Fukushima radioactive water

Water at Fukushima nuclear plant still radioactive, reveals TEPCO

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has revealed that much of the water stored at the disaster-stricken nuclear plant – that the Japanese government was considering releasing into the Pacific Ocean – is still radioactive. This disturbing admission has indeed complicated the on-going decommissioning process, which is already marred by a number of other factors.

In mid-2017, TEPCO had issued statements that they are ready to release approximately 777,000 tons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. This water was accumulated as tons of water needs to be constantly poured into the reactors to cool down the molten fuel. TEPCO then emphasized that the irradiated water is filtered through an elaborate filtering system – ALPS (advanced liquid processing system) – which is capable of removing 61 types of radioactive elements including strontium-90 and Cesium, hence it is now free of radioactive material – except for tritium.

So, it was confirmed that the filtered water still contains small amounts of tritium, as it is almost impossible to filter out tritium, a common radioactive waste from nuclear operations around the world. And TEPCO also claimed that the levels of tritium in the treated water are safe and within legal limits; and that tritium is harmful only if it is ingested in large amounts. We have already covered this news in detail and also health risks of tritium in one of our previous blogs: here.

And now TEPCO admits that the “treated” water (believed to be free from radioactive materials all these years) is still loaded with high amounts of radioactive material, much higher than legally permissible limits. The utility had been waiting for the government’s approval before moving ahead with releasing the tritium-laced water into the ocean.
More radioactive content than permissible limits?

After claiming for years that the treated water is perfectly safe to go into the ocean, TEPCO, in late September admitted that more than 80 per cent of the treated water stored in tanks still contains high concentrations of radioactive material. And this radioactivity is present at the levels that clearly exceeds the safe limits set by the government.

In nearly 65,000 tons of the water that has been treated through the ALPS system, the levels of strontium 90 have been found to be 100 times above the safe levels. And in some tanks, these levels are as high as 20,000 times the levels designated safe by the government. According to the Telegraph: “ALPS has consistently failed to eliminate a cocktail of other radioactive elements, including iodine, ruthenium, rhodium, antimony, tellurium, cobalt and strontium.” [1]

Why did the ALPS system fail? TEPCO explained that they encountered some problems with the filtering system in the initial stages itself. In addition to these hiccups, TEPCO also admitted to reducing the rate at which absorbents (that are used to get rid of radioactive elements) were replaced. This was done to keep the APLS working smoothly for a longer time, but clearly this decision has backfired. In spite of being aware of these challenges, the utility failed to disclose its “modus operandi”.

TEPCO is now running out of space and it is becoming increasingly challenging to store this much amount of water at the site. While some experts think storing may not really be such a big problem, the tanks still occupy a very large area and could hinder the decommissioning process. In addition, 900 tanks, where this water is currently stored, are situated very close to the ocean. Any new disaster has the potential to make these tanks collapse, which will invariably add to the radioactive contamination. These factors have been very much instrumental in the operator’s and the government’s decision to get rid of the water stored in these tanks as soon as possible.

However, these revelations have put TEPCO back on the radar, not to mention that the government authorities are facing criticism for not making sure if the utility company had revealed accurate information to the public. An Editorial piece from The Asahi Shimbun very aptly puts it as: “The ministry, for its part, should be held accountable for its failure to ensure appropriate disclosure of the information by TEPCO. The subcommittee should be faulted for concentrating its attention almost exclusively on tritium.” [2]

What could this mean to your health?

Radioactive isotopes continue emitting radiations for a long time. These ionizing radiations can destroy cells and their DNA along with other sub-structures. This sort of cellular damage can cause cancer and many non-cancerous diseases – such as heart disease, thyroid cancer, cataracts, hormonal imbalance, weakened immunity, birth defects, infertility, anemia and neurological damage.

Strontium-90 (Sr-90), for example, has a half-life of 29 years. It is also soluble in water. This means Sr-90 can remain in the environment long enough to cause serious damage. It can be easily consumed through water and food. In addition to causing DNA damage and increasing one’s risk of getting cancer, strontium 90 can harm your health in one more way.

Most radioactive elements mimic nutrients and so can easily enter your body, where they keep emitting highly energetic particles that damage your cells and tissues. Now, strontium 90 fools your body by imitating calcium. In this way it builds up in the bones – damaging bones and the bone marrow, the site at which red blood cells and white blood cells are produced. Bone marrow damage can cause anemia and low immunity. Sr-90 can also cause cancers of the bone and bone marrow.

