Japan decided on Tuesday to dispose the radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea. The Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced the decision following a cabinet meeting and said that disposing of the treated water is an inevitable issue in the decommissioning of the facility. “The plan will be implemented by ensuring broad and firm steps to prevent damage,” he said. As per the plan, over 1.23 million tons of radioactive waste water stored in tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant will be disposed into the Pacific Ocean.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, will take about 2 years to prepare for the discharge. According to the plan, the water containing the element tritium will be diluted at the level of 1,500 becquerels per liter. Thus, TEPCO will be able to discharge the water, which is increasing day by day, into the sea periodically. If not released, TEPCO estimates that the facility will fill its storage tank capacity by autumn 2022 at the latest.
There are more than 1,000 tanks on the grounds of the power plant filling with ground water and cooling water that have become contaminated through contact with the reactors and their containment buildings. The cleaning processes have led to removal of many radioactive isotopes and efforts to divert groundwater flows around the reactors have greatly reduced the amount of contaminated water being collected to less than 200 metric tons per day.
As per a study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution which was released on August 2020, “One of the radioactive isotopes that remains at the highest levels in the treated water and would be released is tritium, an isotope of hydrogen is almost impossible to remove, as it becomes part of the water molecule itself. However, tritium has a relatively short half-life, which measures the rate of decay of an isotope; is not absorbed as easily by marine life or seafloor sediments, and produces beta particles, which is not as damaging to living tissue as other forms of radiation. Isotopes that remain in the treated wastewater include carbon-14, cobalt-60, and strontium-90. These and the other isotopes that remain, which were only revealed in 2018, all take much longer to decay and have much greater affinities for seafloor sediments and marine organisms like fish, which means they could be potentially hazardous to humans and the environment for much longer and in more complex ways than tritium.”
“Any option that involves ocean releases would need independent groups keeping track of all of the potential contaminants in seawater, the sea floor, and marine life. The health of the ocean—and the livelihoods of countless people—rely on this being done right,” says the study.
China has asked Japan to wait until a consensus is reached by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert team and all stakeholders through consultations. “As a close neighbor and stakeholder, the Chinese side expresses grave concern over this. … This is highly irresponsible and will severely affect human health and the immediate interests of people in neighboring countries,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
An academician Leonid Bolshov, the founder and chief researcher of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told TASS that the release of the water does not pose any danger. “The decision is correct, the water is clean. It would even be possible to discharge slightly polluted water, which is what the British were doing at Sellafield… all they need is to choose the discharge zone that would be as far away from the shore: the ocean is large, the discharged water will mix with the clean one and everything will be within normal levels. In this particular case, they are dumping water that had been purified to the drinking water standard. There is no reason to worry,” he said.
Greenpeace Japan has condemned the move. “It has discounted the radiation risks and turned its back on the clear evidence that sufficient storage capacity is available on the nuclear site as well as in surrounding districts. Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean,” it said.
The United Nations’ human rights special rapporteurs had warned the Japanese government in June 2020 and again in March 2021 that discharging the water into the environment breaches the rights of Japanese citizens and its neighbors including Korea. They called on the Japanese government to delay any decision on discharging the contaminated water into the sea until the crisis of COVID-19 is over and appropriate international consultations are held.
The Fukushima reactor was heavily damaged in March 2011 after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Ocean triggered a huge tsunami that hit the plant and caused three nuclear reactors to melt down.