Nuclear experts offer to ‘take a sip’ of Japan’s treated reactor wastewater

Tahitian anti-nuclear activist Hinamoeura Cross and her baby Marunui
Tahitian anti-nuclear activist Hinamoeura Cross and her baby Marunui . . . she says all of the women she loves and looked up to were "poisoned" by French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Image: Hinamoeura Cross/RNZ News

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

Independent nuclear experts have offered to drink water and eat fish from the Pacific Ocean after Japan dumps its nuclear waste water into the Pacific.

Japan is planning to ditch over one million tonnes of ALPS-treated radioactive wastewater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean over 30 to 40 years starting from sometime this year.

ALPS is an Advanced Liquid Processing System.

New Zealand and Australian experts told media at an online panel discussion hosted by NZ’s Science Media Centre that Japan had good intentions.

The experts said they believed that as long as the wastewater was tested before it was released the operation would be safe.

Two even went as far as saying they would “take a sip” of the treated wastewater.

“I would drink the water. I mean, it’s like going down to the beach and swallowing a mouthful of water when you’re swimming,” said University of Auckland physics senior lecturer Dr David Krofcheck.

“It’s saltwater. I prefer the desalinated before I drink it,” he added. Dr Krofcheck specialises in nuclear physics and natural radiation from the environment.

“Would I eat the fish? Yes, I would,” Adelaide University’s School of Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences associate professor Tony Hooker added.

‘The least bad option’
The contaminated water has been used to cool the melted reactor of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

More than 1000 tanks are now full and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is running out of storage space.

Japan has said it will treat the water to ensure it is harmless. It will also dilute the water and then release it into the Pacific Ocean.

Dr Krofcheck said that option was the “best one”.

“That’s probably the least bad option. Not that that’s a bad option. Because the dose, or the amount of tritium being diluted is so small. But I think the least bad option is releasing,” he said.

Ocean circulation modeller and researcher in Taiwan, Professor Chau-Ron Wu, told media he predicted the water from Fukushima would take 2-3 years to reach North America, one year to get to Taiwan and sweep across much of the Pacific.

No release date has been set, but associate professor Tony Hooker said that what was known is, “The water is going to be released in [northern hemisphere] summer 2023.”

“I think the release is imminent. And I guess that will be a decision for the Japanese government. Ultimately, they can make that decision. They don’t need to rely on the International Atomic Energy Agency or any other agency.”

Associate professor Hooker said that as long as it was only tritium and carbon 14 that’s released, and in small quantities, he is confident it would be safe.

Dr Krofcheck agrees: “I’m very comfortable with releasing it, as long as we can guarantee the Royal Science Society can guarantee that the nasty strontium, caesium, iodine, cobalt 60 can be removed”.

They will be removed by an ALPS.

“So, most of the ALPS processes are using a zeolite clay and which is very absorbent. Once the water has gone through that the radionuclides are bound to a solid, you can dry that out and store it as radioactive waste,” Hooker explained.

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Nuclear power station staff . . . they have the means and resources but there is still a lot of uncertainty across the Pacific about the water release project. Image: RNZ Pacific/AFP/IAEA

‘I really thought they reconsider it’
There is still a lot of uncertainty across the Pacific about the release project.

Japan is in talks with the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and has been providing data to their independent expert panel to analyse, which Hooker is a part of.

He acknowledged those who want to end nuclear waste dumping, which he says already happens around the world.

“Whilst there’s no issues from a radiation safety perspective about putting this radiation into the sea, should there be some level of discussion or intensive research about how we can minimise disposing into the sea in the future?”

‘Retraumatising’ for Tahitian
A Mā’ohi anti-nuclear activist in Tahiti, Hinamoeura Cross, found the news of Japan pushing forward with its plans despite backlash retraumatising.

“I’m really shocked by what the Japanese are going to do. We know that they have planned that for many years, but I really thought that they will reconsider that,” Cross said.

For her, all nuclear issues are personal. Japan’s plans are of interest in particular as they impact on her ocean, the Pacific.

“I remember my great grandmother and my grandmother that were sick. Then my mum and my auntie, they had the thyroid cancer,” Cross said.

When Cross was aged about 10, her sister got sick and at 23-years-old she was diagnosed with leukaemia.

All of the women she loves and looked up to were “poisoned” by French nuclear testing in the Pacific, she said.

Now that she is a mother of two, her voice has become staunchly against nuclear colonialism. She wants better healthcare for survivors of French nuclear testing.

“I’m anxious about the health care of my children; are they going to be sick or not? We really need this healthcare in Tahiti because of the 193 nuclear bomb (tests that France detonated in the Pacific),” Cross said.

Pacific reacts to Japan’s plans
Pacific leaders have been voicing their views on the upcoming release, which Japan says it needs to do in an effort to make progress on decommissioning the power plant.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape is the latest leader to issue his support after being assured of the project’s safety by Japan.

Safety is a sentiment echoed by TEPCO, the owners of the plant.

“The release into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear (plant) would be the most realistic approach,” TEPCO Chief Officer for ALPS treated water management Junichi Matsumoto told RNZ Pacific in January 2023.

Damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011.
Damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011 . . . a release into the sea . . . the most realistic” option. Image: TEPCO/RNZ News

The dumping operation is expected to take between 30 and 40 years as it needs to be treated by the ALPS system and then diluted by sea water to meet regulatory standards.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is reviewing the processes.

The IAEA’s latest report has found TEPCO has managed to demonstrate it can measure the radionuclides in the treated water stored on site accurately and precisely.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

Hinamoeura Cross with a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Vienna
A member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) with Hinamoeura Cross in Vienna, Austria. Image: Hinamoeura Cross/RNZ News
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