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Is Japan's release of Fukushima wastewater safe?

PM Fumio Kishida stands firm on starting the release if weather and marine conditions permit
A South Korean man holds a placard in front of a building housing the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Aug. 24, as protesters gather to demonstrate against Japan's discharge of treated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant

A South Korean man holds a placard in front of a building housing the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Aug. 24, as protesters gather to demonstrate against Japan's discharge of treated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. (Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

Published: August 24, 2023 12:29 PM GMT
Updated: August 24, 2023 12:29 PM GMT

Japan plans to release wastewater from the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea.  So much water — roughly around 1.3 million tons — that it could fill 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This is the crux of the controversy that is causing agitation in China and triggering serious concerns about the reputation of future Japanese water products.

We're not talking about just any water; this is wastewater, including rain and groundwater that got contaminated during the cooling process of nuclear fuel rods damaged by an explosion at the nuclear power plant in 2011.

All of this was caused by one of the most powerful tsunamis in recent Japanese history.

The water is currently stored in over 1,000 steel tanks on-site, right next to the infamous power plant. However, the plant's operator, Tepco, has warned that storage space is running out. Their argument is that you can't continue to accumulate water indefinitely.

Before discharge, the treated water will be diluted with seawater to one-fortieth of the permissible concentration according to Japanese safety standards, and then will be released through an underwater tunnel located one kilometer away from the facility.

Tepco's advanced liquid treatment system does remove most of the radioactive elements, but not all. Tritium, a hydrogen isotope hard to separate from water, is still present. Its concentration and potentially harmful effects are at the center of the current political debate.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida remains steadfast in his decision and has asked Tepco to "prepare quickly for the release of the water," which is set to begin Aug. 24 if weather and marine conditions permit.

" The radiological impact on people and the environment will be insignificant or 'negligible'"

Kishida emphasized the crucial importance of removing the water from the Fukushima Daiichi site as an essential step in the complex and extended process of decommissioning the nuclear facility.

A torrent of criticism has erupted from neighboring Asian countries. Hong Kong's market, vital for Japanese seafood exports, has responded by threatening to impose trade restrictions and is already preparing to enforce rigorous checks on seafood imports from Japan.

On Aug 23, Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphatically declared that the ocean is a common asset of humanity and cannot be used by Japan as a site for the arbitrary discharge of nuclear-contaminated water.

Meanwhile, as several European countries lifted restrictions on Japanese food imports, China introduced radiation tests on all "caught in Japan" seafood. Beijing has long opposed the planned water release, even refusing to adopt the term "treated water" as a strategy to downplay the potential risks of "nuclear-contaminated" water.

However, Japan's decision to proceed with the discharge wasn't unilateral; it is in line with the United Nations' nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has given its approval to the operation, stating that the radiological impact on people and the environment will be insignificant or "negligible."

Several industry experts point out that nuclear plants worldwide follow similar procedures for disposing of wastewater containing low tritium and other radionuclide concentrations.

Furthermore, the government has mentioned real-time monitoring measures for the contaminated water, with data to be made public both in Japan and abroad. If the established limit is exceeded, the discharge will be halted.

Additionally, four foreign laboratories will analyze the water — Switzerland, South Korea, France, and the United States. These countries are overseen by the IAEA.

"China and South Korea had previously released liquids containing high tritium concentrations into the ocean"

China, along with Russia, had, just last month, urged Japan to consider the option of vaporizing and releasing the water into the atmosphere, suggesting that this would have a lesser environmental impact.

Meanwhile, at the local level, fishermen in the affected region (Tohoku, including prefectures neighboring the plant) have expressed their dissent, fearing further damage to their already fragile reputation. They claim to have already spent years rebuilding consumer trust after the initial nuclear crisis.

Taking these concerns into account, the government has decided to release the treated water before the start of the trawl fishing season off Fukushima in September.

In an attempt to gain the fishermen's consent to the government's plan, Kishida even visited the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Aug. 20 to discuss with the head of the national federation of Japanese fishing activities. However, the federation remains firmly opposed to water release.

Meanwhile, Japan has astutely pointed out that both China and South Korea had previously released liquids containing high tritium concentrations into the ocean from their national nuclear plants.

Tritium is known to be less harmful to the human body compared to other radioactive materials like cesium and strontium, as it emits weak radiation and doesn't accumulate inside the human body.

Even those who argue that even if the operation seems safe on paper it's yet to be proven in reality because such a release has never been done before, don’t know what they are talking about. The environmental impacts of nuclear tests conducted in the sea have been studied for sixty long years. It's one of the most extensively studied fields.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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