Despite concerns, Japan releases treated water from destroyed nuclear power plant

Japan will start discharging treated radioactive waste water from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant this week, its government said Tuesday, shedding regional and domestic objections, to eventually discharge over a million tons of the water into the sea.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made the announcement after a meeting of his cabinet and said the release would start on Thursday, weather and sea conditions permitting.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in July that the government's plan met the agency's safety standards and that the release of the treated water was unlikely to pose a serious health risk to humans.

However, some scientists have questioned whether the Japanese government and the company that operated the plant, Tokyo Electric Power, have been sufficiently vocal about what radioactive material might remain in the storage tanks.

The Chinese government, which has strongly opposed the plan, warned on Tuesday that it would take “all necessary measures” to protect the marine environment, food safety and public health. A large segment of the South Korean public also opposes the initiation, as do fisheries associations and others in Japan.

Mr. Kishida visited the destroyed nuclear power plant on Sunday and met with Japanese fishing industry leaders in Tokyo on Monday to ensure fishermen can continue to earn a living once released.

Masanobu Sakamoto, chairman of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, said that while many members of his group have accepted the government's assurances on the safety of the discharge, they have continued to reject them because of the potential impact on fishermen's livelihoods.

Since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown in Fukushima in 2011, what to do with the resulting tons of water used to cool nuclear fuel rods has been one of the biggest challenges for both the government and Tokyo Electric.

For Japan, it is both a political and a technical or ecological problem. Despite the international agency's determination that the water's release was safe, opponents at home and in neighboring countries have questioned both the government and the agency's motives. When the Japanese cabinet approved the water treatment plan in 2021, it described controlled release into the sea as the best disposal option available.

People's Daily, a state-run Chinese Communist Party media organization, has dubbed the treated water Japan's “nuclear wastewater.” And in South Korea, where imports of seafood from waters near Fukushima are still banned, an opposition MP warned that “no one can say or predict with certainty what the discharge of radioactive materials into the sea will do over an extended period of time.”

In Japan, both Fukushima and national fisheries associations have expressed concern that both domestic and international customers may be reluctant to eat locally-sourced fish once Tokyo Electric begins water drainage.

Although it has been a dozen years since the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the area around the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant, the clean-up work is still at an early stage. The government estimates that the water release is expected to occur over a 30-year period.

The water is stored in more than 1,000 sky-blue tanks lined up around the facility's grounds. Tokyo Electric – or Tepco as it's known – pumps the water through the wrecked reactors to cool molten fuel that's still too hot and radioactive to remove.

As the water flows through the reactors, it accumulates radioactive nuclides. In some cases, Tepco repeatedly runs the water through a powerful filtration system designed to remove all radioactive material except tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. Experts say tritium is not harmful to human health in small doses, and removal is prohibitively expensive anyway.

Other nuclear power plants around the world, including those in China, South Korea and the United States, use similar processes to treat cooling water and, after such filtration, also release tritiated water into the oceans.

Still, some scientists have questions. According to Tepco's website 30 percent Of the approximately 473,000 tons of water in the tanks, they have been completely treated so that only tritium is left.

“The idea is, ‘Just trust us,'” said Ken Buesseler, a marine radiochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who said he would like more detailed analyzes of what remains in the tanks, particularly those that have already been treated.

Buesseler said that while tritium is “one of the least dangerous” radioactive materials, others like cesium or cobalt could be more dangerous if they get into the ocean.

He said the government has not explored alternative options such as building more tanks or using the treated water to make cement. “I think they just want the cheapest and fastest solution, which is a pipe in the sea,” said Dr. Buesseler.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry describes water treated in its filtration system as “purified” and has stated that any water entering the ocean “is treated to meet safety standards for all radioactive materials except corresponds to tritium”.

Kazuya Idemitsu, a professor of nuclear engineering at Tohoku University, said he is confident the international agency will monitor the water release to ensure only water containing tritium and no other radioactive material is discharged into the sea.

dr Idemitsu said that much of the public's concern stems from the highly technical nature of the treatment process and the government's difficulties in communicating the scientific findings.

“When it comes to this type of scientific information, there are a lot of people who don't understand it or don't know about it,” said Dr. Idemitsu. “And it may take longer for us to get that understanding.”

Among the fishermen who depend on the seas off Fukushima for their daily catch, what potential customers think matters.

“It's a matter of life and death for the fishermen,” said Masatsugu Shibata, 67, who recently sailed his 40-foot fishing trawler out of a port in Iwaki, Fukushima, before dawn and caught about a dozen large flounders. “I'll get in trouble if they drain the water.”

Mr Shibata, who hopes to one day pass his fishing operations on to his son and grandson, said fishing operations have only recovered to about 20 percent of pre-disaster levels. When the water is released, there will “certainly be reactions,” he said, adding, “A lot of people would stop eating fish.”

“Now the government says it's safe,” he said. “But safety and peace of mind are different.”

The government has already paid a total of 10 trillion yen ($68.4 billion) in compensation to fishermen, farmers and evacuated residents from Fukushima and other affected prefectures since 2011 to offset losses caused by the disaster.

Some countries have signaled their support for the government's plan. Last week, before President Biden received Mr. Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States was satisfied with Japan's plan. In July, the European Union lifted all restrictions on fish and agricultural imports from Fukushima. The region had blocked shipments of products since the disaster.

While South Korea still bans imports of seafood from Fukushima waters, Mr Yoon has backed the Japanese government's plan amid the recent warming of relations between the two countries.

At a recent rally in downtown Seoul, protesters suggested that Japan should use the treated water in agriculture or industry instead.

Opposition MPs have attacked Mr Yoon for supporting the plan, accusing him of defending Japan “like a parrot”.

“We cannot allow government policies that are vital to people's lives and security to be dictated by the president's personal kindness and familiarity with Japan,” said Lee Byunghoon, an opposition MP.

The Chinese government has been particularly critical of Japan's plan to release treated water at Fukushima, dismissing the international agency's report as insufficient evidence that the release poses no undue risks.

Tensions between China and Japan are rising after a trilateral security agreement between Japan, South Korea and the United States was signed late last week.

Chinese netizens reacted angrily to the news on Tuesday, calling for a boycott of Japanese goods and posting racist comments.

“Japan has launched a new form of nuclear war. We should reject Japanese products and restaurants,” reads a comment below an article about the planned publication by Mengma News, a media outlet operated by the Henan provincial government.

Hong Kong Premier John Lee said he strongly opposes Japan's plan and has urged city authorities to “take immediate action to control imports.”

China itself operates nuclear reactors on its coast and uses seawater instead of the scarce freshwater to cool the steam from the reactors.

Keith Bradsher contributed to the coverage from Beijing, Choe Sang Hun from Seoul and David Pierson and Tiffany May from Hong Kong. Olivia Wang contributed to the research.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button