There’s enough contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to fill 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools, but they’re running out of space. This week, environment journalist Mara Budgen joins us to discuss Japan’s plan to get rid of the wastewater — a plan that has made some of our neighbors very unhappy.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

On this episode:

Shaun McKenna: Articles | Twitter | Instagram

Mara Budgen: Articles | Twitter | Instagram | Website

Read/Listen more:

Get in touch: Send us feedback at [email protected]. Support the show by rating, reviewing and sharing the episode with a friend if you’ve enjoyed it. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter!

Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Shaun McKenna  00:09  

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna.

What you just heard there was a protest led by South Korean lawmakers and Japanese activists outside the Japanese prime minister's office this week, and similar scenes met Rafael Grossi the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, in South Korea this past weekend. The problem? Though a date hasn't been announced, this summer water used at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is expected to be released into the Pacific Ocean. South Koreans aren't the only ones concerned; those in the Japanese fisheries industry, Russia, the island nations of the South Pacific and China have all voiced objections to Japan's plan and are either urging delays or scrapping the plan altogether. Today, environment journalist Mara Budgen will join me to explain what's going on up in Fukushima.

Hey Mara.

Mara Budgen  01:13

Hey Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 01:14

You just got back from the Tohoku region, an area that on March 11, 2011, was hit by one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history. The quake was so powerful that it reportedly shifted the earth on its axis by 10-25 centimeters. And that tsunami that followed was responsible for the majority of the more than 15,800 lives lost from the disaster. Before we get into our discussion today on its after effects, why don't you tell me a little bit about what the area is like now?

Mara Budgen  01:39  

Yeah, absolutely. So, I was in the coastal areas of Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures. I also visited Aomori, but that was just for hiking. So in terms of what these areas are like today, so I guess the apparent overarching fact is that buildings and infrastructure have been rebuilt over the past decade. So it's not like you walk around and you see like very evident signs of like a disaster having taken place. However, there are 430 kilometers of sea walls that have been built along the coast of Tohoku as a prevention measure against potential future tsunamis.

Shaun McKenna  02:20  

You actually wrote something about those sea walls for The Japan Times, didn't you? 

Mara Budgen  02:24  

Yeah, Shaun, thanks for remembering that. Yes, I wrote a piece about Japan's approach to sea walls. And, actually, I remember that previous Deep Dive host Oscar Boyd, he published a really great photo essay called the sea walls of Tohoku in 2021. So that's something definitely worth looking at for listeners. So anyway, going back to what the hook was like today, so another thing you see a lot in Tohoku, and specifically on the coast of Fukushima, are these mega solar power plants, and these afforestation projects, so basically, creating new forests in areas that were flooded, and they were basically never reconverted to farmland or to residential areas. So having said that, you know, there are still some signs of the disaster like there are some buildings — and even some trees — that have been left in a ravaged kind of state as reminders of what happened in 2011. These include, for example, abandoned schools, such as the Ukedo Elementary School in Namie, in Fukushima, and the so-called Miracle Pine Tree at the Tsunami Memorial Museum in Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture. But, of course, let's also not forget that there are still entire areas, especially as you get closer to the nuclear plant, Fukushima Daiichi that simply you cannot enter and where people still can't live.

Shaun McKenna  03:52  

So in addition to the many cities and towns that were damaged, one of the major crises that unfolded due to the quake took place at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant — Daiichi, as you called it — which is on the border between Okuma and Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture. There were several meltdowns, and significant structural damage was done to the facility. And we seem to be still dealing with the disasters after effects. Can you explain to us the current challenge facing the facility?

Mara Budgen  04:20  

Sure, so the main challenge is removing the nuclear fuel debris from reactors one, two and three and moving it and storing it in a safe location. So because of the damage suffered by these facilities back in March 2011, this has to be done through remote-controlled machines — robots, essentially — as it's just simply too dangerous for humans to enter these buildings. So this process is extremely difficult and costly, and sort of how to do it is something that Tepco is still trying to figure out.

Shaun McKenna  04:56  

Tepco being the Tokyo Electric Power Company that operates the power plant.

Mara Budgen  05:00  

Exactly. So they're responsible for the decommissioning process, because as you can imagine, the plant is no longer in operation. And it needs to be “cleaned up,” let's say. So basically, the fuel debris problem is so complicated and difficult, that I think we need an entire other episode of Deep Dive to talk about it.

Shaun McKenna  05:22  

I'll put it on my to-do list. One issue surrounding this “cleanup” has to do with the water. And it has caused a lot of debate among various groups and governments in the region.

