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Why is Japan dumping radioactive water into the ocean?

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Much of the water evaporates, or else collects inside spent-fuel pools or other secure areas. But in the wake of the March 11 earthquake, water has also escaped from the damaged reactor buildings, flowing into the maintenance tunnels and basements, and then to unknown parts.

The problem now is that TEPCO does not have enough storage tank capacity at the site in which to store contaminated water. That is why the Japanese government Monday authorized Fukushima workers to release 10,000 tons of wastewater containing low-level radioactivity directly into the sea.

Dumping this water should free up space for TEPCO to pump highly contaminated water out of reactor No. 2’s basement and tunnels, potentially putting an end to the leakage problem.

“The fact that they’re encountering ... these large sources of contaminated water – and still are unable to say exactly where it’s coming from – is troubling,” said Edward Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a briefing for reporters late last week.

Treating radioactive water – if contained – is easy enough, noted Dr. Lyman. Reprocessing plants could boil off pure water, concentrating the radioactivity into a denser waste solution. Filters can also remove some contaminants.

“Over time ... assuming the situation is stabilized and they were able to get at least the physical capacity to store the liquids, then they would just be left with potentially a high-level radioactive waste problem, like the US has in spades with liquid waste left over from defense production,” said Lyman.

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