The government formally authorized a plan on Tuesday to release treated radioactive water stored at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant into the sea and announced a sweeping range of steps to address mounting worries over reputational damage to local fisheries and food.
“The treated water’s discharge is an unavoidable issue in the process of decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday morning.
“Today, we’ve made a decision that releasing the water into the sea is realistic and put together basic policies, on the condition that the government guarantees safety in a way that significantly goes beyond (national and international) standards and does everything it can to implement countermeasures against damage caused by rumors.”
The decision comes five years after the government determined that, among five options including evaporating it into the atmosphere, a discharge into the sea is the cheapest and fastest way to dispose of the water.
Suga’s administration wanted to put an early end to the yearslong debate over the fate of the accumulating water, given that it will take two years to prepare for the release. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., which has accumulated 1.25 million tons of treated water, expects to run out of tank storage capacity, 1.37 million tons, as early as the fall of 2022.
The water will be discharged into the sea in about two years and the government will hold a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss the specifics of the countermeasures, Suga said. The government will reinforce public relations initiatives to highlight the water’s safety and promised that Tepco will offer compensation if damage is caused by rumors regarding local agricultural and marine products.
Neighboring countries reacted to the announcement with criticism and bewilderment.
Koo Yun-cheol, South Korea’s minister for government policy coordination, expressed Seoul’s opposition to the plan, while Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council said legislators and others on the self-ruled island oppose it, according to Kyodo News.
The Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement describing the move as “highly irresponsible.”
“Despite doubts and opposition from home and abroad, Japan has unilaterally decided to release the Fukushima nuclear wastewater into the sea before exhausting all safe ways of disposal and without fully consulting with neighboring countries and the international community,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said in a statement it is supportive of Japan’s “transparent” decision to discharge the water and work closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on oversight.
The move also marks a key step in the government’s plan to complete the decommissioning of the wrecked nuclear plant sometime between 2041 and 2051. There has been mounting concern that the 1,061 storage tanks spread out across the plant will hinder the decommissioning work, including the extraction of nearly 900 tons of melted reactor debris from the three wrecked reactors.
Yasumasa Igarashi, associate professor at Tsukuba University and the author of “Nuclear Accident and Food,” said he’s not opposed to the release scientifically but added that the political decision could have been made years earlier, as fishermen will have to face the full brunt of the decision just as they are about to resume full-scale fishing operations after years of a voluntary decrease in fish catches.
“I think the decision would ideally be reached on a more open-ended basis with no foregone conclusion, but the move means that the government has been cornered to a point where they had to make a decision even after they failed to win the key consent of the fishermen,” he said, speaking prior to the expected announcement.
The government unveiled a number of steps aimed at assuaging worries over an adverse impact on Fukushima food. Those measures were requested by Hiroshi Kishi, president of the National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, when he and other association officials met Suga last Wednesday.
Igarashi, who was involved in a study by the agriculture industry on the effect of reputational damage to Fukushima food, gave high marks to the steps, saying they would help gain understanding from the international community and support production and distribution of Fukushima food.
“These are the things I have been calling for as a member of several government committees, so I think they took those into account,” he added.
The more than 100 tons of groundwater that seeps into the wrecked reactor basements every day has been a big headache for Tepco and the government, as it mixes with highly radioactive debris. Tepco uses a purification system called ALPS that removes 62 radionuclides to levels in line with national standards, with the exception of tritium. Tepco is considering building more tanks in case the discharge is delayed, its spokesman said.
Any release of treated water into the Pacific off Fukushima Prefecture will be done in small quantities each time and carried out over a period of about 30 years, after diluting the concentration of tritium to about one-fortieth of the maximum set out by national standards. The government maintains that discharges into the sea are common at nuclear plants globally and that the impact on human health is “very low.”
Suga said the concentration of tritium will be reduced to one-seventh of that required by the World Health Organization’s drinking water standard. The release of the treated water will be monitored by third-party observers such as the IAEA.
“Even if the entire amount of ALPS treated water stored in tanks can be released in one year, the impact would be no more than 1/1000 of the exposure impact of natural radiation in Japan, according to the calculation based on the method used by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation,” a senior government official said in a statement.
Still, the public’s support for the discharge remains low, with most surveys showing a majority of the public are against the release.
According to Fukushima Prefecture, 15 countries and regions, including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, still enforce import restrictions on food from the prefecture, although 39 nations have lifted such restrictions in the years following the nuclear disaster.
“We’re aware that people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, including those who live in Fukushima, are very concerned about damage from rumors, and this government decision is very critical in that it comes with very heavy responsibilities,” said Hiroshi Kajiyama, the minister in charge of nuclear damage compensation.
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