Mara Budgen  5:33  

Yeah, it really has. So water is constantly being pumped by Tepco through the reactors to keep them cool, which prevents meltdowns, or explosions from happening. So there's also rainwater and groundwater that is seeping into the reactor buildings. And when all of this water comes into contact with the nuclear fuel, it picks up radionuclides, which are also known as radioisotopes, which basically means that it becomes radioactive. So fortunately, it's not going directly into the sea at that point. But it is, in fact, being collected and pumped by Tepco and stored in tanks. So basically, what we have now at Fukushima Daiichi is a situation where 100,000 liters, or 100 tons of contaminated water are being produced every single day, which is actually less than a third of what was being produced in the first years after the disaster. So this has all been happening for over 12 years. In fact, it's still happening now. And this has resulted in 1.3 million tons of water accumulating in around 1,000 stainless steel tanks. So that quantity is equivalent to roughly 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

Shaun McKenna  06:58

That's a lot of water. 

Mara Budgen  07:00

Yes, it is a lot of water. And so basically, what's happening is that the tanks are now at 98% of their capacity. And around the start of next year, potentially as early as February 2024, there will be no more room to store this contaminated water, at least not on the site of the nuclear power plant, as space is needed for other aspects of the decommissioning process, including the not-so-trivial issue of where to store the fuel debris once is removed from the reactors.

Shaun McKenna  07:30  

OK, and this water problem is the immediate challenge that Tepco and the government have to solve. 

Mara Budgen  07:35

That's right. 

Shaun McKenna  07:37

So what is the government planning to do with all this contaminated water?

Mara Budgen  07:40  

So there have been years of discussions about how to fix this problem. So one option, of course, would be to keep building new tanks and to continue storing the water for longer so that its radioactivity decreases. But this option was dismissed by the government, due to its cost. And I can also imagine, Shaun, that the nearby towns wouldn't be thrilled about hosting stacks of tanks filled with contaminated water. So Tepco actually officially came up with five different options for dealing with the water. And the one that was chosen in the end, and it was officially announced in April 2021, was this famous water discharge option. So there's also definitely a sense that this was the most likely option from the very beginning, actually. So this plan, this water discharge plan, involves treating and diluting the water so that radioactivity is reduced to below regulatory limits, and then releasing it into the Pacific Ocean.

Shaun McKenna  08:44  

Is that safe?

Mara Budgen  08:45  

That's the first question that everybody asks, Shaun! Which is understandable, as it's the biggest concern, I guess. So Tepco is using this filtering technology called ALPS.

Shaun McKenna  08:59  

What does that stand for?

Mara Budgen  09:00  

It stands for Advanced Liquid Processing System. So any references to mountain ranges that the acronym “ALPS” may bring to mind are, of course, purely coincidental. So ALPS was developed by Tepco together with Toshiba and Hitachi, and it's basically a filtering system that partially removes 62 radionuclides. So it actually doesn't remove them entirely, but removes them enough to bring them below Japan's regulatory limits. However, there are two radionuclides that the system doesn't remove. And the one that is more well-known is tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that becomes tritiated water when it combines with oxygen. Because, as we know, water is H2O. Oh, yeah. So technology to remove tritium actually exists out there in the world, but it's extremely expensive because tritium is literally part of the water, the water is tritiated. And the other radionuclide that ALPS doesn't remove is called carbon 14, which is actually not mentioned very much in reporting on this issue I've found. So for both this carbon 14 and tritium, the government's solution is to dilute the water, again to ensure the concentrations are below regulatory levels. So for example, the radioactivity levels of the water that is planning to be released will be 1/40th of national safety standards. And tritium levels will be about 1/7th of the World Health Organization's guidelines for drinking water quality. So however, when it comes to the safety of the release, which was your original question, it's more complicated than that. So take tritium, for example. So on the one hand, it behaves like water, therefore, it doesn't accumulate in organisms, whether these are humans, marine animals or marine plants, because it kind of just passes through them like normal water does. This is what the Japanese government and many nuclear experts around the world say. But there are other scientists and experts out there who don't agree, because there could be risks involved in something called organically bound tritium. And this is when tritium binds to organic matter, such as carbon atoms in living organisms, and therefore remains in the cells of plants, animals and humans, emitting something called beta radiation, which can have health risks.

Shaun McKenna  11:38  

So there isn't total agreement on this.

