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What to know about Japan's plan to dump wastewater into the ocean


The International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday approved Japan's plan to release over 1 million tons of treated nuclear wastewater from a nuclear plant. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station was destroyed in the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastated much of the country's east coast in 2011. But the plan to dump the contaminated water into the ocean later this summer faces a lot of domestic and international opposition. Bob Richmond is a research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is the director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory. Welcome to the show.

BOB RICHMOND: Thanks very much, Ayesha. I appreciate the opportunity.

RASCOE: OK, so the IAEA says that the plan is sound because it went through a two-year assessment period and that the release of the water will have, quote, "negligible radiological impact on people and the environment." So should that reassure people who are worried about this plan?

RICHMOND: For me and a number of my colleagues, our answer is at this point, we're not convinced. We're not saying that there's no way, but we are saying because we're scientists and data driven, that there are insufficient data to be able to demonstrate the feeling that this is going to be safe. And I really should take a moment to clarify, the International Atomic Energy Agency - their job is to see that their plan adheres to standards, and adhering to standards is not the same thing as guaranteeing safety.

RASCOE: What are the specific concerns that you have?

RICHMOND: There are missing data on a number of the radionuclides of greatest concern. There's a lot of discussion of one in particular, tritium, that's coming out in the - what we call tritiated water from the cooling. And so I agree. I've been in animated discussions with nuclear chemists and nuclear physicists saying if you calculate the concentration of radionuclides and the volume of the Pacific Ocean, the dilution is great and it's going to be tiny. And that's where the opinion that IAEA presented was they feel that the effects would be negligible. Dilution is a chemical process. You can calculate it out, and if the ocean was a sterile vessel, it would work. But it's not. You have phytoplankton at the bottom of the food web, microscopic algae that photosynthesize. They pick up a number of the radionuclides, notably tritium and carbon-14. And so these can be taken up, and then they can be passed through the food web to other organisms, and a number of radionuclides can be bioaccumulated. And this is a pathway for which it can get into people through seafood.

RASCOE: So do we know then how the release of the wastewater will have an impact over the next 30 or 40 years on marine life?

RICHMOND: Yeah. So we don't want to be alarmist and, you know, scare people to say that, you know, the world's going to end and don't eat anything from the ocean. That's not the case. It is interesting to note that as we understand and we've been studying, this is very much what's called a transboundary issue. The water release is going to occur a kilometer offshore from Fukushima, but it's not going to stay in Japan's waters. It's going to spread throughout the Pacific through ocean currents - also through organisms like fish, tuna, others. So we know it will move across biologically. And interestingly enough, radionuclides can even adhere to plastics, particularly PET. When I talked to the physicist and the chemist, they say, well, we're assuming everything is going to go well. If you look at the history of how we got here, I think the assumption that everything is going to go to plan is one that has to be clearly evaluated, and I don't think that will be the case.

RASCOE: Has this been done before, this sort of release?

RICHMOND: There are categories for nuclear disasters from 1 to 7. There have only been two No. 7s. The first was Chernobyl, and then the second one was Fukushima. So this was about a tenth of what happened at Chernobyl. What's different about Fukushima is this is primarily marine release. So in answer to your question, this is not a normal operation, but challenges are also opportunities. And this is an opportunity for Japan and the IAEA to provide forward-thinking leadership and do a far better job.

RASCOE: China said on Thursday that it's banning seafood imports from 10 regions in Japan, including Fukushima. Is that valid, or is that too far, to start banning seafood imports?

RICHMOND: Yeah, for me, again, I'm data driven. And, you know, you pointed out the timeline. This is supposed to go on for over 30 years. And so not only is this a transboundary issue, but it's a transgenerational issue. That's a concern because many of the problems won't show up immediately. And once it does show up, you're not going to get the genie back in the bottle. So, you know, should there be concern? Absolutely. Are there data missing to answer these fundamental questions? Yes. Do we know that radionuclides like cesium and strontium have been picked up already by sea life? The answer is yes. Levels have been very low. So, again, I don't want to overstate the issue, but, you know, as an environmental biologist, I strongly adhere to what's called the precautionary principle. In the absence of data showing something is safe, you don't assume that it's safe. You rather put in those protective measures to be very conservative.

RASCOE: Japanese authorities are saying that in order to move ahead with decommissioning the damaged plant, they have to get rid of the water. What are the alternatives to dumping it into the ocean?

RICHMOND: We strongly recommended that they evaluate the use of putting that water into concrete to be used on-site and around that area. And it was everything from deflection to denial. And our concern - once again, me as a marine biologist - is the health of the oceans and the people who depend on it. We need to step away from continuing to use the ocean as the ultimate dumping ground for everything we don't want on land. And this is a really good place to start.

RASCOE: That's Bob Richmond. He is a research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Thank you so much.


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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.