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Daniel Aldrich: Balancing Ecology and Emergency

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Daniel P. Aldrich is a full-time professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and the Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program. His primary areas of research focus on post-disaster recovery, combating violent extremism, the siting of controversial facilities, and the interactions between civil society and the state. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar, an Abe Fellow at the University of Tokyo, and an AAAS Science Fellow at the United States Agency for International Development. As an award-winning author, Daniel Aldrich has published five books and over seventy peer-reviewed articles. He has also contributed op-ed articles to The New York Times, CNN, and Asahi News, and has appeared on popular media outlets like CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and HuffPost. Aldrich has conducted more than five years of field research in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and his work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Shinzo Abe Foundation.

Balancing Ecology and Emergency: The Controversy Surrounding Fukushima's Tritium-Contaminated Wastewater Release

The operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), announced on August 24 that the first round of nuclear wastewater discharge starting today will last for 17 days, with a total release of approximately 7,800 cubic meters. Many industry insiders as well as neighboring East Asian countries still have significant concerns, such as China's announcement to fully suspend imports of Japanese aquatic products. In light of the controversy surrounding Japan's release of nuclear wastewater, SPCIS interviewed Professor Daniel Aldrich to get his views on the potential environmental impact of Japan's wastewater discharge and how he perceives the differing reactions from various countries to Japan's actions.

Following the 11 March 2011 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the resulting 20m+ tsunami impacting the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan, three active nuclear power reactors - Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors 1, 2, and 3 - melted down due to the unexpected loss of power at the plants and the destruction of their two sets of backup cooling systems (diesel powered generators and batteries). As a result of these meltdowns, 140,000 residents had to evacuate the areas near the nuclear power plants, and in some cases - now 12 years later - have yet to return to these areas due to radioactive contamination. As high level radioactive material from the fuel rods in some of the reactors has yet to be removed from the site, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which manages the site has been cooling down the fuel by circulating water through the basements of the plants. This water, which is radioactive, is being stored on site and decontaminated using a system known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) which removes radionuclides from the water. ALPS cannot remove tritium - a naturally occurring radioactive substance known as heavy water - from the water, so at the moment the Fukushima site is covered in 1000 large metal tanks of contaminated water holding more than 1.2 million tons of the material. Because there is no more space on site to hold this contaminated water, and because evaporating it is not technically feasible, TEPCO, with the agreement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the central government of Japan, will shortly release it a kilometer off shore into the Pacific Ocean.

Due to the massive volume of water on the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant site, the current plan will involve TEPCO releasing tritium contaminated water for the next 30 to 40 years. That released water is supposed to have one-fortieth the level of acceptable tritium based on Japanese drinking water regulations. Many scientists have argued that the massive dilution of the contaminated water will mean that local wildlife and ecosystems will not face measurably negative consequences. While this plan has been set after several years of planning, an alternative option would involve holding the water indefinitely on the site, which would require building more large metal tanks to hold the water, but the site is running out of space. Other options would be evaporating the water onsite or solidifying it in concrete, as proposed by Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress.

Given the likelihood of wastewater release in the next few days, it is improbable that the Japanese government or TEPCO will take these alternative options seriously. However, there are still several steps that TEPCO and the Japanese government should take to deal with the contaminated wastewater release. First, use independent, third party monitoring by skeptical environmental watchdog groups such as the openly anti-nuclear group Greenpeace which opposes the industry as a whole. While the IAEA has claimed that it will remain "on site" for the next thirty years to observe the release, the IAEA has a reputation of supporting nuclear power, and residents and others are skeptical of its ability to see the situation neutrally. Inviting Greenpeace or another similarly skeptical group which has no financial stake in the outcome would help increase trust in the strategies being used by Japan. Second, given TEPCO's multiple omissions and past lies, as illuminated by Azby Brown, Japanese regulators, NGOs such as Safecast, and local residents need to loudly point out TEPCO's public omissions, lies, and errors, as these damage trust and make it harder for future statements and plans to be accepted by civil society. Third, TEPCO, the Japanese government, and the IAEA need to create meaningful joint decision making procedures which bring residents, fishermen, nearby nations, and environmentalists into the process. Those procedures should be linked not only to data but also to the concerns of people who may face health and livelihood consequences.

Domestic Japanese groups and Asian countries have different opinions on Japan's discharge of nuclear wastewater. Pacific Islanders who have long experienced the negative consequences of other nations' nuclear programs - such as the testing of atomic weapons in their region - have argued against the plan. So too the government of China has accused Japan of treating the ocean like a "private sewer." And many domestic groups in Japan - especially fishermen who are likely to see sanctions, boycotts, and economic consequences from this plan - have either protested or expressed their opposition publicly. In short, groups that worry they will face the negative externalities from tritium-contaminated wastewater release are the ones loudly protesting this decision. Even if the wastewater is unlikely to damage fish or the broader marine ecosystem, the decision has already begun to impact fishermen who are finding themselves the target of boycotts.

Contact: Sun Zhishan

Interview: Jiang Beilei

Editor: Chao Wei



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