Mara Budgen  11:41  

No. And basically, it's widely reported that the water is safe, and this was definitely reinforced when the chief of the IAEA Rafael Grossi visited Japan recently to present the IAEA’s latest report. However, I have spoken to many different scientists. And while some dismiss the safety concerns as kind of ludicrous, there are others who point to evidence that tritium as well as other radionuclides do present health risks, even if they're below regulatory standards, because we are already exposed to many sources of radiation therefore any additional exposure is simply not good.

Shaun McKenna  12:30  

  1. How do they plan to release this water into the ocean? They can't just, you know, pass buckets of stuff in a line down the beach and dump it in, right?

Mara Budgen  12:37  

No, I guess not. That kind of reminds me of my childhood playing at the beach, I dunno if you ever made sand castles. Anyway, so no, of course, the infrastructure required is a lot more complicated than just a bucket. So the water will be released via a 1-kilometer tunnel that basically stretches out into the ocean off the coast of Fukushima, and only a certain amount of it, 500 tons, in fact, will be released every day. So considering there are 1.3 million tons and counting, this process is estimated to last the next 30 or even 40 years. So I'll be a grandmother, or of grandmother age, by the time they finish releasing the water.

Shaun McKenna  13:22  

So just to recap, there's around 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated water sitting in tanks at the site of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Fukushima Daiichi. The government plans to treat it so that we remove almost everything but the tritium and carbon-14. Then they'll send it down a kilometer-long tunnel stretching into the Pacific Ocean, where it will be released over the next 30 to 40 years. 

Mara Budgen  13:47

Exactly. So this is actually something that is not entirely unheard of, even though it does sound like quite an extreme plan, as nuclear power plants all over the world — including in China, South Korea, the U.K., France and your home country of Canada, Shaun — so they regularly release tritiated water. Now, on the one hand, the tritium levels that the government and Tepco plan to release each year will actually be much lower than some of these other so-called regular releases. So the limit is set at 22 becquerels each year now, becquerels are a measure of radioactivity. And this is actually a lot less than what nuclear plants were emitting in Japan before they were stopped following the 2011 disaster. So on the other hand, this isn't considered a regular release. Even IAEA director Grossi said the other day that the Fukushima release has attracted a lot of interest and this is absolutely logical because it's quite a unique case. And basically the water that the government, the Japanese government, is planning to release from Fukushima is dead. Front from that coming from regular nuclear power operations, because it has come into direct contact with nuclear fuel. So it's understandable that people are concerned.

Shaun McKenna  15:11  

We're going to talk about the countries and other groups who are taking issue with this strategy in a moment. But one question first, when is the release of the water expected to start?

Mara Budgen  15:23  

Yeah, it's supposed to start sometime this summer, though an exact date hasn't been announced yet. So the IAEA has been reviewing the plan for the last two years and has published various reports. But with the publication of the final one, the one that Grossi presented just the other day in Japan, the Japanese government has received kind of the final blessing in its eyes. So Grossi said that the plan, the water discharge plan, meets the relevant international safety standards, and that the discharge will have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment. However, do note that Grossi also said that the IAEA doesn't actually endorse or recommend the plan. So basically, all they're saying is that it's consistent with the standards. So from the IAEA’s point of view, it's the Japanese government's responsibility. And the IAEA is simply providing monitoring and recommendations for a policy that Japan has adopted.

Shaun McKenna  16:37  

So this summer, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (or Tepco) plans to begin releasing the water it has been storing to cool radioactive debris at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese government says it's plan to do this is solid. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, has given its OK. Mara, who isn't on board with this strategy. 

Mara Budgen  16:59  

Quite a few people actually. So among those taking issue are some of the residents along the coast of Tohoku, and also other citizens in Japan and beyond who are concerned about the effects of radioactivity on health and the environment. So a lot of opposition has come from those working in the fishing industry, for example. Not just in Tohoku but all over Japan, and even in neighboring countries, such as South Korea. Actually, speaking of South Korea, public opinion there seems to be really against the release. According to polls conducted in May and June, anywhere between 78% and 84% of people are worried or somewhat worried about the plan, or even outright opposed to it. So in terms of governments who have spoken out against the release, there's a group called the Pacific Islands Forum — and it has 18 member states. And some of the island nations that are part of this group are against the water discharge. And in fact, Russia and North Korea are also opposed to it, and the most vocal critic, at least in terms of state actors is China.

Shaun McKenna  18:11  

Let's start local with the fishermen. What is their position? They seem like they would be perhaps the most affected by the plan of action.

Mara Budgen  18:19  

Actually, Shaun, it's not just fishermen, as a lot of women do work in the industry. Oh, my apologies, though, I guess fisherpeople sounds weird?

Shaun McKenna  18:27  

What? Fisherfolk?

