Erik van Sebille on using the ocean as a drain for radioactive wastewater

Can we dump radioactive waste water in our oceans? Oceanographer and member of the Utrecht Young Academy Dr Erik van Sebille shares his perspective on NPO Radio 1.

Dr. Erik van Sebille
Dr Erik van Sebille

Eight years ago, a nuclear disaster occured in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. A tsunami caused by a submarine earthquake damaged the reactor's cooling systems, causing temperatures in the reactor to rise. This eventually lead to a nuclear meltdown. To cool the reactor cores again, thousands of liters of water have been pumped into the facility in the years following the disaster.

Now that the storage of the radioactive wastewater is reaching its maximum capacity, Japan's environment minister is suggesting to release the wastewater into the ocean in order to dilute it. 

Safe dosage

While the plan surprised Van Sebille, he explains that the Pacific Ocean can significantly dillute the wastewater. In 2013, Van Sebille participated in a modelling study on the dillution of nuclear wastewater which was already released into the ocean at the time of the disaster. One of the findings was that on timescales of two years, radioactivity coming from Fukushima could reach the coasts of Hawaii and North America. However, the concentration was of the order of ten thousand times smaller than the safe limits proposed by the World Health Organisation of the United Nations.

Van Sebille also explains that while radioactivity is often feared by people, it is always around us. For example, bananas are slightly radioactive, and while travelling by plane you receive more radiation than the background radiation you normally receive on the ground.

The planet as a garbage patch

From an ethical perspective, Van Sebille finds it harder to defend the dumping strategy: "This is a solution that seems like it comes straight from the 1950s, before we, as a society, discovered that the planet is not a garbage patch." He states that we cannot keep soiling the planet and that we have to treat this problem in a clean and constructive manner. However, Sebille admits that since this particular solution has been put forward, it is clear that we are dealing with a large and complicated problem, with no obvious solutions.