The Japanese government’s decision to discharge contaminated water from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean has attracted fierce opposition from neighboring China and South Korea over risks the treated radioactive water could pose to public health.
The Japanese government has given Fukushima Daiichi’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the go ahead to install the equipment needed to release the contaminated water, which is expected to take two years.
China and South Korea, which share a sea border with Japan, have condemned the decision as being detrimental not only to the environment but to the health of people living nearby. Both countries say they will take necessary action to prevent release of the water.
China has intensified its position saying the water should not be released without permission from other countries. In a statement China insisted that “Japan address the concerns held by the international community, neighboring countries and its own people.” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on Japan to “act responsibly to protect international public interests as well as the health and safety of the Chinese people.”
On Wednesday tensions appear to have escalated as a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson not only highlighted that “the Pacific Ocean is not Japan’s sewer” but dared a Japanese official to drink the water released by Fukushima Daiichi to prove its safety. Japan’s deputy prime minister responded that “there was nothing wrong with drinking it” and also added fuel to the fire by saying the decision to release the water should have been made earlier.
For its part, South Korea has urged Japan to take concrete measures to prevent damage and is considering filing a lawsuit with the International Tribunal of Land and Sea. Meanwhile, Russia and Taiwan have joined a growing chorus of international opposition.
TEPCO has spent the last 10 years decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi. A massive part of the operation entails injecting water on a daily basis to cool the melted nuclear fuel rods stuck in three damaged reactors.
This process produces water with high levels of radioactive materials, which increases by 170 tonnes per day. Currently, there are over 1,000 tanks holding 1.23 million tonnes of wastewater on site, which is enough to fill 500 Olympic swimming pools or the Tokyo Dome Sports Stadium. Unless the contaminated water finds a new home the current storage site is expected to reach capacity by 2022, which will interfere with the next stage of the decommissioning process.
The radioactive water is treated through a complex filtration system called “ALPS.” Created in 2013, the system is designed to eliminate almost all 63 types of radioactive elements except for one isotope, called tritium, which remains in the water. Tritium is considered the least radioactive and least harmful of all radioactive elements and is believed to be dangerous to humans in only very large quantities.
The Japanese government says the filtration process is perfectly safe and the United States has also backed the move as meeting all international nuclear regulations. Japan plans to further dilute the tritium-contaminated water with seawater in order to reduce concentrations well below national standards and to one-seventh of the level recommended by the World Health Organization’s safety standard set for drinking water.
But TEPCO’s credibility has been damaged by a series of recent safety breaches, which reinforced fears that safety standards could be compromised during the water treatment process. On Tuesday Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide said the government will “ensure the safety of treated water and will take all measures to dispel damaging rumors.” But local fishing groups say the government is yet to explain what concrete measures will be implemented to suppress misinformation and rumors about Fukushima seafood and agricultural produce.
There are also suspicions that the level of tritium being left in the contaminated water will be far higher than promised, which has led to proposals that an independent body check tritium concentrations in each tank before its release into the ocean.
Environmental groups including Greenpeace have long expressed their opposition to the idea of releasing the contaminated water into the ocean and have branded it a “betrayal” to the Fukushima people. The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations called the decision “regrettable and unacceptable” and expressed concerns that they won’t be able to sell seafood from the region both domestically and overseas. The fishing sector has already struggled to bounce back following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was made worse by import restrictions on Japanese seafood and agricultural produce that are currently maintained in 15 countries including China, South Korea, and the European Union.
Tritium-contaminated water from nuclear facilities is not unique to Fukushima Daiichi. In fact, countries with nuclear facilities commonly release tritium into the sea and atmosphere. The level of tritium released differs according to each country’s regulations and at this stage no serious health or environmental effects have been confirmed as a result of these methods. The Japanese government has also pointed out the hypocrisy of both South Korea’s Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant and China’s Daya Nuclear Power Plant as having a history of releasing tritium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Rafael Grossi stressed that ocean disposal is implemented around the world and is “not new and not a scandal.”
In 2015 TEPCO and the government promised the Fukushima fishing industry that contaminated water would not be released into the ocean without first gaining understanding from stakeholders. In February 2020 the subcommittee released a report that determined ocean disposal as the most “reliable” solution, which was followed by seven meetings with local governments as well as the agriculture, forestry, and fisheries industries. The fishing industry has slammed the government for its unilateral decision-making and questioned how the final region for the release was determined without final joint approval.
The Ministry for Energy, Trade and Industry acknowledged that the treated water is a serious issue for reconstruction efforts in Fukushima prefecture but failed to quell resistance from the fishing industry by pledging “to take initiative to ensure the efforts to rebuild will not go to waste.” Minister Kajiyama Hiroshi said that the next two years will provide an opportunity for the government to formulate a strategy against rumors.
Since 2013 a subcommittee of experts under METI has been studying how to dispose of the treated water. Release into the ocean was one of five proposals under consideration, which included releasing the water into the atmosphere through evaporation or electric hydrolysis, injecting the contaminated water deep underground, or mixing it with cement and burying it underground. There were also considerations to continue storing the water in tanks or developing technology to separate and remove tritium from the water. But the subcommittee concluded that the practical application of technology to separate tritium is still underdeveloped.