how can radioactive wastewater affect the environment?


It’s been just over a decade since the fourth strongest earthquake in the modern era triggered a tsunami that struck Fukushima on the east coast of Japan, causing thousands of deaths and preventing hundreds of thousands of go back home. This tsunami is also responsible for the worst nuclear accident in the world since the Chernobyl disaster.

When the 14-meter wave flooded the Fukushima Daiichi plant, it shut down the back-up generators, triggering a series of heat-induced melts. Today, the decision of the Japanese government to allow the discharge of more than one million tonnes of radioactive water from the plant into the ocean has divided opinion.

Water is a vital tool for all nuclear power plants: it is used to cool their heat-generating radioactive cores. During the cooling process, water is contaminated with radionuclides – unstable atoms with excess energy – and must be filtered to remove as many radionuclides as possible.

The filtered water is then stored in huge steel tanks or discharged into nearby water bodies. Since huge amounts of water are needed at every power plant, most nuclear facilities are built on the coasts – or, in the case of Chernobyl, surrounded by huge lakes. In this way, the filtered wastewater can be discharged into the ocean or lake once it has been assessed and confirmed to be safe by authorities.

This is how workers in Fukushima treated wastewater while the factory was operating. But since the 2011 tsunami, authorities have used more than a million tonnes of water to try to cool the power plant’s deactivated reactors, which are still hot thanks to the long-term release of energy from the power source. ‘nuclear energy. All that radioactive water – which is more contaminated than regular sewage – has to go somewhere. The decision to dump it into the oceans is – some will say – the most pragmatic long-term solution.

What could be the impacts?

The process of filtering and diluting huge amounts of water to meet safety standards will take a few years. Second, it is generally expected that water will be released gradually in small volumes from coastal pipelines. In this way, any potential effect of the release of radioactive waste will be minimized. However, the point is, we don’t know exactly what these effects will be on marine – or human – life given the volume of water expected to be released from the Fukushima plant.

Our own research has shown that a number of marine species could see their DNA damaged by prolonged exposure to radionuclides in seawater. It is important to note that our conclusions are mainly drawn from laboratory studies, rather than in the real world; When a nuclear accident occurs, human safety comes first and the biological assessment often takes place decades after the initial event.

Storage tanks containing radiation contaminated water in Fukushima Daiichi.
EPA-EFE / Kimimasa Mayama

That being said, our experiments with marine and freshwater mussels have shown that when radionuclides are present in seawater alongside common metals like copper, the DNA damage caused by radionuclides to mussels. increased. Much, much more research is needed to understand the effects of exposure to different types of radionuclides on different species.

In the meantime, the anger over Japan’s decision on the part of fishing communities is understandable. In a world where the global dependence on fishing for food is increasing – and at least 10% of the world’s population depends on fishing for their livelihood – a potentially contaminated environment could result in a contaminated food chain, which would raise concerns for consumers.

It is also known that approximately 95% of cancers in humans are triggered by exposure to toxic substances present in the environment, including food. If these substances damage the genetic material in our cells, that damage needs to be repaired. Otherwise, the damaged cell dies or divides. And when that happens, the damage – which can cause genetic mutations – is passed on to dividing cells in a process that can lead to diseases like cancer.

If this genetic damage occurs to eggs or sperm, it can be passed from parent to child, triggering new diseases in future generations. To neutralize these complex threats, it is essential to ensure that only safe levels of nuclear waste are discharged into the ocean.

Where do we go from here?

As new nuclear power plants emerge as part of efforts to combat climate change, the need for transparency in nuclear technology has never been greater: especially if we are to build public confidence in the benefits of nuclear technology. ‘nuclear energy.

When nuclear reactors are mentioned, disasters come to mind. Yet, given the long history of nuclear power generation, serious accidents – resulting in loss of life and serious damage to the environment – are extremely rare. The huge amounts of data collected at each disaster site enabled powerful advances in nuclear safety, making future accidents even less likely. Meanwhile, the world’s nuclear reactor waste is managed safely every day, although long-term waste disposal solutions are still a challenge.

Rapidly developing technology like nuclear fusion – mimicking the way the Sun generates energy by fusing hydrogen atoms to form helium and converting that helium into energy – may eventually reduce the production of nuclear waste . It is also possible to improve our existing nuclear facilities to help minimize waste generation: for example, by forcing radioactive by-products to decay more quickly.

But while we still depend on nuclear power, the most urgent priority is to establish internationally accepted regulations for radiation exposure levels for different species. After all, we are what we eat: Our health as a global community depends on the health of the environment, and a contaminated ocean knows no geographic or political boundaries.

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