Nuclear waste disposal is one of the most perplexing dilemmas of modern society—and now the country of Japan is confronting the issue head on.
The cleanup of the affected areas around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is still underway after over six years since the tragic accident occurred. In this year, now that the country has moved beyond initial relief and efforts to avoid mass environmental contamination, one important question still seems to remain: how should the government dispose of the more than one million metric tons of radioactive water currently being held at the nuclear facility. The highly dangerous materials are being housed in 900 tanks.
The good news is that tests carried out in the most immediately affected area indicate that seafood is safe to consume. Moreover, the tritium-rich water housed in the tanks has been treated, and all radioactive elements of the hydrogen isotope have for the most part been removed. The issue then becomes when and how to remove the large amounts.
Experts fear that in the event of another disaster, there would be no mechanisms in place to control the water from spilling. They argue that slowly releasing the water—in small, monitored amounts—is the safest option available to Japan. Dr. Naoya Sekiya, a University of Tokyo expert on disaster information and social psychology, agrees with the strategy, but cautions that no action should be taken without the government first informing the public and allowing adequate time to voice their concerns: “A release only based on scientific safety, without addressing the public’s concerns, cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said, wisely adding, “A release when people are unprepared would only make things worse.”
Still yet, there are local fishermen who fear that news about the water disposal will have negative economic consequences, as it will possibly affect consumer opinions about the safety of local fish. “People would shun Fukushima fish again as soon as the water is released,” shares Fumio Haga, a drag-net fisherman from Iwaki, a city which is located on the coast only about 50 kilometers south of the nuclear plant.
A government expert panel—which Dr. Sekiya is a part of—was the immense task of deciding the fate of water a year ago, and until now all discussions have ended in deadlock. The country is facing a situation that is essentially a race against time, as the levels of radioactive water at the facility have been increasing by 150 metric tons.
The cooling water that pumped into the nuclear reactors in order as a standard overheating prevention measure, in turn, becomes contaminated through contact. After this stage of the process, it is slowly released from the containment chambers, where it pools in the basement and mixes with groundwater that enters the reactor via small cracks. The cycle—which creates a growing problem for the facility—will contain until the process of proper disposal begins.
Japan has to walk an incredibly fine line in this situation, balancing and taking into the voices of public opinion, concerned scientists, as well authorities in the Fukushima Plant.