Catholic bishops of Japan, Korea criticize Fukushima radioactivity clean-up plans

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The Catholic bishops of Japan and Korea have criticized the Japanese government’s plans to release into the sea millions of gallons of radioactive water from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

“We oppose the release of water containing the radioactive substance tritium into the ocean after purifying the contaminated water from Tepco's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant,” the bishops said in a Feb. 9 letter addressed to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other cabinet members. 

The Korean Catholic Bishops' Council Justice and Peace Committee, the Korean Catholic Bishops' Council Ecological Environment Committee, the Japan Catholic Justice and Peace Council, and the Denuclearization Subcommittee for Peace all oppose the proposal to release the tritiated water after it goes through a purification process.

“We have a responsibility to hand over to future generations a global environment where we can truly live safely and with peace of mind,” said the bishops, citing Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on a Christian ecology, Laudato Si.

“Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit,” the pope said. “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

The bishops’ letter cited opposition from local government councils of Fukushima Prefecture and of other prefectures, fishery cooperatives, and the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives. The Governor of South Korea’s Jeju province, an island in the Korea Strait, has also called for preparations to be suspended.

Three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant suffered meltdowns in the massive 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami that destroyed coastline communities and killed over 18,000 people, causing over $210 billion in damage.

The damaged reactors must be constantly cooled with water, which becomes radioactive in the process.

The current plans consider dumping into the ocean over 1 million tons of radioactive water, as soon as 2022.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, also known as Tepco, operates the nuclear plant. The company has said it has removed all radioactive isotopes but tritium. An expert panel said it is harmful only in very large doses. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that if properly filtered, the water could be diluted with seawater and safely released into the ocean, the German news site Deutsche Welle reports.

Tokyo Electric said it would run out of storage capacity at the plant in 2022 even if it builds more storage tanks. The plant’s decommissioning is considered vital for the recovery effort.

The Japanese government’s February 2020 report on the handling of treated water said that releasing it into the ocean is the most appropriate method due to secondary waste and cost.

The Health Physics Society, a professional organization affiliated with the American Institute of Physics, says tritium exposure may lead to a slight increase in cancer risk, but adds that this effect in humans has only been observed with high levels of ionizing radiation.

However, the Catholic bishops argued that secondary treatment of the water is still in the testing stage. They said that health experts disagree about the health effects of tritium, citing claims that it is linked to stillbirth, Down syndrome, and childhood death due to leukemia.

They advocated that treated water be stored in tanks or solidified in mortar. Ocean release should not be the only method, they said.

The bishops called it “worrisome” that the government report did not mention the effects of treated water on non-human marine life and the marine environment. The release of radioactive material into the ocean is “irreversible,” they said, objecting that government officials had provided false information in the past regarding nuclear power plant building and maintenance.

The bishops drew on sources including the Japan affiliate of Greenpeace, and the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a staunch critic of nuclear power.

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Environmentalist critics of the plan say storage tanks can be built outside the plant perimeter. They have said the government is seeking the cheapest and fastest solution to the problem, and they accuse officials of downplaying the radiation levels in the water.

Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace, told the German news site Deutsche Welle in October 2020 that other radioactive elements remain in the contaminated water and a focus on tritium can be misleading.

“The contaminated water contains many radionuclides, which we know impact the environment and human health — including strontium-90,” Burnie said.

Leaked documents from Tepco indicate that there are still numerous detectable radioactive elements, including iodine, ruthenium, rhodium, antimony, tellurium, cobalt and strontium, according to Burnie.

A 2017 study reported that iodine 129 and ruthenium 106 exceeded acceptable levels in most samples. Both can cause cancer, and ruthenium isotope is toxic when ingested. Levels of strontium 90 were over 100 times above the legally permissible limit in 65,000 tons of treated water, Tepco confirmed.

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