Joe’s drone image of the water tanks at Fukushima Daiichi, December ,2018
Tuesday November 26th, 2019
It’s hard to say what we get more questions about lately, the 2020 Olympics or the plan to release water from Fukushima Daiichi to the Pacific Ocean. Both issues involve public safety. How safe from radiation will people be who will attend Olympic games in Japan next year, specifically those who attend events to be held in Fukushima? How safe is it for TEPCO to release the water containing tritium and other radionuclides that is currently being stored in hundreds of tanks onsite at Fukushima Daiichi? These are separate issues of course, but in both cases the answers hinge on transparency. We think the fact that we get so many questions about these issues from both journalists and the general public indicates a continuing lack of trust in what the Japanese government and TEPCO say about anything related to Fukushima. That there can be no trust without transparency has become one of our mantras, and we repeat it at every opportunity. Whether the questions are about the Olympics, the water, food safety, the environment, or health, available scientific data only fills in part of the picture. Time and again we’ve found that even when the science generally supports official policy, the public is not given enough transparent information to evaluate the accuracy of the statements they’re hearing. And all too often we ourselves are forced to conclude that we haven’t seen enough reliable information to either confidently validate or refute official claims.
Part 1: What about the water?
In the case of the water in the tanks, last year I wrote a detailed two-part blog post as well as a newspaper op-ed about the issue. I pointed out the problems we saw then with communication and transparency on the part of both the gov’t and TEPCO, and relayed expert opinions about the risks of releasing the water. At the time, all of the information about the water in the tanks provided by TEPCO and the government referred only to its tritium content, with no reference to other radionuclides. While researching for my articles I consulted TEPCO experts several times, and asked them directly if there was data available showing the actual radionuclide content of the tanks. I asked directly if there was truly only tritium to be concerned about. Each time I was given summary data that indicated only tritium. A few months later, in September, 2018, TEPCO suddenly announced that in addition to the tritium the tanks also contain noticeable levels of strontium, americium, and other radionuclides. The public was as outraged by this dishonesty as we were.
What should we make, then, of the November 21, 2019, announcement from METI, widely (and vaguely) reported in the international press, that the advisory committee had determined that the water release plan was “safe”? In terms of politics and process, we’d like to point out that there has not yet been any announcement of an order from METI, NRA, or other government body to TEPCO to release the water. Similarly there has not been any announcement of an actual request from TEPCO to be allowed to do so. The public position is that no decision has been made yet. But we think it’s a done deal and has been for several years already. What we’re seeing is an ongoing effort to get enough of the public on board to minimize the political fallout when it happens. Someone will have to put their name on the order, and it will surely be politically costly.
To be sure, this entire “crisis” is predicated on the claim that TEPCO will run out of onsite tank space in a year or two, but there is no evidence that the company or METI has seriously evaluated obtaining use of land adjoining the Fukushima Daiichi site, which is currently under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry for storage of decontamination waste, in order to build more tanks for long-term storage. This recommendation has been put forward by several groups and individuals at public meetings and elsewhere, but seems to have been dismissed without detailed study. We acknowledge the potential risks of this approach in the event a tank ruptures, but considering that the half-life of tritium is about 12.3 years, it seems plausible that secure storage for several decades could be constructed, during which time the water’s radioactivity would decline substantially. The idea should at least be seriously considered and good evidence presented for why it should not be done, if that is the conclusion.
The November 21st METI document acknowledges the need for monitoring if and when the water is released, stating: “Effective monitoring to confirm both 1) safety at the time of discharge and 2) safety of surrounding environment should be conducted” and “Monitoring results should be shared in a transparent manner, to wipe out concerns.” While these acknowledgements are welcome, we consider them obvious to the point of absurdity. Painful experience has shown that the need for actual transparency in cases like Fukushima can only be met by robust and independent third-party monitoring, which is not mentioned anywhere. The public has a right to this, and as Safecast has proven, we can do it ourselves. We have strongly recommended to TEPCO and the government officials we have spoken to over the years that they allow water samples to be measured by genuinely independent researchers and citizen-run radiation monitoring labs. We had never gotten an explanation of why this could not be facilitated. But in a recent news article, TEPCO spokesperson Hideki Yagi is quoted as saying that necessary safety protocols make independent testing impossible. We see no evidence that TEPCO has seriously investigated how true third-party monitoring could be implemented for the water in the tanks. Adequate protocols seem to be in place for third-party testing of other water onsite. TEPCO should come clean and give adequate access to technically qualified organizations and let them convey their findings before any release decision is made.
Page eight of the recent METI briefing document includes dose estimates for humans after the water is released, which it states have been derived from an UNSCEAR document from 2016, “Sources, effects and risks of ionizing radiation, Annex A.” METI concludes that “…the impact of the radiation from the discharge is sufficiently small…” This is, of course, the most crucial data, but it is presented in an extremely confusing and sketchy manner. The public should also be given dose rate and radionuclide concentration estimates for the ocean water itself at different points, and for affected marine life. We asked for this information over a year ago, but METI was unable to provide it. Further, the UNSCEAR document cited as the basis for the calculations is really a summary overview document, and we question whether or not by itself it provides a sufficient basis for detailed dose estimates. The METI committee should show its calculations, especially the assumptions made, and we caution that no-one should assume that the estimates are correct until they do so. To ensure true transparency, the public should also demand to be included in developing detailed monitoring plans for the released water, to track the spread of the radionuclides and their concentrations, and to monitor subsequent concentrations in the food chain and in the wider environment. There are many individuals and organizations, including Safecast, who are well-qualified to participate in this oversight and have the motivation to do so. The public should refuse to accept any release plan until this kind of participatory planning and oversight is clearly in place. We are far beyond the point where “Trust Us” is an option.
Azby Brown is Safecast’s lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.