Mara Budgen  18:29  

Oh, let's just say fishers. Yeah, so since the very beginning, the organizations that represent fisheries and Fukushima and other parts of Tohoku, and in Japan as a whole, these organizations are called zengyoren in Japanese, they have been against the water release. So they've pushed against it because of the reputational and therefore economic damage they believe they would suffer. You know, to put things into perspective, in Fukushima, the fishing industry has only recovered to about 20% of its pre-disaster level — at least this is data from 2021. OK, so basically what happened is that in 2015, the government and Tepco reached an agreement with … OK, get ready for this … the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, so basically the Fukushima zengyoren, and the agreement said that the treated water wouldn't be released without the understanding of people involved, which includes the fishing industry. So I actually asked the Fukushima zengyoren if this commitment had been upheld, and they said, unequivocally, “no.” Yeah, I mean, on the other hand, it's kind of complicated, because I've heard on Tepco’s side that the word understanding has a different meaning in English than it does in Japanese. So in Japanese, it's rikai, and this can mean different things to different people. And in any case, the government and Tepco believe they've put the utmost effort into getting the fishing industry’s understanding. So the fact is, though, that in my conversations with fishers in Tohoku, many speak of feeling abandoned or betrayed, and equate the plant water released to kind of like another Fukushima because it will, once again, damage all that they've fought so hard for. And there's also evidence that this damage is real. You know, we saw the recent run on sea salt in South Korea, where people rushed to stock up even before the water release begins…

Shaun McKenna  20:40  

Right. Sea salt is kind of commonly used in South Korean cooking.

Mara Budgen  20:45  

Yes, I love South Korean cooking. It is quite salty though I guess. No, jokes aside. So the impact is happening now. You know, according to data from the Korea Customs Service, imports of Japanese seafood plummeted by 30% in May compared to the same month last year, after a 26% decrease in April. And let's look at China. So China already bans seafood imports from 10 Japanese prefectures, including in Tohoku, but it's still the biggest buyer of Japanese seafood exports. And China has said that it's considering expanding those import bans, as is Russia by the way. So actually, the story is moving quite fast, so by the time listeners tune in there may actually have been further developments on this front.

Shaun McKenna  21:37  

OK, so is it the economic impact of this water release plan that the fishing industry is most concerned with?

Mara Budgen  21:44  

Yeah, there's definitely a level in which they're worried about how consumers perceive their products. So better communication with the public is definitely one aspect. However, I'd argue that there's also a kind of social justice element to the story, whereby these people feel that they've been crushed by this terrible accident, and they just don't want to relive the trauma and start rebuilding all over again. Many are angry and disappointed, I would say.

Shaun McKenna  22:16  

As you mentioned, South Korean shoppers seem to be avoiding Japanese seafood. Where does the South Korean government stand on the plan?

Mara Budgen  22:24  

So for a long time, the South Korean government was one of the biggest critics of the plan, but with the recent thawing of relations between Tokyo and Seoul, its position has actually changed. So the South Korean government sent a delegation to examine Fukushima Daiichi and its ALPS treatment facility, and its conclusion is that it agrees with the IAEA that the release is in line with international standards. However, opposition parties in South Korea remain strongly against it. There's even one Democratic Party lawmaker who is reportedly on a hunger strike to protest the water release. And these opposition politicians had some pretty harsh words for Rafael Grossi when he went to South Korea this past weekend. And there's also been street protests, including in front of the Japanese Embassy.

Shaun McKenna  23:14  

You mentioned other countries that have been reacting negatively to the Japanese release plan. Can you explain their positions in a bit more detail? 

Mara Budgen  23:23  

Yeah, so the main voice of opposition is definitely China. Their foreign ministry spokesperson stated that the Pacific Ocean is, and I quote, “not Japan's sewer.” So in the run up to the winter release, there have already been some boycotts of Japanese products in China, including those of cosmetics brand Shiseido,  and these have been largely spread by online actors. And as I mentioned before, China has also threatened to put more bans on Japanese food products. But to be fair, Japan has communicated with China and Chinese experts, including through the IAEA, and it has invited other regions and nations to Fukushima in addition to South Korea. For example, delegates from Taiwan and Micronesia have visited the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Though you could also argue that the decision to release the water might have been met with less opposition if there had been more transparent consultation internationally before the decision was made and announced. On the other hand, that could have made the process very inefficient and subject to political manipulation.

Shaun McKenna  24:33  

Now, you mentioned Micronesia there, I recall then-Micronesian President David Panuelo spoke to the UN Assembly about this issue last year. Where do the island nations of the Pacific Ocean stand on the issue now?

