Japan’s government announced yesterday that it would start discharging treated radioactive water from a wrecked nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. Fishers, residents, and Japan’s neighbors fiercely oppose the move. Yet Cabinet ministers insist the ocean release is Japan’s best option.
In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactors. (See Frozen in Japan for more on the disaster.) Broken equipment contaminated the reactors’ cooling water and began leaking. Since the accident, huge tanks at the Fukushima plant have stored the toxic water.
In the decade since the tsunami disaster, water meant to cool the nuclear material has constantly escaped the damaged main containment vessels into the basements of the reactor buildings. To make up for the loss, workers pump more water into the reactors. Water is also pumped out and treated. Part of that water is recycled for ongoing cooling. The remainder goes into 1,020 tanks now holding 1.25 million tons of radioactive water.
Those tanks occupy a large space at the plant. They interfere with the safe and steady progress of the clean-up.
But the plant’s storage capacity will be full late next year. So where will all the water go? The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), says some must be released into the ocean. The company calls the release necessary to improve the environment surrounding the plant so residents can live there safely.
A government panel has spent years discussing how to dispose of the contaminated water.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says releasing the water into the ocean is the most realistic option. He says workers must dispose of the water to complete the clean-up so that the Fukushima plant can be retired. He asserts that his government will make sure the released water isn’t harmful.
Japan’s government calls the water “treated” not “radioactive”—even though certain radioactive elements can never be reduced to zero. The amount of radioactive material that would remain in the water is unknown, but the government stresses that the release will be safe.
TEPCO and government officials admit that tritium, which is not harmful in small amounts, can never be fully removed from the water. But they say hazardous elements can be reduced to releasable levels. However, some scientists point out that the long-term impact on marine life is unknown.
Under the basic plan, TEPCO will begin releasing the water in about two years. Experts say it could take nearly 40 years to deal with all the treated water.
Residents, fisheries officials, and environmental groups have issued statements condemning the decision. Protesters gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Office to demand the plan be scrapped. They claim the government is ignoring environmental safety and health—and further hurting Fukushima’s image and economy.
Japan Fisheries Cooperatives chairman Hiroshi Kishi insists the decision “trampled on” all Japanese fisheries operators. Local fisheries have just returned to full operation after a decade in which their catch was only for testing purposes. They are struggling because of dwindling demand.
China and South Korea reacted strongly to Tuesday’s decision.
Koo Yun-cheol, minister of South Korea’s Office for Government Policy Coordination, calls the plan “absolutely unacceptable.” South Korea has banned seafood imports from parts of Japan since 2013 and could increase those steps.
China criticized Japan’s decision as “extremely irresponsible,” saying it had not considered the health concerns of neighboring countries.
What are your best suggestions for dealing with millions of gallons of contaminated water? Should Japan be allowed to dump it into the ocean? Why or why not?
(People chant slogans against the government’s decision to start releasing treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, during a rally in Tokyo on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. AP/Eugene Hoshiko)