Similarly, Cesium 137 (Cs-137) mimics potassium, a mineral that is extremely important for the health of your nervous system, heart and other muscles. If you have a low potassium status and are exposed to Cs-137, your body will readily accept Cs-137, which clearly affects your heart health. Chronic exposure to Cs-137 can cause heart attack, arrhythmias or irregular heart beat and even high blood pressure.

As previously discussed, it is misleading to say that tritium is harmless in small amounts. If ingested, tritium easily and quickly finds its way into body fluids and soft tissues. It can also cross placenta and harm the fetus. Tritium emits beta particles that are considered even more dangerous than gamma rays and X rays, according to Shaun Burnie, a Greenpeace nuclear specialist. [1] It is true that we don’t have many studies proving the risks around tritium exposure, but some studies do point out that it can cause cancer and birth defects.

Now what?

After investing hundreds of millions of dollars in cleaning up the mess for over more than seven years, it is certainly a cause for concern for all stakeholders that the treated water from the plant still has dangerously high levels of radioactive isotopes. Costly initiatives like the ice wall have also failed to yield the desired results, leaving the administration with more problems than solutions.

A whopping $320 million underground ice wall was built to prevent the groundwater from mixing with the contaminated water leaking from the nuclear plant. Unfortunately, the ice wall has proved to be a costly investment with low returns. Apart from its massive construction costs, the ice wall requires more than 1 billion Yen ($9.5 million) annually in operating and maintenance costs. Even by the most generous estimation, the ice wall has only partially mitigated the ground water crisis without solving the problem itself.
And we have new discoveries to prove how these nuclear accidents can impact our environment (and health) in ways not previously imagined. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that sands and the brackish groundwater below the beaches (tens of kilometers away from the site of action) are loaded with the highest concentrations of Cs-137. It is a common perception that the ocean or the groundwater would have the highest amount of radioactive cesium. Now, when cesium comes into contact with salty water carried through waves from the ocean, it separates from the sand and is ferried way into the ocean. [3]

In addition, it was earlier believed that all the radioactive Cesium released after the Fukushima nuclear disaster was soluble in water. But now, another form of Cs-137 has come under the spotlight. This form has been found trapped within extremely small glass microparticles, formed when high temperature melted the concrete and metal in the building. These particles can be inhaled. There are newer findings in regard to the aftermaths of nuclear accidents, the types of particles that are released into the environment and how they can harm us.

In fact, new studies are also shedding light on how even low dose exposure to ionizing radiation can affect your health, especially your heart health. [4] These are important findings as effects of low dose chronic exposure are not taken too seriously owing to a lack of solid evidence.

Criticism from the all quarters

Not surprisingly, local fishermen, environmental activists and residents all stand united in their opposition against dumping this toxic water into the ocean. Releasing radioactive water would not only create waves of fear among people, also affecting the livelihood of local fishermen’s but is also likely to set a dangerous example for other operators to follow.

In addition, activists from South Korea and Taiwan are worried that the radioactivity unleashed into the ocean will eventually end up on their shores. People around the world are wary of buying food products coming from Fukushima or nearby areas. While many countries have lifted the restriction on food imports from the disaster-stricken areas, some like South Korea and China, have the ban very much in place.

TEPCO still plans to treat the irradiated water using the ALPS system so that it can be released. Whether this will turn out to be the right strategy, only time will tell. But one thing is certain that it might delay the decommissioning work. And TEPCO’s reputation has once again taken a serious blow with these admissions.

References:

1. Julian Ryall. Japan plans to flush Fukushima water ‘containing radioactive material above permitted levels’ into the ocean. The Telegraph. 2018.
2. EDITORIAL: TEPCO bungles it again in dealing with Fukushima tainted water. The Asahi Shimbun. 2018.
3. Sanial et al. Unexpected source of Fukushima-derived radiocesium to the coastal ocean of Japan. PNAS 2017.
4. Azimzadeh et al. Proteome analysis of irradiated endothelial cells reveals persistent alteration in protein degradation and the RhoGDI and NO signalling pathways. Internation Journal of Radiation Biology. 2017