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Fukushima Watch: Questions and Answers on Contaminated Water

This aerial photo taken in August 2013 shows the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. From bottom to top, reactors 4, 3, 2, 1, 5, and 6 are seen.

Tuesday marks three years since an earthquake and tsunami in Japan led to the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. After a year in which leaks of contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant made headlines, here are some questions and answers on where the issue stands:

Q: Is the water problem fixed?

A: Not yet. A large amount of groundwater keeps flowing under reactors that suffered meltdowns, creating about 400 metric tons a day of highly contaminated water. The existing water cleaning system removes almost all radioactive cesium from it, but other radioactive materials remain. A new water cleaning system called ALPS has been proved in a laboratory to remove all radioactive materials except tritium, which is less harmful, but ALPS has not yet worked fully at the site. Getting it to do so is a top priority for Tepco.

Q: Even if the new water cleanser works, is it safe to dump water with tritium?

A: Tritium exists naturally, and nuclear power facilities across the world discharge tritium water into the environment. The International Atomic Energy Agency recommended late last year that Tepco consider discharging tritium water in a controlled way as an option so it can focus on other issues that pose bigger risks. However, local fishermen are adamantly opposed. They have already suffered huge damage to their business and fear a further hit to the reputation of Fukushima fish.

Q: Is there any health risk for people on North America’s West Coast?

A: Probably not, say experts.

The question was raised by the town council of Fairfax in the San Francisco Bay Area. On Nov. 6, it adopted a resolution that calls for United Nations intervention in the Fukushima cleanup, saying contaminated water posed “health and safety concerns to America’s West Coast.” The city of Berkeley, Calif., followed with a similar resolution Dec. 3.

Most radioactive materials in the water dumped into the sea right after the accident have passed their half-lives or fully disappeared, so only cesium 137 and strontium 90 are real risks when it comes to ocean contamination, said Tamotsu Kozaki, a Hokkaido University expert on radioactive waste management. Of the two, cesium has a strong tendency to stick to soil and is likely to remain in the mud on the ocean bed near Fukushima, he said. Strontium 90 is more dangerous because it tends to accumulate in animal bones, but it’s unlikely for a single fish passing near the plant to capture enough to reach dangerous levels, said Mr. Kozaki.


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