TEPCO may consider discharging contaminated water into sea: IAEA

TEPCO may consider discharging contaminated water into sea: IAEA

TOKYO, Dec. 4 (Xinhua) -- The head of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission in Japan monitoring the decommissioning process at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station said Wednesday that discharging contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean might be an option for the plant's operator.

The embattled utility firm, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) , which owns and operates the crippled plant that suffered multiple meltdowns following an earthquake-triggered tsunami knocking out the plant's key cooling functions in March 2011, is struggling to contain massive influxes of contaminated water on a daily basis and must now weigh the risks of dumping excess radioactive water into the adjacent Pacific Ocean.

Noting that groundwater flowing into the complex and its reactor buildings is adding to TEPCO's struggle to store the contaminated water in makeshift storage tanks, some of which have sprung leaks causing radioactive materials to be released into the sea, Juan Carlos Lentijo, head of the IAEA's mission floated the idea of releasing radioactive water into the ocean.

"Controlled discharge is a regular practice in all the nuclear facilities in the world. And what we are trying to say here is to consider this as one of the options to contribute to a good balance of risks and to stabilize the facility for the long term," Lentijo, told a news conference in Tokyo Wednesday.

Lentijo said that TEPCO should weigh the possible damaging effects of discharging toxic water against the total risks involved in the overall decommissioning work process.

His remarks came at the end of the mission's 10-day review of Japan's progress and plans to decommission the damaged reactors at the Daiichi complex and his sentiments echoed those of regulators here.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, told a press briefing on Tuesday that low-level contaminated water at the site will continue to provide one of the biggest obstacles for the decommissioning process, which also includes the use of remote-controlled cranes to remove melted fuel from pools at some of the damaged reactors where radiation levels are very high, in a potentially cataclysmic process.

Prior to the IAEA's arrival on their second mission here related to the decommissioning of the reactors, TEPCO began the perilous operation of removing more than 1,000 fuel assemblies from the spent fuel pool inside the damaged No. 4 reactor building.

"You cannot keep storing the water forever. We have to make choice comparing all risks involved," Tanaka said of the current and future station at the nuclear facility located 240 km northeast of Tokyo.

But while TEPCO is increasing the number of storage tanks as it scrambles to contain the radioactive water within its compound, remove highly-volatile fuel assemblies and work to lower the levels of contamination in wastewater, Tanaka highlighted the fact that while highly radioactive water could be decontaminated in around seven years, the amount of water containing tritium will keep rising, topping 700,000 tons in two years.

Tritium is internationally classified as one of the least dangerous nuclear materials, but nuclear experts have repeatedly pointed out that the radionuclide is still a significant radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin.

As such, local fisherman, industries and fisheries bodies in the Fukushima area and beyond in Japan's northeast, have collectively baulked at the idea of releasing toxic water into the sea, regardless of the levels of radioactivity.

They said in a joint statement issued Wednesday that the image of Japan's food industry has already been battered by the nuclear disaster and overseas markets banning imports, and the current idea to release radioactive water into the Pacific would only serve to further tarnish the image and damage the market for Japanese seafood exports.

The IAEA mission, however, concluded in their review of the decommissioning process and the utility's and the government's plans going forward, that any radioactive water discharged should comply with safety guidelines, and TEPCO will be duty-bound to submit assessments of the safety and environmental impact to be reviewed by both state and independent regulatory bodies, before any toxic water is released into the Pacific.