Would it be safe to release Fukushima waste water into the ocean?
Takashi Kawamura, head of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), announced that nearly 777,000 tons of water contaminated with tritium will soon be dumped into the Pacific Ocean. 
Where is this tritiated water coming from? Every day, nearly 400 tonnes of water is poured through the crippled reactors to cool the melted fuel that still remains hot and continue to spew radioactivity. Some of the highly contaminated water that comes out is recycled so that it can be used again to cool the reactors and the remainder is collected in storage tanks to prevent leakage into the ocean.
But the facility is now running out of space to install more tanks to hold and store irradiated water. And there is a huge risk that a new natural disaster can destroy these tanks that are placed only metres away from the ocean, making further contamination a looming issue.
The toxic waste water is processed through a complex filtration device that can eliminate more than 60 types of radioactive materials, including radioisotopes of strontium and caesium. However, it is very difficult and expensive to remove tritium from water. As a result, the water released into the Pacific Ocean would likely still have tritium.
What exactly is tritium?
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, with a half-life of 12.3 years.
Quick facts on tritium:
- Commonly used in making glow-in-the-dark lighting and signs used for airway runways and exit signs.
- Very minute amounts of tritium are created naturally on Earth when cosmic rays react with gases present in the upper atmosphere. This tritium reaches surface waters through rains.
- The isotope is a major by-product of nuclear reactors. Nuclear power stations are known to let loose significant amounts of tritium into air and the world’s oceans.
- Once released, tritium can’t be removed from the environment.
Tritium and health risks
Tritium is associated with some health risks if ingested through food and water, inhaled or absorbed by the skin, for example through an open wound. Unlike other radioisotopes and like hydrogen, tritium can be incorporated into water molecules. So, once it enters the body, it is quickly and evenly distributed throughout the body parts, accumulating into fluids, soft tissues and organs within minutes. In pregnant women, ingested tritium can cross the placenta and directly reach the foetus.
Tritium emits beta particles when it decays. Beta particles are a form of ionizing radiations that destabilize DNA, proteins and other cellular structures, a mechanism that increases the risk of developing cancer and genetic mutations. And on top of it, researchers believe that there is no safe limit when it comes to radiation exposure and even small exposure can cause cancer and other health problems.
Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician, author and anti-nuclear advocate writes that tritium “concentrates in aquatic organisms, including algae, seaweed, crustaceans and fish, and also in terrestrial food. Like all radioactive elements, it is tasteless, odourless and invisible, and will therefore inevitably be ingested in food, including seafood, for many decades. It passes unhindered through the skin if a person is immersed in fog containing tritiated water near a reactor, and also enters the body via inhalation and ingestion. It causes brain tumours, birth deformities and cancers of many organs.” 
Studies have also associated tritium with producing typical radiogenic effects including cancer, genetic effects, developmental abnormalities and reproductive effects . But the fact is that there is still a lot of ambiguity when it comes to risks associated with tritium exposure. We don’t yet have any definite scientific studies that could truly assess and establish the health risks of tritium. According to Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Agency Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, the tritium in Fukushima’s tanks was “so weak in its radioactivity it won’t penetrate plastic wrapping.” 
Nuclear facilities around the world routinely discharge such waste into water. According to TEPCO officials, tritium has a very low radioactivity and its effect will be diluted to a harmless level in a large ocean.
But local fishermen are worried. The news about tritium being released into the sea is likely to impact business and risk their livelihood. Following the 2011 nuclear disaster, considered as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, more than 50 countries imposed a ban on fish and other imports from Japan. While some countries eased out these restrictions eventually, a few still continue to ban imports of fish. The fishing industry is already struggling to recover from these restrictions and this news will create more scepticism around the safety of the catches.
In addition, environmental activists are worried that this decision could set a dangerous precedent for others to dump nuclear waste into oceans. While TEPCO still awaits the official approval from the government as at the date of writing, for now the company’s chairman is positive about moving ahead with the plan despite the opposition from local residents, fishermen and environmental activists.
- Fukushima’s tritiated water to be dumped into sea, Tepco chief says. The Japan Times. July 2017
- Helen Caldicott. The impact of the nuclear crisis on global health. Volume 4, Issue 2 2014, Australian Medical Student Journal
- TRITIUM: HEALTH CONSEQUENCES. NUCLEAR INFORMATION AND RESOURCE SERVICE.
- Fiona Keating. Radioactive waste from Fukushima power plant disaster to be dumped in sea. Independent. July 2017.