Concrete Alternative: A Better Solution for Fukushima’s Contaminated Water Than Ocean Dumping

June 16, 2023
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress

Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station. (Fukushima, Japan) Photo Credit: Tokyo Electric Power Co., TEPCO (Src: Wikipedia Commons)

Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station. (Fukushima, Japan) Photo Credit: Tokyo Electric Power Co., TEPCO (Src: Wikipedia Commons)

Japan plans to discharge a vast amounts, 1.3 billion liters of contaminated water through a 1 kilometer pipeline into the Pacific over a period of at least 30 years and likely much longer. This process will likely start late this summer and may have profound detrimental economic and social effects on fisheries in Japan, and the region as well. The word “discharge” is used, but the action would be considered “dumping” under the London Convention if it were done by throwing barrels overboard. TEPCO has initiated testing methods for this process June 12, albeit using fresh water rather than the actual contaminated water. The quantity of this water is resulting from the battle against the core meltdown of the reactors, and the groundwater that continues to flow into the reactors. From my perspective and with the Picture a cube of water 110 m (about an American football field) on each side and is located in more than 1,000 large tanks on the Fukushima Daiichi premises. Dealing with the water is of paramount importance because of the risk of an earthquake or inclement weather leading to ruptures in the tanks.

Japan’s plans to dump the ALPS treated water into the ocean have not occurred without international scrutiny. As early as 2022, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) assembled a panel of global experts to independently evaluate Japan’s plan. The expert panel includes Dr. Ken Buesseler, Dr. Arjun Makhijani (President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research), Dr. Antony Hooker (Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Radiation Research, Education and Innovation at The University of Adelaide), Dr. Robert H. Richmond (Research Professor and Director at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa) and me. I am humbled and honoured to be part of this group of distinguished, multidisciplinary group of scientists.

This panel’s formation was prompted by the 9th PALM Meeting on July 2, 2021, where Forum Leaders emphasized the importance of international consultation, adherence to international law, and the necessity of independent, verifiable scientific assessments in response to Japan’s announcement. Part of the problem was that during meetings Japan would present highly technical plans which are intimidating, and overwhelming for the most seasoned, battle-hardened scientists, while the audience in the PIF were not trained as scientists. The Pacific Island Forum leaders have demonstrated remarkable wisdom and adaptability in their recent engagement with scientific discourse. While not necessarily scientists themselves, they have shown a remarkable ability to acclimate to scientific jargon over the past year. This expert panel was thus convened to provide independent technical advice to Pacific nations as part of their ongoing dialogue with Japanese governmental officials (METI (Ministry of Energy, Technology and Industry), MOFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), NRA (Nuclear Regulatory Agency)), representatives of the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO), and the IAEA. Readers do not need to be reminded of the twin catastrophes of global climate change and nuclear testing, for which the Pacific islanders are not to blame but have sadly witnessed firsthand. Japan is eager to be on good terms with the Pacific Islands not least because the Pacific Islands control the richest tuna waters on the planet, an area of the Blue Pacific roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the United States.

Last week we released a memo describing an alternative solution to TEPCO’s plan that involves solidifying the ALPS treated wastewater within concrete. You can download the memo from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Café Thorium here.

Solidifying the wastewater in concrete has multiple benefits over ocean dumping. It would allow all the water to be processed and removed from the tanks in as little as 5 years, considerably faster than the 30+ year timeframe for ocean disposal. The tritium (which along with carbon-14 is not removed from the water) would remain trapped inside the concrete with negligible dose outside or on its surface since tritium betas cannot penetrate the skin, resulting in minimal external exposure. Essentially no harmful particles would exit the concrete and no Geiger counter could measure it. Japan consumes approximately 40 million tons of cement annually, according to the Japanese Cement Association. If cement usage patterns in Japan are comparable to those in the United States, roughly one third of that amount, or 13 million tons, is likely used for making concrete for applications with minimal human contact or exposure. Given this, a significant portion of the ALPS treated wastewater could potentially be utilized for concrete required for various purposes at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant site itself. This could include concrete for barrier walls, storage containers, stabilizing radioactive soil piles, and other similar applications. Using concrete for low human contact is not without precedent as Japan plans to recycle far more radioactive soil for civil works projects which is another controversial topic domestically. In addition, fresh water (the equivalent of the amount of drinking water for nearly 2 million people annually) would be conserved since it is not used for manufacturing providing environmental benefits. As a non-transboundary alternative, concrete encapsulation would likely be advantageous for Japan in its relations with other countries and domestically especially its fishing industry which would likely be severely affected.

