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Japan: Is it safe to release Fukushima water into the ocean?

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
July 6, 2023

The Japanese government is ramping up its campaign to convince the nation and its neighbors that the treated radioactive water poses no danger to humans or the environment.

Tanks containing water from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are seen at the power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture
Environmental groups have slammed Japan's plan to release water from the Fukushima Daiichi plant into the oceanImage: Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS

Tokyo's plan to dispose of more than 1.2 million tons of water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the ocean received a major boost on Tuesday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally approved it, saying the method of disposal was "consistent" with international safety standards. The IAEA report also concluded that the discharged water would have "a negligible radiological impact" on the environment.

The Japanese government and the operator of the plant that crippled in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami welcomed the IAEA's endorsement.

While a majority of Japanese citizens appear to have reached the conclusion that the water has been cleansed of virtually all radioactivity and that discharging it into the Pacific Ocean is therefore the most appropriate course of action, there are still many who disagree, particularly in neighboring countries.

South Korean opposition politicians were planning a sit-in at the country's National Assembly on Thursday to protest Tokyo's decision. The Democratic Party is also planning a rally outside the parliament building on Saturday.

China expresses its anger

The Chinese ambassador to Tokyo, Wu Jianghao, underlined Beijing's opposition to the plan at a press conference on Tuesday, saying "it is unprecedented for contaminated water from a nuclear accident to be released into the sea."

Wu pointed out that China has banned imports of all foodstuffs from 10 prefectures in northeastern Japan that were most seriously impacted by the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima plant after the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, suggesting that the import ban might be extended to cover the rest of the country.

"What actions China will take and how we will do so in the next stage depends on developments with Japan's discharge plan," he said.

Environmental concerns

Environmental groups have also been outspoken against the plan, with protesters in Seoul on Wednesday demanding that the IAEA's report that endorses the Japanese government's plan be withdrawn, and Greenpeace accusing Tokyo of violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Hajime Matsukubo, secretary general of the Toyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, echoes concern over the release of the water and said that a number of alternative solutions were available and feasible for Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled plant.

"We disagree strongly with this decision, and we believe there were many better options available to the government," he told DW. "There are no reasons why more tanks could not have been constructed at the site, underground reservoirs could have been constructed and better treatment systems could have been introduced to remove more radionuclides," he added.

"Instead, they have chosen the option that is the easiest and cheapest," he said. "I think this was always the plan as releasing the water was always going to be less costly than the alternatives."

IAEA under fire

Matsukubo said the Japanese government is using the IAEA's expression of support to push ahead with the release of the water, almost certainly starting before the end of the summer, despite having no clear roadmap for the ultimate decommissioning of the plant.

"TEPCO has been saying that releasing the water is critical to the overall decommissioning plan, but there has never been a detailed schedule for stabilizing and decommissioning the power station, so why is this necessary?" he asked.

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Matsukubo also questioned the independence of the IAEA, pointing out that it is funded by nuclear power-producing countries and is essentially tasked with promoting atomic energy. Given the failures of Japan's nuclear sector, not least at the Fukushima plant, questions must also be asked over the veracity of information being provided by TEPCO and the Japanese government, he added.

"The government says the ALPS [Advanced Liquid Processing System] is removing the different radionuclides from the water so it can be diluted and then released into the ocean. But there has been no independent testing of the water, so how can we be sure?"

A report issued by TEPCO in early June shows that more than 70% of the water due to be released does not meet legal standards for decontamination from radiation, even after being treated with the ALPS system. The company played down concerns at the time, saying the water would go through the cleansing process until it met the required standards.

Nevertheless, more than 12 years after the world's second-worst nuclear disaster, the Japanese people are hoping that releasing the water from storage tanks at the site will be another landmark in the protracted decommissioning process — which is expected to take at least 40 years and will require technology to safety collect and remove nuclear fuel that has yet to be developed.

Local opposition

"Local people and the fishermen of northeastern Japan have consistently been against this plan as they expect it will seriously impact their businesses and way of life, but elsewhere in Japan the feeling is that they have reached capacity for storing more water at the site and that there are few good choices left," said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of politics at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

She pointed out that TEPCO still has a lot of work to do restore public trust, "and there will always be questions over the close ties between Japan's political and business worlds, but this is the situation we are in now," she said. "We have to hope that this really is the best course of action."

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea