In light of the recent agreement between Singapore & Japan on rice import from Fukushima, we trust that there was due diligence conducted by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority to ensure that the staple food we have grown so fond of has been thoroughly tested and that it will be safe for consumption without any immediate and/or long term health issues.
However, on the other side of the coin, an interview conducted with Valentin Sergiyenko, Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Chairman of the Presidium, may say otherwise.
Three years have passed after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and the threat of ecological catastrophe for Russia is growing: the traces of radioactive contamination are moving northeast and may reach the Sea of Japan basin. The problem could be solved with the help of special sorbents developed by the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. However, the innovative Russian product is not allowed into Japan. The barrier has political reasons, according to Valentin Sergiyenko, Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Chairman of the Presidium.
— The scale of the radioactive disaster in Japan is comparable to the one in Chernobyl. However, the most important thing is that nothing has been done to prevent the radioactive materials from spreading in the environment, said Sergiyenko.
— It is true, that they urgently built many containers for storing liquid radioactive materials, dug tranches for collecting ground waters; they are also trying to freeze the ground to prevent the radioactive water from getting into the sea, but all these measures have failed to bring desired results. According to Japanese sources, the radioactivity of ground waters has reached millions of Becquerel/liter. Shortly after the accident, an increased level of radiation was detected near the Japanese shores; now the contamination is spreading. Scientists have been discovering isotopes of iodine, strontium and cesium as well as isotopes of cobalt, plutonium and other elements of fuel compounds in the sea environment.
Many international experts and specialists from Europe and America are working in Fukushima now. However, they have no experience in disposing of liquid radioactive waste “contaminated” with seawater. It is known that during the disaster a huge amount of seawater was used for cooling the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools in Fukushima. Russian experts possess this experience (a substantial one) since they were involved in developing the technology and facilities for recycling liquid radioactive materials accumulated after operation, repair and disposition of nuclear submarines in the Russian Far East. This liquid radioactive waste is identical to the Fukushima radioactive material (a substantial amount of seawater, various hydrocarbons, solid particles, etc.) The unique materials called sorbents, including nano-sorbents and sorbent-reagent materials have been created for solving these tasks. We can help in solving the problem of disposing of the liquid radioactive waste in Fukushima. However, we have not been let in.
— How long did it take to clean the Russian Far East?
— The laboratory research started after the Russian government decided to put a ban on dumping liquid radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan in 1994. First full-scale experiments were conducted at the Pacific Fleet facilities in 1996. Commercial development of the new technologies and materials started in 1999. The DalRAO Company was given a task of disposing of liquid nuclear waste in the Russian Far East and started operation in 2000. This March the company finished recycling the last ton of complex liquid radioactive waste. Thus, it took almost 20 years to solve the problem completely, considering the fact that the volume of the liquid radioactive waste accumulated in the Russian Far East was much smaller than the volume collected in Fukushima (according to conservative estimates, a few hundred thousand tons in containers and over 1.5 million cubic meters of seawater).
— What volume of sorbents will Japan have to purchase?
— This question cannot be answered easily. It is possible either to buy or to produce. According to our estimates, at least 10 tons per month are required to solve the problem in real terms. The product is unique; it has no equivalents in the world, which is confirmed by tests in several laboratories in Germany and Japan. Why is it unique? First, it is highly selective towards radionuclides in the presence of other foreign elements. Second, it has the highest coefficients of distribution in seawater and its dilute solutions – 45-60 thousand (the coefficient shows the ability of the material to extract radionuclides from solutions – K’s note). The best equivalents that our colleagues from France, Finland and the USA can offer have the coefficient of 1.5 thousand, and it is for fresh water.
— You have mentioned that Japan tested our sorbents.
— We have worked with many companies, both Japanese and German, both in Russia and in their laboratories. We have supplied the samples of our materials to be tested in laboratories. The results have been the same everywhere: the distribution coefficient was 40-60 thousand.
— So, the process has not gone beyond testing?
