Trudeau’s got to walk the talk on nuclear waste (Hill Times op-ed by Michael Harris)

https://www.hilltimes.com/2021/04/26/294820/294820

The Hill Times
By MICHAEL HARRIS       APRIL 26, 2021

If the Trudeau government is doing more than virtue signalling in its most recent budget, if it is truly committed to making environmental issues top of agenda goals, there are two things that it should be leading on. 
Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured March 3, 2021, walking down Wellington Street in Ottawa to the Sir John A. Macdonald Building for that day’s press conference. The government should have condemned Japan’s nuclear dump into the Pacific Ocean—as both bad practice, and dangerous precedent, writes Michael Harris.


HALIFAX—Holding the Tokyo Olympics during a pandemic was always a bad idea.

Sending a national team to compete in Japan, which has just declared a third state of emergency for the Tokyo, Osaka region, is simply insanity.

With more than three million people dead worldwide, vaccine shortages, and several countries like India, Pakistan, and Brazil struggling with a third wave of this constantly mutating killer-virus, why would you?  In COVID Times, travelling and congregating are the new Russian Roulette.

With Earth Day fresh in everyone’s mind, there is another reason not to attend the Olympic Games in Japan. As I have recently reported in The Hill Times, after seven years of handwringing, Japan’s government has decided to dump radioactive waste water from the doomed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. The toilet of last resort. The shit-show is set to begin in 2023, and go on for decades.

Three neighbours are glow-in-the-dark furious about Japan’s decision. Taiwan is livid. China called the announced nuclear dump into fishing grounds “unilateral” and “extremely irresponsible.” South Korea, a huge fish-consuming nation, said the move was “totally unacceptable.”

Don’t be surprised if these countries take counter-measures, including reconsidering their attendance at the Olympics. (North Korea has already opted out because of COVID).

There is another group profoundly impacted by this crime against the planet.

Japanese fishermen devastated by the March 11, 2011, nuclear disaster at Fukushima, remain adamantly opposed to their government’s plan. They have struggled for eight years to rebuild their fishery.

That appears to have been the death march of futility. The market for Fukushima fish will be about as brisk as the demand for Chernobyl potatoes, or vacation packages to Montserrat, after the volcano erupted on the Caribbean Island.

What country that is truly committed to rescuing the environment from damage inflicted by humans, hopefully before Earth morphs into Mars, could attend an athletic contest hosted by a government that is deliberately poisoning the ocean with nuclear waste?

And not just a little radioactive water—a million tonnes worth. The now contaminated water was once used to cool the Daiichi nuclear facility at Fukushima. That was before an earthquake and 15-metre tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the installation. This caused hydrogen explosions, widespread contamination of land in and around the reactor site, and a huge public evacuation.

Now that contaminated water sits in a thousand storage tanks on the wrecked site. Every day, 170 tonnes of freshly contaminated ground water flowing into the installation is added to this dread inventory of nuclear sewage.

The Japanese government argues that it is not just dumping nuclear waste into the Pacific, but treated radioactive waste. It will only be somewhat contaminated.

And even though it won’t be able to remove any of the tritium in the treated toxic stew from Fukushima, tritium is the least harmful of all the radioactive elements. That’s because it’s only a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen, you see, trivial really. And besides it will be diluted, and it will meet global standards of practice, blah, blah, blah.

And who will be in charge of this operation? The Tokyo Electric Power Company, the same company that built and operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and is now in charge of the 40-year recovery plan for this catastrophic property.

Feel comforted? Who will ever know if they “treat” and remove all the radioactive iodine and strontium 90 from the ocean-bound contaminated water? The fish I guess.

The International Atomic Energy Agency clearly doesn’t seem concerned. Rafael Grossi, the agency’s Director-General, tweeted this endorsement: “I welcome Japan’s announcement on how it will dispose of the treated water stored at Fukushima nuclear power plant. @IAEA will work with Japan before, during, and after the discharge of the water to help ensure this is carried out without an adverse impact on health and environment.”

A further statement from the IAEA reinforced the director general’s glad-handing.

“Today’s decision by the government of Japan is a milestone that will help pave the way for continued progress in the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

The United States gave its own PR pat on the back to Japan’s mind-numbing decision, claiming that the approach being taken appeared to be in line with global standards, “without an adverse impact on human health and the environment.”

Not a thing to worry about. Whenever something truly awful happens involving the nuclear industry, or a terrible decision is made by government, the watch words of the day are “downplay,” “minimize,” and “deny.”

The plain fact is that energy produced from nuclear plants has a fundamental flaw that no one in the nuclear industry has been able to solve: there is still no safe, long-term way to dispose of the nuclear waste that these plants produce.

The U.S., for example, still doesn’t have a deep depository dump for all the radioactive waste from 70 years of being in the nuclear weapons business.

They tried for decades to sell Nevada on making Yucca Mountain the permanent storage site for America’s nuclear waste. They failed because no rational population wants a product that retains its chemical toxicity for millennia to be stored in their backyard.

That might have something to do with what happened at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico in 2014. A drum containing radioactive plutonium and americium waste blew up deep in the mine.  Plumes of radioactive foam contaminated 35 per cent of the installation.

The radioactive waste had been packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Not the boys in shipping and receiving. The best in the business. And it still ended in catastrophe.

If the Trudeau government is doing more than virtue signalling in its most recent budget, if it is truly committed to making environmental issues top of agenda goals, there are two things that it should be leading on.

First, the government should have condemned Japan’s nuclear dump into the Pacific Ocean—as both bad practice, and dangerous precedent.

Second, before investing any more public money in the nuclear route to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, including small modular reactors, they have to have a safe, long-term option for handling Canada’s growing heap of nuclear waste.

Having that contaminated waste stored at nuclear reactor sites in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick is merely an “interim” solution. Those sites are rapidly running out of space. Besides, the dry containers that hold the nuclear waste are designed to work for fifty years. The contamination persists for 250,000 years.

Japan wants the world to come to the Tokyo Olympics in the middle of a deadly pandemic, despite its dreadful decision to dump nuclear waste into the ocean, and a COVID emergency in that country. For both of these reasons, Canada should not attend.

Who wants to spread a plague to watch someone win a hundred-yard dash? And who wants a Radioactive Earth Day somewhere down the road?

Michael Harris is an award-winning author and journalist. 

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