Japan will start releasing over a million metric tonnes of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant on Thursday 24 August 2023, despite opposition from Chinese authorities and environmentalists.
Over 12 years after a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Japanese authorities have set a date to begin releasing the plant’s treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has ordered operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) “to swiftly prepare for the water discharge”, which will take place on Thursday “weather and ocean conditions permitting”.
The project has received the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which stated the impact it would have on people and the environment was “negligible”.
Every day, the plant produces 100m³ of contaminated water, which is a mixture of groundwater, seawater and water used to keep the reactors cool since the meltdown.
Since March 2011, the plant’s operator has accumulated 1.34 million tonnes of water – enough to fill 500 Olympic-size pools. However, space in the water tanks is running out.
The Japanese government has said that releasing the water is a necessary step in the process of decommissioning the plant. Authorities have stressed that the water has been treated to remove most radioactive elements – except for tritium, a substance that escapes the available filtration technology.
Thereafter, the water was diluted to ensure it only contained 190 becquerels of tritium per litre, below the World Health Organization (WHO) drinking limit of 10,000 becquerels per litre, according to Tepco.
On Thursday, the operator is expected to begin the release of the first batch of contaminated water, amounting to 7,800 cubic metres over about 17 days, via an underwater tunnel 1km from the coast. A maximum rate of 500,000 litres will be released per day.
In the following days, experts will test the water and fish in the area in order to confirm safety. The test results are expected to be published in September. The rest of the water will be released in batches over the next 30 years.
Tepco’s president Tomoaki Kobayakawa said the firm will “devote all of its resources to ensuring the safety and quality of facility operation, speedily obtaining monitoring results and disseminating that information in an accurate and easy-to-understand manner”.
Despite the safety measures, the plan has received harsh criticism from local fishing groups, as well as other governments.
After meeting with Kishida, Masanobu Sakamoto, the head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, said his group understood that the release would be safe, but that the organisation still feared reputational damage. He underscored that his opposition to the plan had “not changed one bit”.
Kishida responded by stating he will “take on the entire responsibility of ensuring the fishing industry can continue to make their living, even if that will take decades”.
Meanwhile, China has complained that Japan did not consult the international community about the water release, accusing the country of treating the ocean like a “sewer”. As a result, China has banned seafood imports from 10 prefectures in Japan, including Fukushima and Tokyo.
Greenpeace has also commented on the project, stating that Japan “has opted for a false solution – decades of deliberate radioactive pollution of the marine environment – during a time when the world’s oceans are already facing immense stress and pressures”.
However, Fukushima will not be the first nuclear plant to release wastewater containing tritium into the ocean. Nuclear plants around the world regularly make similar releases, with water containing even higher concentration levels of the radioactive substance.
The Fukushima meltdown was considered the worst nuclear disaster since that at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 1986, and prompted the declaration of a 30km evacuation zone around the Japanese plant. Tepco is currently engaged in a decades-long effort to decommission the plant.
According to the findings of a research project, released in October 2021, animals living in the area near the damaged nuclear power plant are reportedly not suffering any adverse health effects, despite being exposed to high levels of radiation.
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