Editorial: Contamination of the sea must be contained

Radioactive water is discharged from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant

More than three weeks have passed the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake rocked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but a resolution to the nuclear crisis is still nowhere in sight.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has begun discharging more than 10,000 tons of relatively low-level radioactive water into the sea. The fact that TEPCO was forced to break this taboo indicates the gravity of the situation.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimates that there are about 60,000 tons of highly contaminated water in the basement of the building housing the No. 2 reactor and in other areas. The water is showing extremely high levels of radiation, over 10 million Bq/cm3 at some locations.

In order to create some space for this highly contaminated water, TEPCO has decided to discharge the lower-level waste water into the sea from the “central environmental facility,” a facility to treat radioactively-contaminated water, and other places. This is a kind of “domino-style” relocation of contaminated water.

TEPCO had been striving to contain the radioactive contamination within the plant. The release of the contaminated water into the environment is a complete reversal of policy, and the company’s explanation of this step is far from sufficient.

As a result of the tsunami and the ongoing efforts to inject water to cool the reactors and the spent fuel pools, a large amount of radioactive water has accumulated in the basement of the reactor buildings as well as in the vertical shafts outside.

Some of the contaminated water was found to be leaking into the sea from a crack in the pit near the water intake. TEPCO tried to stop the leak using cement, polymers, and sawdust, without visible effect.

From the very beginning, TEPCO must have known that the issue of the waste water would become a major problem. TEPCO, and the national government, which have been taking makeshift measures, cannot evade their responsibility for this dilemma.

Water continues to be injected in the four units in the hope of cooling the volatile fuel. In order to stop the further accumulation of contaminated water, the power supply must be restored to restart the cooling systems of the reactors and spent fuel pools, but it is unclear when this will become possible.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said yesterday: “There was no other choice but to accept the release of the water in order to prevent more serious damage.” This move was probably accepted as an emergency measure before the highly contaminated water can be transferred to the artificial island “Mega-Float” and temporary tanks that are being prepared.

The government was apparently forced to choose a partial release of the low-level water in order to stave off the worst-case scenario of a possible meltdown of all the cores and explosions of the nuclear reactors.

However, releasing this water into the sea will have a grave impact, particularly on fisheries. It was only after high levels of radioactive iodine and cesium were detected in sand lance caught off the shore of Ibaraki Prefecture that the government hastily issued an interim safety level of radiation for consuming fish.

Cases have now arisen where the fish caught in these areas is rejected at fish markets. Preventing contaminated fish from reaching the marketplace is vital. At the same time, sufficient compensation must be provided to the affected fishermen, including those who are suffering as a consequence of harmful rumors.

Questions involving how the radiation contamination is actually spreading in the ocean and how radiation will be concentrated through the food chain are not fully understood. A wide-ranging monitoring system must be installed to check the sea water, fishery products, and plankton.

According to a projection of the ocean contamination by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), the contaminated sea water will not necessarily spread in all directions but move from the coast along the Black Current. The fact the Japanese government has not even disclosed such data is inexplicable.

In order to minimize contamination to the ocean, all the wisdom from Japan and abroad must be mobilized to resolve this formidable problem.

(Originally published on April 6, 2011)