Japanese authorities and the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog have deemed the process, which is expected to take more than three decades, safe. But the plan faces opposition from Japan’s fishing industry and neighboring countries.
Is it safe to release the water from the Fukushima nuclear plant?
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged Tuesday that the treated water release would be conducted safely and its impact monitored closely. Japanese authorities have described it as a necessary step in decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant some 12 years after a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami led to a meltdown of three nuclear reactors.
After a two-year review, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced in July that Japan’s approach is “consistent with relevant international safety standards.” The IAEA, which has now opened an office at the plant, said Tuesday it would remain on-site to assess the safety of the release over time.
“At any other nuclear site in the world, this would be considered a ‘routine’ release of treated wastewater with very low levels of radioactivity,” said Jim Smith, an environmental science professor at University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom.
Other scientists, including a panel consulted by 18 Pacific Island countries, have warned they haven’t seen enough information to support the release’s safety. The possible impact on the ocean, they added, has not been fully examined.
Jacques Lochard, former vice-chair of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, an independent advisory body, described Japan’s water discharge system as “very efficient.” However, he added “that there has not really been any real consultation with the local populations” — a problem he said it was not too late to address.
What impact could the water have on marine life?
The IAEA concluded the plan for “controlled, gradual discharges of the treated water to the sea,” would have a “negligible radiological impact” on people and the environment.
Bob Richmond, a research professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, said the contamination from radionuclides in the waste water could transfer from the bottom of the food web through small organisms like phytoplankton to the largest, such as tuna.
These radionuclides then accumulate over time, eventually reaching levels high enough to damage DNA and RNA cells if ingested through seafood, such as oysters and lobsters, Richmond said. That could trigger long-term cancer concerns, he added.
“We can’t keep using the ocean as the ultimate dumping ground for everything we don’t want on land without severe consequences,” Richmond said.
Richmond warned the impacts from Japan’s decision will first be felt throughout the Japanese coastal communities, and then across the world through ocean currents, ocean life and being transported by plastics.
“The radionuclides will not stay within Japan’s borders. They’ll spread across the Pacific and eventually around the world,” he said. “The consequences will show up over time and not immediately.”
Despite those assurances from the Japanese government and the IAEA, the fishing industry and environmental groups have urged Tokyo to drop the plan, raising questions about its consequences.
Greenpeace East Asia criticized the discharge plan on Tuesday, saying it ignores scientific evidence and concerns from fishing operators.
Ahead of Fukushima’s fishing season in September, the fishing industry worries about potential reputational damage to their goods, which still carry the stigma of radioactive exposure. “Scientific safety and safety from a social point is different,” the head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, said this week.
The Japanese government has said it would monitor the water quality after the release, promising compensation to offset the impact on fishing operators’ livelihoods.
The release has also faced objections by officials and protesters in South Korea, even as the South Korean government said the plan meets international standards if the water is handled as planned.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said he opposed the decision, vowing to “immediately activate import control measures” against Japanese food, he said in an online statement on Tuesday.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry called the decision “selfish and irresponsible” in a news conference on Tuesday.
“The ocean sustains humanity. It is not a sewer for Japan’s nuclear-contaminated water,” Wang said.
How is the water treated, and what is Tritium?
The water goes through a filtration system meant to remove radioactive elements. To reduce concentrations of Tritium, a radioactive material that is difficult to separate from water, authorities will also dilute the wastewater before discharging it into the ocean.
Japanese authorities say the concentration of tritium will drop to background ocean levels after the dilution. The plan, set to start Thursday, involves discharging the treated water at a maximum rate of 132,000 gallons per day through an underwater tunnel off the coast of Japan. The IAEA will monitor the release process.
The amount of tritium in the wastewater release is expected to be about seven times lower than the World Health Organization drinking water limit for tritium, Smith said. People are exposed to tritium in small amounts in tap water and in rain.
“There will be trace amounts of other radioactivity in the release as the treatment isn’t 100 percent perfect, as at other nuclear sites around the world,” he said, adding that these “will be at insignificant levels.”