Nuclear station release plans approved by IAEA, but have caused concern in China
Japan is to begin releasing treated wastewater from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station from Thursday (24 August) with prime minister Fumio Kishida saying on Tuesday he had asked the facility’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), “to swiftly prepare for the water discharge” in accordance with plans approved by nuclear regulators.
Kishida said the release would begin on Thursday, “weather and ocean conditions permitting”.
The decision comes weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), approved the discharge, saying that the radiological impact on people and the environment would be “negligible”.
The focus will now turn to Fukushima Prefecture, the location of the disabled nuclear power station, where over 1.3 million tonnes of water – cleansed of all its radioactive material except tritium – will be gradually poured into the ocean through an underwater tunnel.
Tritium levels will be thinned down to 1/40 of the concentration allowed by Japanese standards.
Tepco said that the hundreds of tanks storing the treated water are nearly full and will reach their capacity of 1.37 million tonnes in early 2024.
Both Tepco and the Japanese government say that the tanks must be emptied in order to facilitate the station’s decommissioning and avoid the risk of leaks in the event of another natural disaster.
Discharge Is Safe, Says IAEA
The water was largely used to cool the three damaged reactor cores, which remain highly radioactive. Some of it has since leaked into basements of the reactor buildings but was collected and stored in tanks.
Over the past two years the IAEA has conducted a review of the safety related aspects of handling and discharge of the treated water at Fukushima-Daiichi, which has been shut down since it was hit by a tsunami and earthquake in March 2011. An IAEA report concluded that the wastewater discharge is consistent with international safety standards.
IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi has said the agency will continue its “impartial, independent and objective” safety review during the discharge phase.
The IAEA and Japan agreed that the IAEA will maintain a presence at Fukushima-Daiichi. The IAEA opened an office onsite in July.
“IAEA staff are working there so that they can continue to monitor and assess these activities on site to ensure that they continue to be consistent with the safety standards, including on the day of the start of the discharge and after,” the agency said in a 22 August statement.
“The IAEA will also publish available data for use by the global community, including the provision of real-time and near real-time monitoring data.
“As soon as the discharge commences, the IAEA will provide a further update.”
Some experts point out that nuclear plants around the world use a similar process to dispose of wastewater containing low-level concentrations of tritium and other radionuclides.
“Tritium has been released [by nuclear power plants] for decades with no evidential detrimental environmental or health effects,” said Tony Hooker, a nuclear expert from the University of Adelaide.
Controversy And Opposition
However, the plan has caused controversy because tritium is a radioactive substance that cannot be removed by the facility’s water filtration technology.
Hong Kong, an important market for Japanese seafood exports, has threatened restrictions. Leader John Lee said on Tuesday he strongly opposed the water plan, adding that he had instructed the city’s government to “immediately activate” import controls on Japanese seafood.
South Korea and China banned seafood imports from some areas of Japan after Fukushima Daiichi suffered a triple meltdown in the March 2011 triple disaster along the country’s north-east coast. China remains strongly opposed.
The South Korean government recently dropped its objections to the discharge, but opposition parties and many South Koreans are concerned about the impact the discharge will have on food safety.
Greenpeace has described the filtration process as flawed, and warned that an “immense” quantity of radioactive material will be dispersed into the sea over the coming decades.
The government and Tepco also face opposition from local fishers, who say pumping water into the Pacific Ocean will destroy their industry.
Those fears were echoed in a poll published this week by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, in which 75% of respondents said the government had not done enough to prevent the expected reputational damage to Japanese seafood.
Kishida acknowledged those concerns but insisted that the water release “is absolutely not something we can put off if we want to decommission the Fukushima nuclear plant and revive the area”.
“I promise that we will take on the entire responsibility of ensuring the fishing industry can continue to make their living, even if that will take decades,” he told reporters on Monday.
The government has set up funds worth ¥30bn ($206m) to compensate local fishers for reputational damage, and ¥50bn to address any financial impact on their business, according to the Kyodo news agency.
The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station before the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake.