On 10 September, Japanese authorities announced that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant which in 2011 experienced the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, currently has no technology to clear its wastewater from radioactive waste, and is instead discharging it into the sea.
More than a million tonnes of wastewater is reportedly stored in tanks at the Fukushima NPP (nuclear power plant). The facility is reportedly running out of available space and expects to exhaust its capacity by summer 2022. Japanese Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada admitted earlier that “we have no way but to release it [into the sea] and dilute it”.
Local residents have reportedly deep concerns about the potential damage this move can inflict, especially to the industry of fishing, which is essential for Japan.
Christina Consolo, a nuclear expert, has shared her view on the issue.
Sputnik: It’s been reported that there’s enough room to keep the liquid (1 million tons of contaminated water) through summer 2022, but after that, there will be no space left?
Christina Consolo: It was somewhat surprising at how quickly the Environmental Ministry in Japan made a decision to release the contaminated water once their official meeting convened. I am not surprised at all however by their decision.
The situation is very serious. There is no other option then to release the contaminated water, but under the control of TEPCO’s time and choosing, or it may be released for them. An earthquake could release it, a tsunami could release it, a typhoon could release it.
But releasing the water goes far beyond just a ‘storage issue’ alone; the tanks are also under duress for a number of reasons. If you recall, at the beginning of the original water storage, the tanks were not assembled properly. Concrete slabs were hastily poured without rebar reinforcement.
- TEPCO workers had to drill holes in the tops of them to release hydrogen build-up, or risk explosion and collapse of the tanks themselves.
There have also been a series of leaks, due to miles of pipes and flushing radioactive water great distances through sometimes ducted-taped hoses, with at least one reaching the official scale of a Level 3 Nuclear Accident in and of itself, in July of 2015.
And the longer this radioactive water sits in these giant metal tanks, the matrix of the metal itself at the atomic level is undergoing acceleration of entropy, known as “The Wigner Effect” – named after Professor Eugene Wigner, who discovered it at Oak Ridge Laboratory while doing research for the US Government during World War II.
- Metal exposed to radiation creates embrittlement issues and acceleration of corrosion, the same problem that caused 16,000 cracks in the nuclear reactors in Belgium.
This is problematic for the biggest reason of them all: if any of these tanks leak or break open outside of the control of TEPCO and prevents workers from being able to continue the myriad of daily maintenance involved due to spillage of radioactive water, creating no-go zones within the site itself, then TEPCO can have yet another very serious situation on their hands, on top of everything else happening over there. Anything and everything must be done to assure that workers can continue with the tremendous daily management of what is still an ongoing Level 7 Nuclear Accident.
- They can not risk waiting for the tanks to empty themselves.
Sputnik: What is going to happen next? Do you think this liquid is a real threat to the ecological situation?
Christina Consolo: Any radiation released to the environment is always going to have detrimental effects…the question is how much and how far will those effects extend from the site of the release. Without knowing what exactly is in those tanks, that question is impossible to answer.
- I personally have issue believing the radioactive water contained within them only contains Tritium, as I have followed this story for over eight years, and I can say without a doubt that every machine brought in to ‘filter out’ radioactive substances has failed miserably, as has every camera, robot, robot claw, robot snake, robot on rollers, etc.
TEPCO also has a history of withholding important facts that also make them very untrustworthy.
But more importantly from an ecological perspective, and a far bigger issue though which is rarely discussed, is the groundwater that moves through the Fukushima site because of the geology of the surrounding features.
- The plant was built on a riverbed, where the volcanic spine of Japan funnels water down from the mountains. Groundwater experts estimate that every single day somewhere between 5-15,000 tonnes of groundwater flow underneath the plant, and out to the Pacific ocean.
Keep in mind, the only remnants of the cumulative 450 tonnes of corium or melted nuclear fuel that has been found are splatter on the insides of the reactors, or pebble-like material and drips.
