Japan releases Fukushima nuclear wastewater despite concerns

Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
Japan releases Fukushima nuclear wastewater despite concerns An aerial view shows the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which started releasing treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, Aug. 24, 2023.
Kyodo, via Reuters

UPDATED at 10:05 a.m. EDT on 2023-08-24

Japan has started the gradual release of treated radioactive wastewater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, despite regional and local concerns, with plans to eventually pump more than 1 million metric tons of it into the sea.

The release comes 12 years after the nuclear accident following an earthquake and tsunami, leading to a plant meltdown. According to authorities, the water used to cool the nuclear reactors and additional groundwater and rainwater seeping into the reactor buildings has reached near full storage capacity.

TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the power plant located on Hakura Beach in Japan, said Thursday it began the discharge at around 1 p.m. local time.

Only about 200 or 210 cubic meters of treated wastewater is expected to be released on the first day, TEPCO told reporters earlier Thursday. However, starting Friday, it plans to increase the release to 7,800 cubic meters over 17 days.

If any irregularities in the discharge equipment or the dilution rates of the treated wastewater are observed, the operation will be halted at once, TEPCO said, adding it will also collect samples from nearby harbor water to monitor and ensure the discharged, treated wastewater meets international safety standards.

Last month, the U.N.’s atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the planned discharge of wastewater meets relevant international safety standards and would have a “negligible” radiological impact on people and the environment.

“Even if it takes several decades, the government will take responsibility until the treated water is fully disposed of,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday, announcing the decision to start releasing the water this week.

More than 1.3 million cubic meters of wastewater – enough to fill more than 500 Olympic-size swimming pools – currently contained in numerous water storage tanks at the facility is set to be released, which could take up to 40 years to complete. 

The continuous discharge of water is conducted through a long-submerged tunnel. The IAEA said last month it would continue its safety review during the discharge phase, with a continuous on-site presence and live online monitoring from the facility.

Water released despite concerns

Since Japan announced the decision to release the water in 2021, it has stirred consternation in neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, and some Pacific-island countries. 

Regarding Fukushima, Japanese authorities have been accused of minimizing risks, omitting crucial safety details, and being reluctant to recognize the core meltdown in 2011. Subsequent probes pinpointed the root causes as inadequate regulatory supervision and a lack of readiness.

Many experts have called for more independent verification of the release plan, alleging the decision to release the water was reached through a process that lacked full transparency and did not sufficiently include consultations with key stakeholders from both Japan and other countries. They said it had missing details, such as a comprehensive list of the radioactive elements remaining in the tanks.

The experts argue this could pave the way for more distrust and disputes, which is alarming, especially in Asia, where more than 140 nuclear power reactors are functional. 

A map of the Fukushima nuclear power plant where contaminated water is stored and treated ahead of release. [Reuters]

In its defense, TEPCO has said that the controlled discharge of the treated wastewater adheres to a meticulous nuclear purification process utilizing a pumping and filtration system called ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System), designed according to the safety standards prescribed by the IAEA, to leave but one primary radioactive isotope – tritium, which is impossible to separate from water. 

Instead, it will be diluted with the water to bring it below regulatory standards before the release with a tritium concentration of 1,500 becquerel/liter, which is six times lower than the World Health Organization’s recommended limit for drinkable water. 

A scientist considered this small amount to be of low risk.

“Fukushima water discharge will contain only harmless tritium and is not a unique event,” said Tony Irwin, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

However, another professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa said that Japan’s decision “is not surprising, but certainly disappointing.”

Instead of ocean dumping, both Japan and the IAEA could have used the opportunity to explore better approaches to nuclear disasters, said professor Robert Richmond, a member of the Expert Scientific Advisory Panel to the Pacific Islands Forum.

China bans all Japanese aquatic products

The Japanese government has pledged to continue monitoring the wastewater discharge and its effects on the marine environment, promising transparency in its reporting.

However, that has not placated environmentalists, neighboring countries and several local fishing communities that have expressed concerns about the potential ecological and health impacts. 

In the Philippines, fishermen expressed fears and urged the government in Manila to protest the move. 

The National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines (Pamalakaya) warned that the wastewater would reach the country’s shores and could severely impact marine life. 

“Our ocean and ecosystem will be directly affected. That’s the reason why we are relying on government agencies to make their stand on the issue,” Ronnel Arambulo, the group’s vice chairman, said in a statement. 

Pamalakaya was also coordinating with environmental groups in Japan and Taiwan to hold simultaneous protests this month. 

“People from many East Asian nations, especially farmers and fishers, have already spoken and repeatedly expressed their concerns about its environmental impacts,” he said. “The Japanese government must heed the growing clamor of its neighboring countries to protect the world’s largest and deepest ocean from the toxic radioactive wastes.”

Meanwhile in Malaysia, the fisheries department said it intensified checks on seafood imports, particularly from Japan, to ensure adherence to stringent food safety standards.

The government said it has monitored food products from Japan through the Food Safety and Quality Division since the Fukushima meltdown – a specific program in 2019 found imported samples to be compliant with safety limits.

The backlash in recent months has been particularly severe in South Korea and China.

South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party members and supporters shout slogans during a rally to demand the withdrawal of the Japanese government’s decision to release treated radioactive water into the sea from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, in Seoul, Aug. 23, 2023. [AP]

Seoul has voiced dissatisfaction over Tokyo’s inadequate consultation efforts but has withdrawn its objections, asking for more transparency.

Critics have argued that President Yoon Suk Yeol has agreed to Tokyo’s proposal primarily to enhance ties with Japan, historically a rival of South Korea, and under the influence of the U.S., a mutual ally of both countries.

China’s foreign ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador to China on Tuesday to express “serious concerns,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a press conference on Wednesday.

“This act blatantly transfers the risk of nuclear pollution to neighboring countries, including China, and the international community, prioritizing its own interests over the long-term well-being of the people in the region and around the world,” he said.

The General Administration of Customs of China on Thursday said it would suspend the import of all aquatic products from Japan.

A demonstrator holds an image of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a protest after Japan’s announcement of the release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 24, 2023. [Reuters]

In Taiwan, both official and public reaction to this matter has been lukewarm. Local officials have been reported as saying that since the 2011 earthquake, samples of catches from nearshore and offshore fisheries have been tested and all related indicators have passed.

In the Pacific, leaders are split over the release, with the Pacific Island Forum’s foreign ministers meeting in September to discuss the issue.

“There's a possibility we may have a splinter on our view on the Fukushima discharge, on the whole, we'll probably find consensus,” Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told Radio New Zealand on Thursday.

This report was produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news organization affiliated with BenarNews.

Kai Di of the RFA Mandarin service, RFA correspondent Chris Taylor, Jeoffrey Maitem in Manila and Iman Muttaqin Yusof in Kuala Lumpur of BenarNews contributed to this report.

This story was updated to include information from the Philippines and Malaysia. An earlier version incorrectly described the Fukushima plant as having been destroyed.



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