December 8, 2023

Safe or septic – Japan’s nuclear wastewater dumping

Safe or septic – Japan's nuclear wastewater dumping

There are diplomatic headaches and heated scientific debates after Japan revealed plans to dump the wastewater it’s been using to cool the Fukushima nuclear power plant – in the Pacific

There’s one thing University of Auckland nuclear physics lecturer Dr David Krofcheck wants to make clear.

“On my interviews I get terrible headlines, like ‘Scientist says he will drink radioactive water’ or ‘Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider – becomes Spiderman,” he says.

“No – the idea is I would drink the water if they filtered out all of the radio nuclei and diluted it.” 

He’s talking about Japan’s plans to dump nuclear wastewater in the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was destroyed in a tsunami and earthquake in March 2011. 

The issue is causing a few headaches diplomatically – and debates around whether the science says it’s safe or not.

Sea and ground water has been used to cool the damaged reactors, and now there’s about 1.3 million tonnes of that sitting in tanks while the Japanese government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) figure out what to do with it.

They want to release the wastewater into the ocean – diluting all the cancer-causing nuclear fission products out of it – such as caesium, which can build up in muscles, strontium-90 which can build up in bones and iodine-129 which can build up in the thyroid.

What can’t be diluted is tritium, but Krofcheck says this occurs naturally in the ecosystem.

Despite concerns raised by Pacific nations around Japan’s lack of transparency, Krofcheck believes it has now been open about the reality of its plans. 

“Besides the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had three or four labs in Vienna looking at water samples, I know now there’s another dozen laboratories that have looked at the water samples from sets of water tanks from the United States and France and Germany. Independent labs have verified that what the Japanese TEPCO are telling us is actually correct.”

But not all scientists agree, as journalist Nic Maclellan, a Melbourne-based correspondent with Islands Business magazine, tells The Detail.

“The Pacific Islands Forum has been especially critical, and appointed an independent scientific panel to investigate safety issues around the proposed dumping,” he says.

“The panel has raised a series of issues around the quality of the sampling, the cost of the sampling, the cost of the programme over decades, the maintenance of safety sampling and the fact that they really don’t know whether Japan can maintain the quality that will stop other radioactive isotopes being released into the ocean.”

There are also questions over whether the wastewater dump is a breach of the Treaty of Rarotonga, signed in 1985, which created a South Pacific nuclear-free zone.

It was largely about nuclear weapons, but article seven talks about preventing nuclear waste dumping. 

“Japan has been acting as if these safety concerns are not serious and it’s taken a lot of pressure for Japan to be dragged kicking and screaming into addressing questions, many of which are still unresolved,” Maclellan says.

Aukus is also a factor now – a security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and United States. The main news out of that is the US and UK will help Australia get nuclear-powered submarines.

“The nuclear submarines are a breach of the spirit of the Rarotonga treaty. There’s going to be interesting debates about a technical definition of whether this is … a breach of the letter as well as the spirit,” Maclellan says.

Find out more from both points of view by listening to the full episode.

Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter

Would you like to receive notifications on latest updates? No Yes