Japan’s Dumping Fukushima’s Radioactive Water in Pacific Linked to Long-Term Health Hazards

Interview with Cindy Folkers, radiation and health hazard specialist with the group Beyond Nuclear, conducted by Scott Harris

It’s been 12 years since an earthquake-triggered tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power complex, resulting in the meltdown of three of the plant’s six reactors. Three reactor core explosions released the highest amount of radiation into the environment since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.

More than 160,000 people were forced to evacuate the region around the plant, after a  310-square-mile exclusion zone was designated around the complex where radiation levels are still too high for humans to return safely. Since the disaster, radioactive cooling water has been collected at the site and stored in 1,000 steel tanks. As of Aug. 24, the Japanese government authorized the plant operator TEPCO, to slowly release 350 million gallons of this contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean over the next 30 years.

While the U.S. and the U.N. nuclear authority, the International Atomic Energy Agency, say the release of Fukushima water conforms with safety standards, China fiercely opposes the move and banned seafood products imported from Japan. Local Japanese fishermen and many citizens from across the coastal region, including South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines are fearful of the health effects, with many abstaining from eating seafood. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Cindy Folkers, radiation and health hazard specialist with the group Beyond Nuclear, who assesses the health hazards linked to Japan’s decision to release Fukushima’s contaminated water into the Pacific.

CINDY FOLKERS: So this was the water that was used to cool the melting core material, which is highly, highly radioactive. And so the water became highly contaminated and they needed to use this water so that the cores wouldn’t melt any further and so that they could get the accident, the catastrophe and the melting cores under control. So that’s where this water came from just in brief.

They’re going to take a number of decades to release it into the Pacific Ocean. But the problem is, is that as far as we can tell, there’s only about 40 percent of these thousand or so containers that contain this water that have actually been analyzed for radioactivity. And not all of the isotopes were searched for in these analyses.

What they tried to do is they tried to take the contaminated water and filter some of these radioisotopes out. And they do manage to a certain point to filter some of them out. But even the ones that they managed to filter out partially are not completely gone. So you still have radiocobalt, radiostrontium and radio cesium and plutonium, among others.

But then you also have tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen, which you cannot filter out at all. And all of these bioconcentrates in the aquatic environment that they’re dumping it into. So in this case, dilution really won’t work. They are releasing this material into the environment and it doesn’t really matter how over what time they release it. It could be decades. It will still recollect and reassemble itself or bio concentrate again in the aquatic life that’s around there.

So any seafood or ocean life that’s around there or shore life is at risk because of this dumping and this bioconcentration. And radionuclides in general and tritium in particular have been associated with DNA damage and all types of cancer and non-cancer diseases, certainly for the case of tritium when taken into the body.

You know, you have the sea life that you’d want to eat or consume, and radionuclides will collect inside and they’ll collect at greater than they were in the concentration of the water, where the life was living. And that’s how you get a rockfish that is contaminated 180 times what the limit is in Japan for ingestion of radiocesium.

This is going to be a continual issue with them and the countries around them. Like China had banned some seafood imports from Japan. But the problem is, you know, places like the European Union and the United States have to some degree lifted their bans and the monitoring that was the strict monitoring that had been required.

But the problem with that is that in the United States, for instance, for cesium contamination, our limit for cesium contamination in food that we would ingest is 12 times the limit in Japan. So I have to ask the question, what happens if they catch a fish that they couldn’t sell in Japan? Could they just figure out that it’s contaminated more than they could sell there, but they could just ship it over to the United States and it wouldn’t violate our limits on, in this case, radioactive cesium? But strontium here is also higher, radiostrontium.

SCOTT HARRIS: The United States and the United Nations, as I understand it, accepted the Japanese plan to dump this radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean over a number of years. There have been protests by China, South Korea and citizens from all the neighboring countries, including citizens of Japan, that are very unhappy with this state of affairs with the dumping of radioactive water into the Pacific.

What, in your view, is the short-term and long-term effect on human health and marine life?

CINDY FOLKERS: I think in general, any time you have manmade, radiological contamination, no matter what isotope, anytime you have that contamination in your foodstuffs, even at low levels over time, it is very unhealthy for our DNA. It can damage us genetically in ways that seem at first to be subtle.

But after generations you can start to see impacts from such DNA damage. It would be like almost a slow boil and it might take a few generations. And then you start to wonder, “Well, why are people getting sick with this kind of strange cancer?” Or, “Why is this disease all of a sudden popping up in children when it was only an adult disease or strange things like that?”

You start to see a genomic degradation and this goes for humans and it also goes for animals. The problem is that by the time you start to see these things, it’s hard to trace it back to the radiological exposure that happened through food stuffs to begin with. And so that’s why, you know, we’re cautioning for generations in the future, but also for today, you can have very subtle health impacts and you may not be able to attribute it to radiation exposure.

And that’s what the studies seem to be indicating for these lower levels of exposure, particularly for inhalation, for taking it inside your system. And so once you start to release these biological disruptors in the form of radionuclides, you’re only adding to the burden of what was a naturally occurring sort of level of cancer, a naturally occurring level of disease.

And so you’re slowly sort of degrading the genome and sickening people over decades, over generations. That’s my main concern.

For more information, visit Beyond Nuclear at beyondnuclear.org.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Cindy Folkers (20:03) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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