We have mentioned this viable alternative option to Japan’s governmental agencies and TEPCO more than 9 months ago when we released a memo discussing the idea and have mentioned it to them ever since then at every meeting. However, Japan has outright rejected the concept and is now proceeding with its plans to discharge ALPS treated nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean. Japan’s rebuttal of the alternative option we propose is found here in the MOFA press release of the meeting that we had last week.

“The PIF experts proposed a plan to use ALPS treated water in making concrete. The Japanese side explained that the disposal measure of ALPS treated water has been reviewed by experts in the past and responded that the heat generated during concrete mixture evaporates tritium contained in ALPS treated water into the air, that concrete which contains ALPS treated water is classified as radioactive waste under domestic law, and that the mass of ALPS treated water that is currently stored is enormous and will be greater after its dilution and etc. With regard to above, Japan has responded that the suggested proposal is difficult due to technical and legal aspects.”

I note several flaws with it.

  1. The option that Japan has investigated and rejected is completely different from what we propose. One way it is different is that it suggested using diluted water rather than ALPS treated water which will be 2 orders of magnitude less in volume. We have pointed this out to them repeatedly. In fact, the report that Japan/TEPCO sent to use was not the correct report.
  2. They mentioned that the “heat generated evaporates tritium”. It is true that water bleeding from concrete during curing is known issue but because water globally is such a precious commodity there are known methods of dealing with this. There is a global problem because concrete is the second most used material in the world next only to water and concrete uses vast amounts of water. The quantity of water in the tanks is equivalent to the annual drinking water for almost 2 million people. Using ALPS treated water rather than potable water for low contact application would free up a vast amount of water that can be used for other purposes.
  3. The press release mentions that the “concrete which contains ALPS treated water is classified as radioactive waste”. This is true and is an impediment to the alternative option we propose. However, it should be noted that Japan already plans to use large amounts of contaminated soil for low human contact applications which is vastly more radioactive than the ALPS treated water. Furthermore, with a little bit of creativity legal issues can be resolved. It seems the legal “radioactive waste” issue is addressable by Japan’s NRA, and the definition could be amended. This would remove the transboundary and ALARA issues, which they would be violating by pursuing their present plans.

As we have said repeatedly Japan has a possibility to clearly lead in the area of managing the 1.3 million (and growing) tons of ALPS treated water in a responsible and sustainable way rather than choosing the easiest, cheapest, status quo way of simply dumping the contaminated water into the sea. TEPCO sees an urgency claiming that TEPCO is running out of space on its property for constructing more tanks (satellite imagery shows otherwise). In 2016, TEPCO’s “Tritiated Water Task Force” released a report for dealing with waste water, although four of the six ideas were impractical and were likely included as “decoys” for their preferred choice. This resulted in an asymmetric dominance effect, making the two of the more realistic solutions seem more desirable. This gives the impression that a broad suite of options were considered when perfectly viable alternatives as what we propose was not included. Nevertheless, as we have discussed there are other options that should have been examined which we have mentioned to TEPCO. However, it became quite clear in our deliberations early on that Japan was not open to other ideas, wanted the PIF leaders to give automatic approval but the PIF leaders were wiser than that. In the end this is a missed opportunity to finally do something bold and new that will not have transboundary implications or marine life. Instead, Japan has chosen the cheapest (see pg 7 of link) and the easy way out. TEPCO often presents a slide showing the legal dumping of tritiated water across the globe as kind of a “gotcha” slide to justify their actions. Indeed, it is true that ocean dumping is the status quo and fully endorsed by the IAEA and is practiced by reactors all across the world including ones in the countries that have been most vocal against the dumping but that does not make it right. The old adage that “dilution is the solution to pollution” no longer holds true in the strained ocean environment of 2023. We must pursue better options that responsibly address this issue.

Disclaimer: This article was penned by me and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Island Forum, and it was not conducted on behalf of CNS.

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