Japan to release water from Fukushima disaster
Japan's government is asking for international backup as it prepares to release thousands of gallons of water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea. The plan has alarmed the public and outraged fishermen — even as the international energy agency looks inclined to back it.
The controversy comes 11 years after a tsunami swept ashore in 2011 and caused one of the worst nuclear accidents in history — a meltdown in three of the four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 200 miles north of Tokyo.
The plant sits in what was a lush coastal part of Japan, famous for its seafood and delicious fruit. Today, there's still no-go area around the power station where fields lie fallow and homes sit abandoned.
Inside a high security fence studded with warning signs, engineers are still working to remove radioactive fuel rods that melted inside the reactors. They'll be at it for decades.
Another problem is piling up in hundreds of metal tanks on the site: they contain more than a million tons of contaminated water.
The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, or TEPCO, has been collecting radioactive water from rain and runoff over the years. The water has been purified by sophisticated chemical filtering systems that remove harmful radioactive elements like cesium and strontium.
Now, TEPCO says, the time has come to stop adding to the storage problem and begin piping the water into the sea.
The trouble is, it's still contaminated with one radioactive element: tritium.
Tritium occurs in nature, and it also occurs in wastewater that many nuclear power plants around the world release into the ocean. It has a half-life of 12.5 years, which means it turns into completely non-radioactive helium over time. But such is the lack of trust between TEPCO and the Japanese public that the water-release plan has encountered stiff opposition.
"Piping water into the sea is an outrage," said Haruo Ono, who has been fishing the ocean off the coast of Fukushima all his life.
"The sea is not a garbage dump," he said. "The company says it's safe, but the consequences could catch up with us 50 years down the road."
There will be no consequences, says TEPCO. The water will meet all international standards for discharge, and the discharge of the water into the sea — through a long pipe — will only start when all stakeholders have signed off.
Facility manager Kazuo Yamanaka said that even when the pipes and pumps are complete, "that doesn't mean we're allowed to start getting rid of the water."
"The local community must sign off first, so we've been talking constantly with the local fishermen and residents of the communities," he said.
To prove the discharged water will not harm fish, TEPCO has been raising flounder inside the nuclear plant. They flourish in tanks filled with tritium-laced water. Then, once they're transferred to normal sea water, lab tests show they flush the tritium from their systems within days.
The International Atomic Energy Agency broadly backs TEPCO's water release plan, which is slated to go ahead later this year.
But Haruo Ono, the fisherman, said the science is not the issue.
"People don't understand it," he said. "Mothers won't choose Fukushima fish knowing it's been swimming in radioactive water. Even if the experts say it's safe."
Under current rules, he can only take his fishing vessels out to sea a day or two a week, when he gets the OK from the government.
"This is the end of my livelihood," he said.
Critics argue that Japan, prone to massive earthquakes and devastating tsunamis, should never have developed nuclear power. But with no oil or gas of its own, and anxious to reduce its reliance on coal, Japan built 17 nuclear plants, which provided efficient reliable energy — until disaster struck and Japan was forced to reckon with the true cost of nuclear power gone wrong.
The Fukushima nuclear plant won't be safely decommissioned for years to come. So far taxpayers have paid $90 billion to clean it up.
Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."
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