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International help, political solutions for irradiated water
Publication Date : 09-09-2013
An underground ice wall is the Japanese government's latest effort to combat the worsening situation of leaking irradiated water at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. East Asian nations are especially anxious about the situation in light of recent developments revealing that the leakage is worse than previously thought. Three hundred tonnes of contaminated water are leaking into the ocean every day, according to a Reuters report published by The China Post on August 8.
Concerns are being raised that that Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) has proven itself incapable of handling the problem. Calls for outside intervention have come from specialists such as Mycle Schneider, an independent consultant on energy and nuclear policy, who offers scathing criticism of Japan's handling of the meltdown in an article on August 30.
International participation in the long-term management of the crisis is necessary. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's declaration that “the government will step forward and take charge” as he announced the plan is important in asserting that the country is renewing its push to handle the crisis, but the scope of a contamination fallout is so dreadful that Japan should reach out and enlist help.
On the political level, it is time for regional players to join Japan in discussing the various ways of handling the matter — though it should really be Japan initiating the interaction. The elephant in the room, which countries categorically deny, is the prospect of Japan having to release the contaminated water eventually, albeit after a diluting treatment. It is possible that agreement about the handling of the irradiated water, including potentially dumping it into the ocean, will be a requirement for advancement on the issue.
The unproven nature of the ice wall technology is a major cause for worry. According to the AP, a similar wall was constructed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a plutonium production plant, but was used for only six years whereas the current plan envisions the wall holding for the duration of the decommissioning process, estimated at around 40 years.
US$470 million will be allocated for the plan, which according to the AP consists of two parts — coolant will be injected to freeze soil, creating a barrier intercepting contaminated water, and water treatment units will be upgraded to remove radioactive elements except for tritium.
The ice wall was “pretty effective” at trapping tritium, according to Dirk Van Hoesen, a manager at the laboratory, as quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. Nonetheless, Japan's undertaking is of a much larger scale.
A panel of professionals to manage the crisis, such as the International Task Force Fukushima (ITFF) suggested by Schneider, should be seriously considered by the Japanese government. Comprising experts in technological fields related to handling nuclear meltdowns, the panel would be able to provide timely advice to the Japanese government with regards to the decommissioning and possible associated crises.
Tepco continuously injects water to cool the molten fuel rods produced by the crisis. The wastewater then adds to the accumulated storage in water tanks at the basement of the site. In addition to the 300 tons that Tepco is unable to capture in its storage tanks every day, reports on Aug. 20 of the leak of one of the tanks, with the escape of roughly 300 tons of irradiated water, shows the precarious nature of both the known and unknown strains on the current system of containment. The continuous leak of water into the ocean shows that seawater is being poisoned at a continuous rate, slowly corrupting a source of life on which our lives depend. The discovery that a storage tank has failed highlights the continued risk of random failings in the system, and thereby its inadequacies.
South Korea on Friday expanded its prohibition on fishery imports from Japan to include eight prefectures. As neighbouring countries refocus on the crisis, it is time also for a calm discussion of the eventual fate of the contaminated water — which Shunichi Tanaka, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman, says will have to be let into the sea at some point in the future.
No country welcomes the prospect of seeing polluted water in its front porch. Yet it is time for Japan to begin initiating discussion with neighbors to start coming to some agreements on the matter.