— No, for three years the situation has remained unchanged. Moreover, Japan was the first to contact us. Ten days after the accident our delegation was invited by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the operator of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant). We made presentations about the results of our fundamental research, discussed the peculiarities of storing the seawater-contaminated waste in metallic containers, the problems of corrosion, etc. They listened to us but got their own way. Three years have passed, and the containers and pipelines at umbilical connections are replaced with fully welded and polymer ones because of non-stop accidents and leakages. However, the amount of liquid radioactive waste is not decreasing!
I have never realized before how strictly are the employees of Japanese nuclear power plants regulated in their actions. There have been many mistakes and failures. For example, they controlled only the gamma-spectrum of isotopic composition dismissing any possibility that liquid radioactive waste could contain radionuclides of Beta- and Alfa-emitters. At the same time, they claimed that by the late 2011 the consequences of the disaster would be mostly liquidated (the Fukushima disaster happened in March 2011). Three years after the disaster the situation remains the same.
— In the course of these three years, have you ever had the concerns that Japan would discover the chemical formula of the sorbents?
— I think they long ago discovered the formula, which was not a secret, by the way. It is based on barium sulfate. The secret is in the method of producing the sorbent and in the ways of imparting unique properties to the material. Quite often during the meetings, our foreign colleagues asked us about the production methods. We have not disclosed the secret yet; however, it is impossible to keep a secret, especially when it is known that there is a solution of the problem. However, we feel more confident since after achieving unique results a few years ago we continued perfecting the methods and now we have even more efficient samples of the materials. However, it is the future.
— You do not seem worried that the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences can lose one of its few sources of income.
— I would not put the question like that. First, we have solved our own tasks in Russia and did it much more efficiently than the experts from Norway, Finland, the USA, and France suggested. Fundamental research resulted in new technological processes in Russian nuclear power plants making them more competitive and prospective in the world. So, the results of our work are in demand nowadays.
As for Japan – three years ago it was an ardent desire to share our knowledge and expertise with our closest neighbors in order to urgently liquidate the consequences of a terrible disaster. Today, it is nothing more than mostly a commercial project, which, if successful, can bring additional profit.
— Did the Far Eastern Branch of the RAS cooperate with Japan before?
— The Far Eastern Branch has many contracts and agreements on scientific and technological cooperation with leading universities and research centers in Japan. We highly appreciate this mutually profitable cooperation. The progress in innovation and commerce is not that impressive, it is rather non-existent despite tremendous prospects and opportunities. Unfortunately, in this respect Japan is like other countries: it is easier to understand and adopt an idea and implement it under its own brand name. This is the law of the market.
— Earlier in the interview, you mentioned that the whole situation with not allowing the Russian technologies onto the Japanese market had mostly political roots. Why do you think so?
— The whole situation around Fukushima belies the common sense. Here, in the neighboring Russia, a similar task has been successfully solved, and we offer to share our experience and knowledge. However, for three years some Western companies have been working there without achieving any success (and for huge money!). The result is zero; so-called purified solutions are dumped into the original containers; money from the Japanese budget is spent. What is it if not a political decision?
— What can happen if the situation remains unchanged and Japan continues to use inefficient technologies?
— I like the joke quite frequently quoted by Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “cut off the nose to spite the face”. It is completely true.
Seriously speaking, any delay in liquidating the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster will increase the threat of radioactive contamination in the seawaters near Japan and its neighbors, Russia included. On a daily basis and practically uncontrolled, tons of radioactive waters are released into the ocean. The situation is not getting better; the concentration of radionuclides in ground waters is not decreasing; their isotopic composition is becoming more complex. Spent fuel pools have been damaged. They contain a huge amount of plutonium and other transuranium elements almost not isolated from the environment. Today we detect contamination near the Straits of the Kuril Islands – not a lot, close to the maximum allowable concentration levels. However, what will the future bring? Japan has to address this challenge and urgently find a solution for the Fukushima problem.