TOKYO – Japan’s government on Tuesday decided to release treated radioactive water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant to the Pacific in two years – an option that is heavily opposed by fishermen, residents and Japan’s neighbors.
The decision, long speculated but delayed for years due to security concerns and protests, came at a meeting of cabinet ministers who advocated the ocean release as the best option.
The accumulating water has been stored in tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since 2011 when a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the reactors and their cooling water was contaminated and began to leak. The facility’s storage capacity will be full by the end of next year.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said releasing the ocean was the most realistic option and disposing of the water was inevitable for the shutdown of the Fukushima plant, which is expected to take decades. He also promised that the government would work to ensure the safety of the water and prevent harmful rumors about local agriculture, fishing and tourism.
The operator of the facility, Tokyo Electric Power Co., and government officials say that tritium, which is not harmful in small amounts, cannot be removed from the water, but all other selected radionuclides can be reduced to levels approved for release .
Some scientists say the long-term effects of low-dose exposure to such large amounts of water on marine life are unknown. The government emphasizes the safety of the water by calling it “treated” rather than “radioactive”, although radionuclides can only be reduced to disposable values and not to zero.
The amount of radioactive material that would remain in the water is also still unknown. According to the baseline plan approved by ministers on Tuesday, TEPCO will begin releasing the water in about two years after a facility is built and clearance plans are drawn up that meet safety requirements.
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The disposal of the water cannot be postponed any further and is necessary to improve the area around the facility so that the residents can live there safely. Local residents, fisheries officials and environmental groups issued statements denouncing the decision as a disregard for the safety and health of the environment, while further damaging Fukushima’s image and economy through decades of water drainage.
Hiroshi Kishi, chairman of Japan Fisheries Cooperatives, said the decision was “absolutely unacceptable” less than a week after meeting Suga. Noting the government’s promise not to act without the understanding of the fishing industry, Kishi said the decision “trampled” all Japanese fisheries operators.
Local fisheries have just resumed after a decade of using their catch for testing purposes only, and they are struggling with dwindling demand.
Attorney Izutaro Managi and his colleagues, who represent local residents in Fukushima and the surrounding area, said the government and TEPCO shouldn’t dump the water “just to pollute the environment” – in terms of the radiation that is still contaminating the land is closest to the damaged system.
The lawyers said in a statement that the ocean release was chosen on grounds of cost and that forcing the plan “underscores their lack of regret for the disaster.”
Protesters also gathered outside the prime minister’s office to call for the plan to be withdrawn.
According to TEPCO, the water storage capacity of 1.37 million tons will be full by autumn 2022. In addition, the area now filled with storage tanks needs to be cleared for the construction of new facilities required to remove molten fuel waste from inside the reactors and for other purposes of decommissioning work that is expected to begin in the coming years.
The tanks could also be damaged and leak in another major earthquake or tsunami, the report said.
The release of the water into the ocean was described by a government body as the most realistic method that had debated the disposal of the water for almost seven years. In the report produced last year, evaporation was mentioned as a less than desirable option.
A preliminary estimate is that the gradual release of water will take nearly 40 years but will be complete before the facility is completely shut down.
Japan will adhere to international rules for publication, get support from the International Atomic Energy Agency and others, and ensure data disclosure and transparency to gain an understanding for the international community, the report said.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a video message that the ocean discharge was in line with international practice, although “the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it a unique and complex case”.
He said the IAEA will assist Japan with environmental monitoring “before, during and after discharge”.
China and South Korea reacted strongly to Tuesday’s decision.
Koo Yun-cheol, Minister of the South Korean Policy Coordination Office, said the plan was “absolutely unacceptable” and urged Japan to disclose how the water is being treated and its safety verified.
China criticized Japan’s decision as “extremely irresponsible” and said it failed to address health concerns in neighboring countries.