Japan to begin dumping +1 million tons of treated radioactive water into Pacific Ocean on Thursday

"Japan is treating the ocean like its private sewer" say neighboring nations.

by | August 22, 2023

Filed Under Environment

Full release is likely to take decades

Here are two write ups about the disposal of tainted water from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which was devastated in 2011 by a tsunami generated by a earthquake.

The first is by Miho Inada of Dow Jones & Company titled “Japan to Release Water From Fukushima Nuclear Plant Into Pacific This Week” —

The Japanese government said it planned to begin the discharge of slightly radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Thursday, rejecting calls for a delay from some people in neighboring countries.

The announcement on Tuesday came after the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations body, gave the green light to the plan to release more than 1.3 million tons of water with small quantities of radioactive tritium over three to four decades. The agency said in early July that Japan’s plan was in line with international nuclear safety standards and that its impact on people and the environment would be negligible.

An earthquake and tsunami knocked out power at the Fukushima nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, causing meltdowns at three reactors.

Water used to cool reactor cores as well as rainwater and groundwater that flowed into or near the plant have been contaminated with radioactive substances. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco, has stored the water in more than 1,000 tanks at the facility but says it is running out of room.

Tepco says it will reduce the concentration of nearly all radioactive substances in the wastewater to a safe level with the exception of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. The water will then get diluted with seawater so the concentration of tritium is also reduced to a safe level before the discharge, according to Tepco.

As the water is diluted further in the ocean, the concentration of tritium will be indistinguishable from the natural level by 6 miles from the discharge point, which is at the end of an undersea tunnel about six-tenths of a mile from the shoreline, a Tepco official said.

Speaking to cabinet members Tuesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the water release was “an issue that absolutely cannot be put off” to “achieve the recovery of Fukushima and decommissioning” of the nuclear plant. He said the first discharge was planned for Thursday assuming weather and ocean conditions permit.

Some of Japan’s neighbors said they were unpersuaded.

“This will pose unnecessary risks to neighboring countries and the rest of the world,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday.

South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party, riding public concern about the issue, called it a public-safety emergency, and its leader accused Japan of committing an evil act. The ruling party hasn’t taken a yes-or-no position, while President Yoon Suk Yeol has expressed sympathy for Japan.

Japan says many countries including China already release water with tritium into the seas at greater concentrations than Japan is planning.

Tepco said the first discharge was planned to last 17 days, with three further discharges planned by next March. It said it planned to release slightly more than 2% of the accumulated water by that time, and the tritium discharge would total 5 trillion becquerels—a unit of radioactivity—which is below the annual limit of 22 trillion becquerels set by Japan for the plant.

China has banned imports of seafood and other foods from Fukushima and some other parts of Japan. South Korea has also maintained its ban on seafood imports from Fukushima and nearby regions, citing widespread fears among the general public.

In Hong Kong, one of the world’s biggest buyers of Japanese food, Chief Executive John Lee said Tuesday he would curb imports because of what he called Japan’s damage to the environment.

By contrast, the European Union fully lifted its restrictions on food imports from Japan early this month in the wake of the IAEA report. Most countries including the U.S. had already done so.

Kishida, the prime minister, called on countries that still block Japanese food imports to lift the restrictions quickly.

Naoya Sekiya, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo who studies social psychology after disasters, said many people outside Japan aren’t aware that Fukushima has generally recovered from the accident and that people are living near the plant, although the melted-down reactors are still too dangerous to enter.

“It is still believed that Fukushima is not livable and the water is not drinkable. That’s why they say, ‘How dare you discharge the treated water?'” Sekiya said.

As part of efforts to quell fears, Tepco has raised flatfish, abalone and seaweed in both regular seawater and treated water since last fall. According to the company, they live equally long in the treated water.

Still, Fukushima fishermen have voiced concern about reputational damage.

Yasuo Toyoda, 75, who dives to catch shellfish in Fukushima, said he played in the ocean as a child and it has been his workplace as an adult. After the release of slightly radioactive water, “it won’t be the same sea,” Toyoda said. “It is sad.”

Just Like That, Tons of Radioactive Waste Is Heading for the Ocean

By Azby Brown/New York Times
August 22, 2023

This week Japan will begin releasing more than a million tons of treated radioactive water, now stored at the disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, into the Pacific Ocean.

It is expected to take decades to release all of the water at the plant, which was devastated in 2011 by a tsunami generated by the powerful Tohoku earthquake. Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, which operates the facility, and the International Atomic Energy Agency both say the radiation to be released will be of such low concentrations that it will have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.

That may turn out to be true, if everything goes according to Tepco’s plans, consistently and without major mishap, for at least the next 30 years. Only time will tell. But the most important questions here may not be the technical, scientific and radiological ones, but about the example being set.

