Radiant Controversy: Fukushima’s Tritium Decision Ignites a Global Debate on Nuclear Environmentalism

Written by: Socha Verbeke

Edited by: Emilia MacDonald

An earthquake and 15 metre tsunami hit Japan in 2011, damaging all four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Scientists on site added water to the reactors to help absorb radiation and stabilise nuclear chain reactions, filling tanks to 1.3 million tonnes of water. This is roughly the size of 500 Olympic sized swimming pools. 

In a decision sparking international criticism, the International Atomic Energy Agency approved of Japan’s disposal strategy initiated in August 2023. This strategy is based around  the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) from the contaminated water, leaving only tritium behind. Tritium, the sole survivor of this rigorous purification process, is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Tritium emits weak beta-radiation and cannot penetrate the skin or harm the human body in diluted amounts  This decision might serve as a beacon of normalcy in the realm of nuclear waste disposal. While undeniably contentious, the approval of this strategy on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency reflects a dedication to protect public health and the ocean.

However, this landmark decision has received global criticism. Public perception, it seems, is playing a pivotal role in discourse surrounding nuclear energy and security. For example, protests have erupted in Japan’s neighbouring countries of China and South Korea, sparked by concern surrounding potential environmental and national safety threats. 

Across the globe, nuclear facilities routinely discharge water containing tritium into rivers and oceans, strictly adhering to local laws and regulations. Peer reviewed studies have substantiated the minimal environmental and health impact of tritium, even when substantial quantities of tritium-laced water are accidentally released.

Paul Dickman, a senior policy fellow specialising in nuclear energy at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, asserts that this practice is a standard procedure: “Nuclear reactors naturally produce tritium, and releasing trace amounts into the air or water represents the most effective method of management.”. Dickman also emphasized that, “Anything containing water inherently carries tritium, from the human body to the food we consume, from the air we breathe to the vast oceans.”

Japan is committed to transparency, rigorous scientific review, and adherence to established standards. Fukushima’s approach to tritium disposal reflects a meticulous dedication to maintaining harmony between humanity and the planet. It remains to be seen how history will remember this momentous decision, but one thing is certain: Fukushima’s quest to protect both human health and the environment stands as a testament to responsible stewardship in the age of nuclear energy, amid a backdrop of complex geopolitical dynamics and public perception.

Image source

By 資源エネルギー庁ウェブサイト, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136393132.


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