That radioactive water at Fukushima: Sell it to the crazy shoe lady

By Tim Worstall , written on March 11, 2014

From The News Desk

Now that we're at the third anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we're getting a slew of stories about the clean-up effort at Fukushima. You know -- that very expensive problem that has killed no one nor will it in the future either -- at least in any manner that we'll ever be able to identify.

Much to my surprise there's someone making a sensible suggestion about what should be done with a part of the problem. That stack of radioactive water that's lying around should be dumped into the ocean:

A senior adviser to the operator of the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has told the firm that it may have no choice but to eventually dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking to reporters who were on a rare visit to the plant on the eve of the third anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, Dale Klein said Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco] had yet to reassure the public over the handling of water leaks that continue to frustrate efforts to clean up the site.

'The one issue that keeps me awake at night is Tepco's long-term strategy for water management,' said Klein, a former chairman of the US nuclear regulatory commission who now leads Tepco's nuclear reform committee.

'Storing massive amounts of water on-site is not sustainable. A controlled release is much safer than keeping the water on-site.' This makes complete and total sense, whatever whining you're likely to hear from various quarters.

To explain in a manner not normally seen, there are two different sources of radioactive water at the site. The first is the natural flow of groundwater through the soil beneath the plant. Given the melted reactors, this water picks up a certain amount of radioactive particles on its passage through the soil. However, it's also true that almost all of the nasties then get filtered out again by that very soil. The only radioactive isotope that ends up flowing into the ocean from this source is tritium. This is because it is an isotope of hydrogen and becomes part of the actual water molecule itself and thus won't get filtered out.

The second source is the water that has been used to cool the reactors themselves. This is pumped into the reactors then out again. In the process, it picks up a certain amount of those radioactive particles, including all sorts of things that we'd really rather not get into the environment. That's what ends up in those storage tanks that everyone keeps talking about.

The task here is to somehow filter out those isotopes that we don't want to get into the environment. This is achievable and is indeed being done. There are a number of ways in theory that could be used. One of the simplest (but extremely expensive) would be to boil the water off then store the sludge left over in the usual long-term depository for radioactive wastes. Another, and the technique being used, is to use a combination of filtering and ion exchange resins to extract all of those various radioactive isotopes. This does indeed work even if it's currently not working very efficiently nor all of the time.

However, this then leaves water that is again itself radioactive, as a result of contamination with tritium. And yes, there are ways to deal with this as well. We could do isotopic separation: we must be able to for we can work the other way around and produce "heavy water," we've been able to do this for 70 years or more. And heavy water is simply water that has a higher than usual concentration of deuterium and tritium in it. So we can indeed process those hundreds of thousands of tons of water and extract much to all of the tritium. It would also be howlingly expensive to do so. Thus, once that water has been cleaned of everything but the tritium we should indeed just dump it into the ocean.

Yes, this would mean we will be irradiating our pristine natural habitat: but not by very much. As was pointed out to me some time ago elsewhere:

If the Pacific normally contains 4E17 Bq of tritium and Fukushima adds 4E13 Bq or 0.01%, than that is the appropriate level of worry increase.

However worried you were about tritium in the ocean before Fukushima, increase that by 0.01% It turns out that our natural environment is not all that pristine, and even for those who do worry about radiation, a 0.01% increase in the current background levels isn't very much to worry about. That's the sensible solution. And now for the definitely not sensible one.

Imelda Marcos is still with us, delighting the faithful with her schemes and plans. The latest of which is to try to sell the water at the bottom of the Mindanao Trench. No, really. Her point is that as nuclear fusion becomes ever more likely (yes, it was 50 years in the future 50 years ago, and it still is 50 years in the future today) then we're going to be looking around for a source of that lovely deuterium and tritium that we can use to power our new reactors. And, as she's noted, water made of these two isotopes is actually heavier than normal water (thus, again, "heavy water"). Which means that the concentrations of these two desirable power sources will be higher the deeper one goes in the ocean.

No, don't examine this logic in detail, please, just admire the width of it. Given that the Mindanao Trench is the deepest part of the oceans, and it's also in Philippines water, this means the country is sitting on a huge natural resource. And Imelda is, in her generosity, willing to let others in on this resource just as soon as they stump up some of the $800 billion she thinks it's worth.

Which gives us a perfect solution to our problem of disposing of the tritium laden water from Fukushima: just sell it to the crazy shoe lady. Given that I was at school with her son BongBong Marcos (yes, really, and yes, really, the name) I offer, in my usual selfless fashion, to broker this deal for some small fraction of the value that we'll be able to realize. Paid in advance, of course, and not in footwear.