Japan will release more than a million tons of contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, which has been condemned by environmentalists, fishermen and neighboring countries.
Tokyo Electric, the plant’s operator, will build equipment to dilute and discharge water that has accumulated since the three reactors melted during the 2011 tsunami that flooded the plant. Discharges will begin in about two years, subject to final approval by nuclear regulators.
Decision made after years of public consultation and quarrels of expert committees – risked reviving some of the traumas of the nuclear accident and worsening the legacy of pollution.
But Japanese authorities argued that there was no practical alternative to releasing water as storage space ran out. They add that there was no risk to human health and that nuclear power plants were operating around the world drop similar water every day.
“During the dismantling of Fukushima Daiichi, we cannot avoid the issue of wastewater,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said after a meeting of cabinet ministers and political experts in Tokyo.
“Therefore, based on an approach that clearly exceeds safety standards and a basic plan to avoid reputational damage, we have assessed that it is a pragmatic discharge of water into the ocean.”
The The Fukushima reactors melted down in March 2011 after a devastating tsunami knocked out their cooling systems. The water that was subsequently used to cool the reactor, along with the groundwater that flowed into the site, became contaminated with radioactive nuclides.
Contaminated water was treated with a complex filtration system to remove most of the radioactive material. However, there is no practical way to filter tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, the lightest element in the periodic table.
Tritium has a half-life of 12.3 years, the time it takes for half of the initial radioactivity to decay. Radiation can be dangerous to health, but everyone is exposed to a certain amount of background radiation, with higher doses when flying long distances or receiving X-rays.
The Japanese government claims that the radiation dose from Fukushima water would not be higher than 1/1 000 of natural exposure, even if everything were published in one year.
The government has considered several alternatives, including evaporating water into the atmosphere or injecting it into underground reservoirs. But experts have argued that diluting water and slowly releasing it into the ocean is the only viable choice.
“We will dilute tritium to forty of the domestic standard and to the week of the World Health Organization’s drinking water standard,” Suga said. He said the procedure would be fully open for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Although the water will eventually dilute in the wider Pacific Ocean, the Japanese fishing industry feared further damage to its reputation. Some countries claim ban on Japanese fish and other foodstuffs imposed after the Fukushima disaster.
“This decision is regrettable and we do not accept it at all,” said Hiroshi Kishi, chairman of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives. “We hereby register our strong objections.”
Environmentalists say Japan has ignored the possibility of storing water indefinitely and has chosen the cheapest approach to dumping water into the ocean. “The government has made a completely unjustified decision to intentionally contaminate the Pacific with radioactive waste,” said Kazue Suzuki, a campaign for Greenpeace in Japan.
China has expressed “serious concern” over the plan, calling the decision “extremely irresponsible”.
The Foreign Ministry called on Japan to find a compromise with the countries concerned and the IAEA. “Before an agreement is reached, [Japan] it must not be released into the sea without a permit, ”it said.
South Korea expressed its “strong regret”, but the United States cautiously supported Japan’s approach.
“Japan has weighed its capabilities and effects, was transparent about its decision and seems to have adopted an approach in line with globally accepted nuclear safety standards,” the US State Department said.
Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd of Beijing