Alaska scientists voice concerns on Fukushima nuclear power plant releasing treated radioactive wastewater

Contaminated water stored in years since 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami could have impacts on Alaska seafood industry, scientist says
Fukushima nuclear power plant may release tons of treated radioactive wastewater, potentially impacting Alaska’s waters
Published: Aug. 22, 2023 at 9:39 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may soon be releasing treated and diluted water into the Pacific Ocean, drawing concern from some of Alaska’s top scientific minds.

An announcement from the Prime Minister of Japan on Tuesday gave the Japanese government, Tokyo Electric Power Company and operators of the Fukushima nuclear power plant the green light to be ready for the release of treated radioactive water on Thursday. The State of Alaska is set to monitor the release of wastewater that may be coming into Alaska waters.

The nuclear disaster occurred in 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Over time they’ve been using seawater to cool the melted reactor and then storing the water in tanks, which the Japanese government and its partners have been working to find a solution for.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that 1.34 million tons of water has been filtered and collected and is now being stored in about 1,000 tanks. The Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company say the water has to be removed to help the closure of the facility and to prevent future accidental leaks. The release will be done over time and at a slow pace, with plans to release only 31,200 tons of the treated water by the end of March 2024.

A report in July from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the impact of the release of the water on the environment and human health would be insignificant.

Japanese government leaders say the water will be made safer than international standards after it’s treated and diluted with seawater. Still, there are some Alaska scientists who are still concerned about the impact.

Former University of Alaska Anchorage marine conservation professor Rick Steiner says he’s concerned because the Japanese government could have used better water filtration systems — but did not because they were more expensive. He believes the decision by the Japanese government is unfortunate and disappointing.

“There’s going to be residual radioactive contaminates in this wastewater release,” Steiner said. “They say it will be below regulatory limits, and it may be, but the problem with that is we keep redefining what is safe.”

“Some of the half-lives of these radionuclides that will be coming out are in the thousands of years,” Steiner added. “They’re going to be dumping this radioactive wastewater for the next 20 to 30 years into our Circum-Pacific waters [and] will come to Alaska and California and Hawaii and even Mexico and further west.”

Steiner maintains there will be impacts from the release of the water, but he’s just not sure how severe the impacts will be.

“We don’t know everything about how this will impact marine systems, but we know enough to be worried about it and what will we know 100 years from now that we don’t know now?” Steiner said. “So the idea here is to be cautious and precautionary.”

As a professor of 30 years, he’s studied marine conservation and says the understanding of toxicity from radionucleotides in a marine environment is improving annually, but so far scientists know at lower doses those nucleotides can bioaccumulate in marine food webs.

“Organically-bound triduum, which is one of the elements that will be coming out of there, is a risk,” Steiner said. “Carbon 14 which has a half-life, that’s the amount of time it takes for half of it to decompose, is 5,730 years, so it will be circulating in the North Pacific for the next 50,000 years.”

In regards to the Alaska seafood industry, Greg Smith with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute does not have concerns about the release of the water but is worried about the spreading of misinformation.

“Everything we’ve seen shows there’s really no concern in terms of contamination of seafood or anything of that sort,” Smith said. “It really shouldn’t be anything anybody is worried about from what we’ve seen.”

Kelly Rawalt with the Department of Environmental Conservation responded in a statement saying that the agency has been keeping a close eye on the potential impact of releasing radioactive water into the ocean.

“When the initial Fukushima incident occurred, we coordinated monitoring in partnership with EPA and FDA,” Rawalt said in an email. “EPA focused on air and atmospheric work while the FDA specialized in food consumption.”

The DEC does not have any concerns regarding the release of water, especially with information and results received from ongoing fish tissue monitoring the organization has conducted since 2014.

“At this time, we do not believe there is a risk of contamination from this release,” Rawalt said. “We will continue to actively monitor Alaskan fish through surveillance sampling.

“Additionally, our international partners (World Health Organization, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)) monitor this issue and will notify us of detections from water currents moving over to Alaska which will help inform our ongoing monitoring efforts locally.”