Regulators argue that release of water at Fukushima, and other nuclear plants, is safe
Workers during the decontamination and reconstruction process at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan on Feb. 25, 2016. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, says it may dump as much as 770,000 cubic meters of water contaminated with the radioactive tritium into the Pacific Ocean, as part of its cleanup efforts following the 2011 tsunami. The announcement has stirred up controversy, yet other, lesser known nuclear facilities around the world have already been releasing tritium into the ocean and the environment.
“After dilution, tritium is released into the ocean, not only from the nuclear power plants but also from the reprocessing plants in the world already,” said nuclear engineer Tadahiro Katsuta of Meiji University, via email.
It is hard to remove tritium from nuclear plant effluent. It is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and like hydrogen, it can bond with oxygen to make water—tritiated water. Because it is part of the water, it isn’t as easy to remove as other contaminants.
Alternatives to dumping this tritiated water in the ocean include storing it underground or vaporizing it into the atmosphere. But these alternatives have no full-scale research to back them up, nor are they practical with this much tritiated water, said Katsuta.
The costs of these alternatives would be too great, adding to an already phenomenally expensive cleanup, he said. The Japanese government estimated last year that disaster-related costs will reach $188 billion, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the meltdown of three reactors at the power station.
Because it is so difficult to remove tritium, most nuclear plants release tritiated water into the environment. The releases are controlled, as it would be at Fukushima, to allow the tritium to diffuse in the environment gradually, in concentrations considered safe.
Tanks containing water contaminated by radiation at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, on Feb. 25, 2016. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a maximum contaminant level for tritium at 20,000 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L). To put that number in perspective, the amount of radiation a person would be exposed to from drinking water contaminated at this level for one year is comparable to the radiation exposure of a three- or four-hour flight.
A person who drinks water contaminated with three times this much tritium has an estimated 1 in 1.25 million chance of getting fatal cancer as a result, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A map showing the location of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and water currents in the Pacific Ocean. (SHUTTERSTOCK (BASE MAP); THE EPOCH TIMES (DESIGN))
Tritium is considered a relatively harmless radioactive substance. The World Health Organization sets its maximum concentration level at about 13 times higher than the EPA’s recommendation. Our bodies are constantly exposed to radiation, the majority of which comes from natural sources, such as cosmic radiation from the sun and stars.
“Doses from tritium and nuclear power plant effluents are a negligible contribution to the background radiation to which people are normally exposed, and they account for less than 0.1 percent of the total background dose,” reports the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.