The United Nations nuclear chief toured Japan’s tsunami-wrecked nuclear power plant Wednesday, including some of the key facilities that will release treated radioactive water into the sea, the day after his agency affirmed the safety of a contentious plan.
On the coastal observation “green deck,” International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Mariano Grossi observed where the water is treated before being transported through a black pipeline from sampling and mixing tanks to the coastal facility for dilution by at least 100 times using seawater. It will then be released into the Pacific Ocean 1 kilometer (1,000 yards) offshore through an undersea tunnel.
Kobayakawa Tomoaki, president of the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), escorted and briefed Grossi, explaining that the seawater for dilution will be taken from the area further away from the damaged reactors and that the water in the final dilution shaft can also be tested before it gets to the Pacific.
Grossi’s tour of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was set to end with a trip by boat to view the water release point, was a highlight of his four-day visit in Japan as a guest of the Foreign Ministry.
The Japanese government has been trying to gain credibility for the water release, which still faces persistent opposition in and outside Japan.
Earlier Wednesday, Grossi joined a meeting of government and utility officials, as well as local mayors and fishing association leaders, and stressed the continuous presence of this agency throughout the water discharge to ensure safety and address the residents’ concerns.
“What is happening is not something exceptional, some strange plan that has been devised only to be applied here, and sold to you,” Grossi said in his opening remarks in Iwaki, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the plant. “This is, as certified by the IAEA, the general practice that is agreed by and observed in many, many places all over the world.”
“We are going to stay here with you for decades to come until the last drop of the water which is accumulated around the reactor has been safely discharged,” he added.
That means the IAEA will be reviewing, inspecting, checking the validity of the plan in the decades to come, he said.
The IAEA, in its final report released Tuesday, concluded the plan to release the wastewater — which would be significantly diluted but still have some radioactivity — meets international standards, and its environmental and health impact would be negligible. Grossi said the agency is “very confident about it.”
But local fishing organizations have rejected the plan because they worry that their reputation will be damaged even if their catch isn’t contaminated. It is also opposed by groups in South Korea, China, and some Pacific Island nations due to safety concerns and political reasons.
Fukushima’s fisheries association adopted a resolution on June 30 to reaffirm their rejection to the treated water discharge plan.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Fukushima fishery association chief Nozaki Tetsu urged government officials “to remember that the treated water plan is pushed forward despite our opposition.”
In an effort to address concerns about the treated water on fish and marine environment, Grossi and Kobayakawa signed an agreement on a joint project to see if or how marine life is impacted by tritium, the only radionuclide officials say is completely unremovable.
Much of the Fukushima wastewater contains cesium and other radionuclides, but it will be further filtered until the water is below international standards for all but tritium.
During a briefing Wednesday, South Korean officials said it’s highly unlikely that water with risky contamination levels would be pumped out into the ocean. Officials also stressed that South Korea plans to maintain tight screening across seafood imported from Japan and that there were no immediate plans to lift the country’s import ban on seafood from the Fukushima region.
Park Ku-yeon, first vice minister of South Korea’s Office for Government Policy Coordination, said Seoul plans to comment on the IAEA findings when it issues the results of the country’s own investigation on the potential effect of the water release, which he said will come soon.
A massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and contaminating their cooling water, which has leaked continuously. The water is collected, treated, and stored in about 1,000 tanks, which will reach their capacity in early 2024.
The government and the plant operator, TEPCO, say the water must be removed to prevent any accidental leaks and make room for the plant’s decommissioning.
Japanese regulators finished their final safety inspection last week, and TEPCO is expected to get the permit for the release in coming days. It could then begin gradually discharging the water any time, as the start date is undecided due to protests at home and abroad.
China doubled down on its objections to the release in a statement late Tuesday, saying the IAEA report failed to reflect all views and accusing Japan of treating the Pacific Ocean as a sewer.
“We once again urge the Japanese side to stop its ocean discharge plan, and earnestly dispose of the nuclear-contaminated water in a science-based, safe and transparent manner. If Japan insists on going ahead with the plan, it will have to bear all the consequences arising from this,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in the statement.
Japan should work with the IAEA to establish a “long-term international monitoring mechanism that would involve stakeholders including Japan’s neighboring countries,” the ministry said.
Grossi said treating, diluting, and gradually releasing radioactive wastewater is a proven method widely used in other countries — including China, South Korea, the United States, and France — to dispose of water containing certain radionuclides from nuclear plants.
Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to radionuclides remains unknown and urge a delay in the release. Others say the discharge plan is safe but call for more transparency in sampling and monitoring.
Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, after meeting with Grossi, said Japan will continue to provide “detailed explanations based on scientific evidence with a high degree of transparency both domestically and internationally.”
Grossi is also expected to visit South Korea, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands after his visit to Japan to ease concerns there.