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Concerns are raised after Japan releases water from damaged nuclear plant

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Japan is releasing treated wastewater from its Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. The plant melted down during a tsunami and earthquake in 2011. In all, the Japanese government is storing around 350 million gallons in more than 1,000 tanks on site. So some of it is going out into the ocean, which the government says is safe. Neighboring China, which is Japan's biggest seafood buyer, is now banning seafood from Japan - apparently doesn't believe the assurances. So how safe is the water? Let's ask Ken Buesseler, who is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution here in the United States. Welcome to the program.

KEN BUESSELER: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Where does this wastewater come from exactly?

BUESSELER: Well, they're still trying to cool those melted-down reactors. And so unlike a normal operating nuclear power plant, this water is coming in direct contact with the molten core materials, so becoming highly radioactive, and then stored in tanks with some initial cleanup at the site.

INSKEEP: Well, that doesn't sound like anything you should be dumping in the ocean.

BUESSELER: Well, yes. And they've been only saying the last few years that they're going to be taking care of this, so removing - attempting to remove some of these radioactive elements from those tanks. And they've been only partially successful and only partially transparent. So they haven't released data from all the tanks, and they still would have quite a cleanup job before they should be dumping.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that you, as an expert sitting there, do not have enough publicly available information to say, yes, the water is safe?

BUESSELER: Yeah, absolutely. We've been saying this for several years. They've only analyzed about 40% of those 1,000 tanks and not for all of the radioisotopes of concern. And, you know, this is their data. The other side is the story now is, well, trust us - we'll take care of that before we put this in the ocean. But they've had 12 years to be taking care of this. And so I'm a little disappointed this week that they haven't done that first and then made a plan.

INSKEEP: Just so that I understand the science here, is this something you can take care of? By which I mean, can you start with radioactive water and dilute it or do other things to it so that it becomes just minimally radioactive, nobody really needs to worry about it?

BUESSELER: I mean, largely, yes. That's why there's a lot of focus on tritium. It's one of the more abundant forms of radioactivity. It's a radioactive form of hydrogen, like the H2O in water, that's very difficult to remove. So it remains at high levels no matter what you do. And the only solution there is dilution. The concern for me is there's other forms of radioactivity - isotopes of cesium, strontium, plutonium, cobalt. If they are removed, they'll never be zero, but they would be more likely to accumulate on the sea floor or in marine life. And so concern for me is not tritium, but other things in the tank that have not yet been successfully removed.

INSKEEP: Can we at least be reassured that the Pacific Ocean is very, very large, and we can hope that that will dilute whatever gets dumped into it?

BUESSELER: You know, solution to pollution is dilution doesn't even work, though, if some of these isotopes are released. So at the outfall, at the pipe itself, they would accumulate on the seafloor and build up over time. And then we're talking 30, 40, 50 years of release - at least 30 in this case.

INSKEEP: Wow. So if you could tell the Japanese authorities to do one thing to clear this up in a sentence or two, what would you tell them?

BUESSELER: Well, I'd like them to demonstrate - they need to build trust. So demonstrate to the world, clean up all of those tanks, and then have someone independently analyze each one and make your plan. Because there are alternatives - storage on land and earthquake-proof tanks, solidifying into some form of concrete. There are ways to do this without setting the precedent of putting waste in the ocean.

INSKEEP: Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Thanks so much for your insights.

BUESSELER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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