Despite regional and local concerns, Japan has begun gradually discharging radioactive wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean and plans to eventually discharge more than one million tons of wastewater into the sea.
The release comes 12 years after a nuclear accident in which an earthquake and tsunami caused the plant to melt down. Water used to cool the nuclear reactors and additional groundwater and rainwater seeping into the reactor buildings are close to full storage capacity, according to authorities.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the power plant at Japan’s Harakura Beach, said on Thursday that emissions had started around 1pm (04:00GMT).
Tepco told reporters earlier Thursday that it only expects to discharge about 200 or 210 cubic meters of treated wastewater on the first day. However, starting Friday, it plans to increase the release to 7,800 cubic meters over 17 days.
If any abnormality is found in the dilution rate of the discharge equipment or the treated wastewater, Tepco said it will immediately stop operations, adding that it will also collect samples from nearby port waters for monitoring to ensure that the discharged, treated wastewater meets international standards . safety standard.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s atomic energy regulator, said last month that the planned discharge met relevant international safety standards and that the radioactive impact on humans and the environment would be “negligible”.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday that “even if it takes decades, the government will take responsibility until the treated water is fully treated,” announcing a decision to start releasing the water this week.
More than 1.3 million cubic meters of wastewater (enough to fill more than 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools) currently stored in the facility’s numerous storage tanks will be discharged, a process that could take up to 40 years to complete.
The continuous discharge of water takes place through a long underwater tunnel. The International Atomic Energy Agency said last month that it will continue to conduct safety reviews during the discharge phase, and will continue to be stationed at the site and conduct real-time online monitoring of the facility.
Water released despite concerns
Since Japan announced its decision to release water in 2021, it has caused intense panic in neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, as well as some Pacific island countries.
With regard to the Fukushima plant, Japanese authorities have been accused of minimizing risks, ignoring key safety details and being reluctant to acknowledge a core meltdown that occurred in 2011. Subsequent investigations pointed to poor regulation and poor preparation as the root causes.
Many experts have called for more independent verification of the release plans, claiming that the decision to release the water was made through a process that lacked full transparency and did not adequately include consultation with key stakeholders in Japan and other countries. They said it lacked details, such as a full inventory of radioactive elements remaining in the tank.
Experts say it could spark more mistrust and disputes, which is worrying, especially in Asia, where more than 140 nuclear reactors are currently operating.
In its defence, Tepco said the controlled discharge of the treated wastewater followed a rigorous nuclear purification process utilizing a pumping and filtration system called ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System), which was designed according to safety standards set by the IAEA to Sure but one major radioactive isotope, tritium, is impossible to separate from water.
Instead, it is diluted with water before release to bring it below regulatory standards, with a tritium concentration of 1,500 becquerels per liter, six times lower than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization for drinking water.
Scientists consider small amounts of this amount to be low risk.
“This is not a unique event,” said Tony Owen, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.
“For more than 60 years, nuclear power plants around the world have routinely discharged tritiated water with no harm to humans or the environment, and most discharge levels are higher than planned levels at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.”
However, another professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa said Japan’s decision was “not surprising, but certainly disappointing.”
Professor Robert Richmond, a member of the Pacific Islands Forum’s expert scientific advisory panel, said Japan and the IAEA could have used the opportunity to explore better ways to deal with nuclear disasters rather than ocean dumping.
“This is not the first disaster of its kind and it won’t be the last, and this decision undercuts the premise that the nuclear power industry is viable and responsible in dealing with its own mistakes and waste,” he said.
China bans all Japanese aquatic products
The Japanese government pledged to continue monitoring wastewater discharges and their impact on the marine environment, and committed to transparent reporting.
However, this has not reassured environmentalists, neighboring countries and several local fishing communities who have expressed strong concerns about potential ecological and health impacts.
The backlash from South Korea and China has been particularly severe in recent months.
Seoul expressed dissatisfaction with Tokyo’s insufficient consultations, but has withdrawn its objections, calling for more transparency.
Critics believe South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to Tokyo’s proposal primarily to strengthen ties with Japan. Japan has traditionally been South Korea’s rival and has been influenced by both countries’ mutual ally, the United States.
China’s foreign ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador to China on Tuesday to express “serious concerns,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a news conference on Wednesday.
He said: “This behavior blatantly transfers the risk of nuclear pollution to neighboring countries including China and the international community, putting its own interests above the long-term well-being of the people in the region and the world.”
China’s General Administration of Customs said on Thursday it would suspend all imports of aquatic products from Japan with immediate effect.
The Hong Kong government also announced a ban on seafood imports from 10 Japanese prefectures on Tuesday.
In Taiwan, official and public reactions have been lukewarm. According to reports, local officials said that since the 2011 earthquake, sampling tests have been carried out on the catches of inshore and inshore fisheries, and all relevant indicators are up to standard.
In the Pacific, leaders are divided over the release, which was discussed at a meeting of Pacific Islands Forum foreign ministers in September.
“We may have differences in our views on the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but overall we may be able to agree,” Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told Radio New Zealand on Thursday.
Kai Di from RFA’s Mandarin team and RFA reporter Chris Taylor contributed to this report.
Edited by Mike Fern and Tai Junkang.