TEPCO still has not located the 3 melted cores after 8 years of looking, leaving a looming question of how far these cores travelled as they melted, and how much groundwater is making contact with these cores before pouring into the Pacific each day. They are concerned enough that they are still pouring 300 tonnes of water through them daily.
Is it 10 percent – 50 percent – 80 percent? How much of this natural groundwater flow is making contact with the cores, under the plant? We have no idea. If indeed this is occurring, which some Fukushima experts believe that it is, then the 1000 tanks are a ‘drop in the bucket’ in comparison to what may be pouring into the Pacific each and every day.
- We need answers to these questions. It is abhorrent and inexcusable that with today’s known technology, TEPCO does not know where the cores are, 8 years after the accident. We have powerful ground penetrating radar that could likely tell, so why are they not telling us?
Sputnik: It’s been 8 years since the Fukushima disaster. How Japanese authorities adapted to this situation?
Christina Consolo: The Japanese authorities that were in charge at the beginning of this disaster, such as former Prime Minister Kan, have expressed a tremendous amount of regret, and even guilt, over mistakes they made withholding information about how dangerous the situation was from the Japanese people in the early part of the accident.
- The fact TEPCO outright lied that meltdowns had occurred from Day 1, even though every nuclear physicist in the world was aware they had, due to the presence of neutron beams occurring in 13 different locations on the site (which indicated at least one reactor was breached), is difficult to forgive considering the US had an entire fleet of Navy ships offshore providing humanitarian aid that were getting absolutely blasted by nuclear fuel including MOX and plutonium.
PM Abe is very pro-nuclear but his wife is not, making for an ongoing and very publicized drama in Japanese news, and the pushback from massive demonstrations by the Japanese people continue to this day on a weekly basis.
- The people are fighting any and all attempts at restarting reactors, in a very hardcore way. The authorities are pretending everything is fine, focusing on the Olympics in 2020, and I am certain the water will be dumped long before then.
But the tanks are going to just get filled right back up again, after some unfortunate TEPCO workers climb inside and test them for metal fatigue issues.
Sputnik: What has changed in nuclear safety since Fukushima has occurred?
Christina Consolo: In Japan a majority of the reactors still remain shutdown, which is good considering they never should have been built there in the first place.
An article in The Japan Times predicted the Fukushima disaster in 2004, and there are no guarantees that TEPCO will always be able to keep the Fukushima site under control, or another earthquake and tsunami will cause a similar, or even larger disaster at another site, as there are so many littering Japan.
- Japan sits in a highly unstable zone of 4 intersecting tectonic plates and the island has an enormous amount of earthquake and volcanic activity.
The US did review some of its safety measures after 311 but the problem is it keeps re-issuing licenses to old plants, with ageing infrastructure.
And many plants in the US, and worldwide, are also prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, hurricanes, even tornadoes and lightning strikes.
- We have been playing with this very dangerous technology despite having no safe way to dispose of the waste, and many studies done over decades that prove that illnesses and cancer are extremely high the closer that you live to a nuclear plant.
Sputnik: Despite Fukushima explosion, the Japanese government didn’t abandon nuclear energy program. How do you explain this decision?
Christina Consolo: I can not answer that question. There is no logical answer for it, except to decommission a plant is outrageously expensive.
TEPCO announced in the past month it will be decommissioning the Fukushima Daini plant to the south, which also sustained damage in 2011.
- Right now Japan is in a nuclear limbo of sorts, with the water tank problem, the fishery pushback, the Olympics in 2020, and the somewhat surreal efforts of the Japanese government to assure the world it can handle the Olympic athletes and crowds without making them sick.
There are always economic issues to consider, and the costs of decommissioning of two huge nuclear plants, one with 3 melted cores that have never been found.
Japan has a lot of convoluted issues surrounding nuclear and there is always the dark cloud over what is truth or fiction when it comes to TEPCO, and the nuclear industry in general. I really can not explain this decision at all.