Japan begins releasing treated water from Fukushima nuclear plant into Pacific Ocean

Japan begins releasing treated water from Fukushima nuclear plant into Pacific Ocean

SEOUL, South Korea — Japan on Thursday began discharging water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, the first step in a controversial process expected to last 30 years. 

Japan’s friends and competitors took starkly different positions on the move. Washington expressed support for it, while Beijing voiced strong opposition and in response banned seafood imports from Japan.

Tokyo has proceeded cautiously in the 12 years since three reactors at the Fukushima plant, north of Tokyo on Japan’s east coast, suffered meltdown following a calamitous earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Some 1.3 million tons of water stored in more than 1,000 tanks at the plant were used to cool melted nuclear fuel. That irradiated water is being filtered via an advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, then being diluted with seawater prior to release.

However, ALPS does not remove one radioactive substance, tritium. Reuters reported that TEPCO, the plant’s operator, found the concentration of tritium in water released on Thursday was 63 becquerels per liter – far below WHO’s standard of 10,000 becquerels per liter for drinking water. 

The three-decade phased release is essential, according to Tokyo, which ultimately aims to decommission the plant. The site’s storage facilities will reach full capacity by 2024, officials said, and there are fears that the tanks are vulnerable to future earthquakes and tsunamis.

The discharge was approved by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency in July, but that hasn’t prevented disputes among regional players.

For and against

Though the issue is ostensibly environmental, positions have largely broken down along political lines.

Washington, for example, is supportive, to the point that U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel told Japanese media Wednesday that he will visit Fukushima on Aug. 31 and eat locally caught fish.

But Beijing is infuriated. 

“China firmly opposes and strongly condemns” the release, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday. “Japan is spreading the risks to the rest of the world and passing an open wound onto the future generations of humanity.”

Chinese officials said that by moving ahead with the release, Japan is placing itself “in the dock in front of the international community.”

Beijing announced an import ban on all aquatic products from Japan, effective Thursday. According to state media Xinhua, the ban aims “to comprehensively prevent radioactive pollution risks caused by Japan’s discharge of the contaminated wastewater, protect the health of Chinese consumers and ensure the safety of food imports.”

Japan has accused China of regularly releasing far more tritium-irradiated coolant from its nuclear plants into the Pacific than Fukushima — a claim repeated by Washington’s Mr. Emanuel.

Elsewhere, the European Union in July lifted all import restrictions on Fukushima seafood. South Korea retains a ban on Fukushima seafood, but President Yoon Suk yeol’s administration, which has made improving relations with Japan its flagship policy, supported the release.

Even so, amid public wobbles, Seoul is hedging its bets. Premier Han Duk-soo said Thursday that Seoul is receiving real-time information from Tokyo about the discharge, but will file an international lawsuit if announced conditions are breached.

South Korean political opposition figures condemned the move.

“We strongly condemn Japan’s contaminated water terror,” said Democratic Party Leader Lee Jae-myung, according to Korean media. “Japan’s release of nuclear contaminated water will be recorded as the Second Pacific War.”

Though the Cook Islands and Fiji support the decision, other Pacific territories are “divided” on the discharge, Reuters reported this week.

Commercial fishermen in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Pacific Islands, concerned their publics will lose faith in their products, oppose the discharge.

Protests against the release were reported in both Hong Kong and Seoul Thursday.

What science says

The IAEA maintains the impact of the release will be “negligible,” and much scientific opinion backs Japan on the issue.

“Much more tritium has been released by normally operating nuclear power plants into the North Pacific Ocean since those plants in China, South Korea, and Taiwan, were first located on coastal sites,” said David Krofcheck, a lecturer in physics at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, according to the Science Media Center.

“The Pacific Ocean contains 8,400 grams of pure [natural] tritium, while Japan will release 0.06 grams of tritium every year,” which “won’t make the tiniest jot of difference,” Nigel Marks, a professor in physics and astronomy at Australia’s Curtin University, told the SMC. 

“A lifetime’s worth of seafood caught a few kilometres from the ocean outlet has the tritium radiation equivalent of one bite of a banana,” he said.

Others differ.

Greenpeace is “outraged” by Japan’s actions. The group claims ALPS is not working effectively, meaning the water will require re-processing. Greenpeace also accused the IAEA of not monitoring ALPS.

“The IAEA is not tasked with protecting the global marine environment but it should not encourage a state to violate it,” Greenpeace stated, adding that Japan has not conducted a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment.

And a group of U.S. marine biologists advising the Pacific Islands say there is insufficient research on the potential impact on oceanic life.