Fukushima is running out of room to store its tons of radioactive water


The company that operates Fukushima’s tsunami-devastated nuclear power plant said on Friday it will run out of space to store radioactive water within three years. Worries are intensifying on what will become of the water and whether a consensus can be reached in time.

Following a massive earthquake in 2011, three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant suffered meltdowns, causing radioactive water to leak from the reactors and mix with the groundwater and rainwater at the plant. The water is being treated but is still slightly radioactive and is stored in 1,000 large tanks, which hold 1 million tons of water.

Within just three years, the project will run out of space to contain its ever-increasing stores of radioactive water. As reported by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, authorities are now left struggling to know what to do with the water build-up before it’s too late.

As part of this ongoing clear up, around 1,000 specialized tanks were built to store the colossal quantities of water that flooded in from the tsunami wave or were used to cool the melted reactors. Some of the water h-as been treated through the removal of cesium, although much of it remains radioactive due to the presence of tritium, a relatively harmless isotope of hydrogen that’s tough to separate from water.

FILE – This Sept. 4, 2017, aerial file photo shows Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant reactors, bottom from right, Unit 1, Unit 2 and Unit 3, in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan. The utility company operating Fukushima’s tsunami-wrecked nuclear power plant said Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 it will run out of space for tanks to store massive amounts of treated but still contaminated water in three years, adding pressure for the government and the public to reach consensus on what to do with the water. (Daisuke Suzuki/Kyodo News via AP, File)

It’s been 9 years since the accident and officials have yet to agree on what to do with the radioactive water. A government-commissioned panel has picked five alternatives, including the controlled release of the water into the Pacific Ocean, which nuclear experts, including members of the International Atomic Energy Agency, say is the only realistic option. Fishermen and residents, however, strongly oppose the proposal, saying the release would be suicide for Fukushima’s fishing and agriculture.

Experts say the tanks pose flooding and radiation risks and hamper decommissioning efforts at the plant. TEPCO and government officials plan to start removing the melted fuel in 2021, and want to free up part of the complex currently occupied with tanks to build safe storage facilities for melted debris and other contaminants that will come out.

In addition to four other options including underground injection and vaporization, the panel on Friday added long-term storage as a sixth option to consider.

Several members of the panel urged TEPCO to consider securing additional land to build more tanks in case a consensus cannot be reached relatively soon.

TEPCO spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said contaminants from the decommissioning work should stay in the plant complex. He said long-term storage would gradually reduce the radiation because of its half-life, but would delay decommissioning work because the necessary facilities cannot be built until the tanks are removed.

Matsumoto declined to specify the deadline for a decision on what to do with the water but said he hopes to see the government lead public debate.

Unfortunately, deciding what to actually do with the radioactive water is a hot debate topic that has yet to be settled. You can’t just store that much water forever, but the fact that it’s contaminated obviously complicates matters greatly.

At present, the most reasonable option seems to be a slow release of the water into the Pacific Ocean, gradually reintroducing it into the environment. Nuclear experts favor this, but the local fishing industry — big business across all of Japan — strongly opposes it out of fear that it could disrupt fish populations.

There are a few other options on the table as well, including vaporizing the water or injecting it deep underground, but no firm decision has been made on the matter. Full decommissioning of the facility will take a long, long time, and deciding where to put the radioactive water is really just one small piece in a much larger puzzle, but let’s hope it gets figured out soon.

As of February 2017, the government counted 2,129 “disaster-related deaths” from the tsunami, including deaths related to stress, suicide and the interruption of medical care. It wasn’t until September 2018 when the Japanese government officially acknowledged the first death due to radiation.