Mara Budgen  24:46  

So interestingly, Panuelo dropped his protest since visiting Japan, including the Fukushima Daiichi power plant multiple times this year. And this week as well, New Zealand's government announced that it had full confidence in the IAEA's assessment. However, these are governmental positions and they actually differ from that of the Pacific Islands Forum as an organization. So the PIF, which is the Pacific Islands Forum, of course, has been a really vocal critic of the water release. Now Secretary-General Henry Puna, a former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, he called the decision “unilateral,” and highlighted that the PIF has uncovered serious information gaps and grave concerns when it comes to the water release plan. So in fact, a scientific panel of five experts was asked by the PIF to make an assessment of the plan, and they highlighted some of the concerns that we have already talked about. But there's something else that they said that stuck out to me. So they believe there simply isn't sufficient data to prove the water release won't cause damage to the marine environment, and potentially to human health. The conclusion, in the PIF’s view, is that the release should be delayed until further scientific examination is conducted. So there's an important historical context here, you know, the islands in the South Pacific have a tragic history when it comes to nuclear activity and pollution, as both the United States and France used the ocean around these islands to test nuclear weapons in the late 20th century, and the effects of this continued to this day with residents of these islands suffering from cancers and even birth defects. So in fact, there's a treaty called the Treaty of Rarotonga for a nuclear free South Pacific, though I must say Japan isn't a signatory to this treaty. 

Shaun McKenna  26:51  

Could there be a legal argument against the water release plan, like at least when it comes to international law? 

Mara Budgen  26:59  

So I actually spoke to a lawyer. He's called Duncan Currie, and he's an expert in environmental and international law. I spoke to him for some stories I'm working on about this topic, and, in his view, there actually is a very clear case for bringing this to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, because Japan isn't abiding by its international obligation to take all the necessary measures to prevent marine pollution. But basically Currie explained that you'd need a state actor to bring this case to the tribunal, which is obviously quite a complicated and potentially expensive undertaking. Though interestingly, opposition lawmakers in South Korea are actually suggesting their government do this.

Shaun McKenna  27:41  

You know, part of me thinks this should be a pretty straightforward issue. The IAEA has said it meets international safety standards. A bunch of countries have signed off on it. Should this be as controversial as it is?

Mara Budgen  27:56  

So, as you say, the IAEA has said it meets the standards. But what some people are questioning is whether these standards are truly in the interest of public health and environmental safety, or if they're more just about managing the risks connected to nuclear power generation, because, they would argue, the IAEA is there to ensure the continuation of the nuclear industry. That's actually written in its statute. So that's definitely something we should be discussing, I think. And also worth discussing is something I was speaking about with a researcher called Kohta Juraku, he's from Tokyo Denki University and he's an expert in the sociology of science. Now, he says the Japanese authorities need to reassess how they're handling this issue, because it's something that hasn't really been done before, and they should also reassess how they handle other public safety issues. So basically, what he's arguing is that the government should take a proactive stance toward managing safety and risk and communicating with the public, and that it should take responsibility rather than be defensive even, or in fact especially, when something goes wrong.

Shaun McKenna  29:12  

Mara Budgen, thanks for coming back to Deep Dive. 

Mara Budgen  27:56  

Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  29:21

My thanks again to Mara Budgen for coming on this week's show. We'll put links to stories related to the Fukushima wastewater release in the show notes, as well as a feature by Japan Times writer Tomoko Otake on the problems contaminated soil is causing in the region. Yep, the soil needs tossing, too. 

Elsewhere in the news, torrential rain in southern Japan on Monday triggered landslides. They killed at least seven people, with the authorities ordering tens of thousands of residents to leave their homes. That came as other parts of Japan continue to face extremely hot weather, with some temperatures exceeding 38 degrees Celsius. In Tokyo, some areas have seen record highs of over 35 degrees for two consecutive days. And then, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said it was unlawful to restrict the use of bathrooms by a transgender woman at the economy ministry, overturning a previous lower court ruling. The ruling — a unanimous decision by the five judges on the bench — marks a significant step forward for the working conditions of transgender individuals, and could affect how companies and government ministries handle similar cases in the future. The woman, who asked not to be named due to privacy reasons, told reporters afterward that she was satisfied with the judges' positive opinions on the need to create a diverse society. 

Deep Dive is produced by Dave Cortez. The closing theme is by Oscar Boyd and the theme music was written by Japanese musician LLLL. I’m Shaun McKenna, thanks for listening, and podtsukaresama.