The Japanese government and Tepco made the decision to release the water after a process that has been neither fully transparent nor adequately inclusive of important stakeholders, both in Japan and abroad. This plants the seeds for what could be decades of mistrust and contention. But perhaps even more worrying, Japan is setting a precedent for other governments that might be even less transparent. This is dangerous, particularly in Asia, where more than 140 nuclear power reactors are already in operation and, led by growth in China and India, dozens more are either being built, are in the planning stages or have been proposed. If Japan, a globally respected cultural and economic force, can get away with dumping radioactive water, what’s to stop other countries?

There’s no denying that Japan and Tepco are in a bind over what to do with the byproducts of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. Melted nuclear fuel debris inside the damaged reactors is being cooled by pumped-in water, which comes into contact with a toxic cocktail of radioactive substances known as radionuclides. To this is added approximately 100 tons of groundwater and rainwater, which leak into the reactor buildings each day and also become contaminated. All of the water is sent through a powerful filtration system to remove much of the radioactivity and is stored on-site in more than 1,000 giant steel tanks. But the amount of water is constantly growing, and Tepco has repeatedly warned that it is running out of storage space at Fukushima.

I have researched or written about Fukushima and affected communities ever since the disaster and have closely followed the official response. As early as 2013, the I.A.E.A. began advising Tepco to consider discharging the water into the sea. The government also looked at other options, such as releasing the water into the air as vapor or injecting it deep underground. But numerous experts and environmental groups have complained that there has been a consistent lack of sufficient public input and that some viable alternatives, such as long-term storage in more robust tanks, were not seriously evaluated. Despite opposition from many Japanese citizens, the country’s fisheries association, and neighbors like South Korea and China, the government announced in April 2021 that it had decided on releasing the water into the ocean.

Public hearings, some of which I attended, were held before and after the final decision, but these seemed more about selling the ocean release option than about giving the public a say. It was only months after the decision was announced that a radiological environmental impact assessment — conducted by Tepco — was finally released. When Tepco called for public comments for the study, some experts pointed out troubling information gaps, such as the lack of a full inventory of what radioactive elements remained in the tanks. There is no evidence that serious efforts were made to address some of these issues.

Involving local residents, civil society groups, technical experts and — when necessary — neighboring nations in decision-making can lead to notable successes. In choosing the site of a long-term repository for low-level radioactive waste, Belgian regulators in 1998 gave decision-making power to a broad cross section of public and private stakeholders. In the end, two neighboring towns actually competed to be the site, and in 2006 a proposal by the municipality of Dessel was approved. After years of study and environmental approvals, a final permit was issued this year. Similar processes have been followed in Finland and Sweden.

All of this might have been fine except that Tepco and the Japanese government suffer from a severe trust deficit on Fukushima. During the 2011 disaster, they repeatedly minimized the risks, withheld crucial information on threats to public safety and even resisted using the term “core meltdown,” even though that is what occurred. Separate investigations by an official Japanese commissionthe I.A.E.A. and other entities put much of the blame on poor regulatory oversight and a lack of preparedness despite Japan’s history of earthquakes and tsunamis.

Yet the mistrust remains.

Tepco said for years that its purification system would reduce 62 radionuclides to safe or non-detectable levels and that only traces of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, and two other isotopes would remain. But it emerged in 2018 that 70 percent of the tanks also contained levels of other radioactive substances that were higher than legal limits. After the ocean release decision was made, an I.A.E.A. advisory task force identified a number of problems with the plan, most of which were reportedly resolved later or deemed insufficient to force reconsideration.

Countries like South Korea, China and some Pacific Island nations have been particularly critical, with Seoul complaining of a lack of consultation by Tokyo. Following recent Japanese diplomatic efforts, South Korea and Micronesia have lifted their opposition. China, however, has redoubled its criticism, accusing Japan of treating the ocean like a “private sewer.” The Pacific Islands Forum, which represents 18 nations — some of which are acutely aware of the legacy of American nuclear testing — remains opposed.

At this stage, it looks unlikely that Japan will change course. The country’s bureaucratic and corporate culture is notoriously complex and slow-moving, and major decisions like this are nearly impossible to reverse.But it’s not too late to improve on public trust. Japan has invited the I.A.E.A. to help monitor the release, and this is welcome. But many Japanese, accustomed to obfuscation and a lack of transparency on Fukushima, simply no longer trust official assurances. Only a truly independent, international and participatory monitoring regime — with the close involvement of those most likely to be affected — will be sufficient to make sure that the release of the water is being done safely and responsibly.

With that, a bad precedent could be transformed into a globally admired one.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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