries. China and South Korea are against the release of the treated water in the Pacific Ocean. The pivotal point of their argument is the fact that they were not consulted for this decision. Furthermore, South Korea voiced concerns over the impact of this release in the South Korean fishing grounds.
The Japanese Fishing Authority is also against this decision, with concerns over how the importers of their produce will respond to this decision. After the 2011 tsunami and the consequent nuclear disaster, Japan’s global seafood trade took a massive hit. Numerous bans were imposed on seafood imports from Japan, and 15 out of 54 countries continue these food restrictions till date. For Fukushima’s fishermen, this decision spells bad news. These fishermen were on the cusp of restarting full fledged coastal fishing off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. It took them a decade to regain trust amongst the local consumers. With new safety regulations, ascertaining the future of Fukushima fishing grounds is next to impossible, with producer and consumer distrust running rampant.
Verifying Authenticity Of Concerns
The Japanese government took steps to ensure that they met all international safety guidelines while releasing the water. Their claim for Tritium levels is backed by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).
Furthermore, a group of atomic experts from South Korea declared that the concerns expressed by the South Korean government had no scientific precedent. They found that South Korea would receive 1/300,000,000 of maximum radiation levels that the human body can be exposed to even if Japan had not followed the safety process that ensures this disposal process takes 30-40 years.
China stands by their argument, and have publicly expressed this via twitter.
While some of these concerns are understandable, it must be noted that Japan has complied with all international standards and been completely transparent about this process. It is also worth noting that this is not a novel approach to nuclear waste water disposal. These international standards are adhered to by multiple countries, including the USA, UK, South Korea and even China themselves. However, when questioned about the dumping of tritium laced water from Daya Bay, Chinese officials simply claimed a comparison between that and Fukushima plant’s water cannot be drawn.
Economic Implications Of Fukushima Decision:
- Predictable Externalities:
- Trade Reduction- The most observable impact of this decision is on the export of seafood. The Japanese Government imposed numerous restrictions on fishing activities in Fukushima. Certain species were eventually allowed to be fished based on the amount of Cesium their bodies accumulated.
The local fishing communities came to a long halt. A study shows that both local and international consumers of the sea produce were wary of it. Even the agricultural produce grown here had to be sold at discounted rates to attract buyers.
It is safe to assume that there will be a perceived reduction in trust of the quality of seafood cultivated from these regions. Both international and local prices may plummet. Regardless of what Japan claims, fear and precaution will trump facts, inspired from the reaction of multiple nations after the nuclear disaster and a lack of trust of the Japanese people in their officials.
- Disincentive for fishing- In spite of TEPCO’s multiple initiatives post the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it took the fishing industry a decade to instill confidence in consumers. The new decision puts a major hurdle in their path of recovery, and the local fishermen were completely against this decision. If the Fukushima authority goes through with their decision, they risk a major fallout between the local fishermen and TEPCO. This would further disincentivize people from taking this profession.
- International Relations- In a global context, the Japanese decision of releasing the water was met with criticism by 2 major Asian countries. While the governments of these countries were called out as being politically or emotionally led and not scientifically driven, this will have a significant impact on Japan’s international relations. The United Nations also raised concerns regarding the safety measures and credibility of Japan, which might hamper the relations between major UN members and Japan.
- The Cost Of Wavering
TEPCO cannot afford to keep the water in the tanks any longer. They will reach full capacity in 2022, and their structural integrity will only reduce over the years. New tank construction is not feasible, and even if it were, they would simply be postponing a decision that must be made eventually.
Moreover, nuclear energy has been a leading alternative to conventional energy sources. Despite being a forerunner of green energy, Japan had to increase its fossil fuel consumption over the last 10 years. If the water storage units are cleared up, then the generators can be operated at full capacity, reducing Japan’s dependence on fossil fuel. This decision is thus economically more viable, and according to various international organisations, completely safe. The cost of not carrying out the decision would cause both heavy environmental degradation and extensive underutilisation of resources.
As of now, the Japanese government is standing by its decisions. A global turmoil is brewing. And between sparks of ethical debates and political agendas lie the livelihoods of those who struggled and survived through the calamity that ravaged Fukushima all those years ago.
–Anshi Pandey FY B.Sc
Yash Kedia FY B.Sc.