The Debate

Fukushima: Depoliticizing the Release of Treated Water into the Ocean

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The Debate

Fukushima: Depoliticizing the Release of Treated Water into the Ocean

It’s time to take the politics out of Fukushima.

Fukushima: Depoliticizing the Release of Treated Water into the Ocean
Credit: AP Photo / Lee Jin-man

On April 13, the Japanese government announced a basic policy of discharging treated water from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station into the ocean. It will take two years to get ready to do this, including installing the equipment needed. The water will be treated with an Advanced Radionuclide Processing System (ALPS) to reduce the concentration of radioactive materials (other than tritium) to below the international standard. The tritium will be diluted to below the international standard, and will be released into the ocean over several decades to keep its concentration in the treated water low. Prior to the release of the treated water into the ocean, an independent expert will undertake a technical review to confirm that the standards are being met. The results of the review will be made public.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), welcomed Japan’s policy decision, observing that it was in line with international practice and saying the agency stands ready to provide technical support in monitoring and reviewing the safe and transparent implementation of the policy. The U.S. has meanwhile deemed the decision to be “an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards.”

In contrast, China has condemned Japan’s decision to release the treated water into the ocean, claiming it was a unilateral decision made without proper consultation with neighboring countries, calling it highly irresponsible and stressing that the Pacific Ocean is not Japan’s “trash can.” South Korea has also objected to the decision, saying that it was made without first gaining the understanding and consent of neighboring countries, citing the issue of marine environmental pollution. Seoul has announced that it would consider taking the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Aside from the fundamentalist argument that releasing any radioactive substances contaminates the ocean, the arguments against their release can be summarized as first, radioactive substances other than tritium will remain in the water after ALPS treatment and second, the countries affected have not been consulted nor been adequately informed.

As for the first argument, if the discharge is carried out as described in the basic policy, it is a reasonable measure in line with international practice, as the IAEA’s Grossi noted. Many other countries with nuclear power plants discharge wastewater containing tritium into the ocean, including China, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

On the second point, the Japanese government has made continual efforts to ensure transparency by holding successive briefings for the diplomatic corps in Tokyo (more than 100 of them since 2011), consulting closely with the IAEA, and communicating its policy at the IAEA General Conference and other forums as appropriate. From Japan’s point of view, China and South Korea appear to be needlessly politicizing the issue by advancing opposing arguments that have no scientific basis.

However, there is no denying that the issue of residual radioactive substances in ALPS treated water reported in 2018 raised doubts about the transparency of information provided by the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Although it has been known for some time that tritium cannot be removed from ALPS treated water, TEPCO had not clearly explained that other radionuclides besides tritium also could not be completely removed. Media coverage in 2018 led to increased criticism of TEPCO both domestically and internationally for its lack of transparency in the disclosure of information. This failure to disclose information is the basis for concerns that radioactive substances other than tritium may not be completely removed from the treated water this time, and that the water may be different from the tritium water released from nuclear power plants in other countries.

Under the new basic policy, the treated water to be discharged into the ocean will be re-purified by ALPS until the sum of the ratios of concentration of each radionuclides relative to the regulatory standards is less than 1. It will then be diluted with seawater until the concentration of tritium in the treated water is around one-seventh of the World Health Organization (WHO) drinking water standard. The annual volume discharged will be adjusted to a level lower than the 22 trillion becquerels of tritium that was released annually from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station prior to the accident, and will be released over several decades.

As the IAEA has pointed out, these measures, if taken properly, are in line with international standards established on the basis of currently available scientific knowledge. If these environmental standards themselves are called into question, or if they continue to be subject to emotional criticism not based on objective and scientific data, it may contribute to the spread of harmful rumors and reputational damage throughout the East Asia region, with repercussions for nuclear power generation in other countries that also release tritium water into the ocean.

Japan, China and South Korea should not waste the two years leading up to the commencement of oceanic discharge on zero-sum political games. Instead, they should focus their energies on cooperating in practical terms to create a framework that will ensure that TEPCO releases treated water into the ocean in a way that strictly adheres to environmental standards. For treated water to be discharged into the ocean, it is important that Japan establishes a system to guarantee that the release is carried out safely while maintaining a high level of scientific objectivity, reliability and transparency, mainly through IAEA monitoring. For this purpose, the IAEA should put together an international expert mission that includes Chinese and South Korean experts. In addition, the IAEA’s deliberations on monitoring and evaluation should remain transparent for the benefit of countries that do not participate in monitoring activities as well as stakeholders in Japan.

Moreover, as agreed at the Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit held in May 2011 immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan, China and South Korea should work toward institutionalizing regional cooperation on the nuclear safety and emergency response. This should include the establishment of a framework for early notification and the timely sharing of information in the event of emergency, along with a system for disclosing and sharing information such as radiation level monitoring both at normal times and in times of emergency. The trilateral Top Regulators Meeting on Nuclear Safety established in 2008 already exists and meets on a regular basis. However, the meeting does not do much to deepen cooperation in any substantial way, a situation exemplified by the friction over the discharge of the treated water.

Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are already rocky. Turning the issue of ocean discharge of treated water into a political conflict will only make its resolution more difficult and will benefit neither Japan nor its two neighbors. De-politicizing the issue and working toward the institutionalization of information sharing and joint responses based on technical expertise among practitioners will increase the sum of benefits for the entire region and help restore faith in nuclear energy. It is time for all three countries to be a little more farsighted, and think about what is best for the entire region.