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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 19)

07:02 October 19, 2020

Cheap but risky
Japan should not dump irradiated water into sea

Japan is likely to release contaminated water from its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean, heightening public safety concerns. Japanese media reports said Friday that Tokyo has decided to discharge the water with an official announcement expected to come as early as this month.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato denied the reports, saying it was not true that the government had decided on the direction or timing for a decision. However, he noted that Japan can no longer put off a decision on how to deal with the tainted water to avoid delaying the decommissioning of the plant.

Yet his remarks were insufficient to ease fears about a potential discharge of the water into the Pacific Ocean. Japan has been studying different methods of water disposal, including vapor release and underground storage. But experts say there is a high possibility of Tokyo opting for dumping the water into the ocean because it is the cheapest method in the short term.

If Japan decides to discharge the water, it could bring about an environmental disaster. It could certainly destroy the marine ecosystem. Conclusively, the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, which was prompted by an earthquake-triggered tsunami in March 2011, is feared to have far more devastating effects on nature. That is why the accident is the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The radioactive water increases by up to 170 tons every day in the Fukushima plant as rainwater and groundwater are mixed with circulating cooling water that cools the molten nuclear fuel in the reactor. Its total amount reached 1.23 million tons at the end of September. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, is treating the water with a purification device and storing it in tanks on the site.

In this situation, the Japanese government seems to prefer discharging the water into the ocean, citing the limited storage capacity and no other feasible option for disposal. It reportedly is arguing that the release of the water will have little effect on the environment if it is re-purified and diluted.

But tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, cannot be removed from the contaminated water even through reprocessing. This radioactive substance can cause cell damage or deformations that can ultimately lead to cancer, when it accumulates in the human body.

The polluted water, if discharged, could flow into the East Sea between a year and two years after drifting around the Pacific Ocean as far as the coast off California. The fisheries industry in Japan, Korea and other neighboring countries is likely to be hit hard, not to mention the threats to human health.

Now Japan should reconsider its options for water disposal. It should not take a cheap but risky one. It needs to consider other methods that can minimize damage to nature as well as human beings. One viable option is a "long-term storage" proposal made by the international environmental group Greenpeace that can reduce the risks of tritium by storing the water in large tanks for a long time, i.e. 100 years.
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