Japan Begins Discharging Treated Fukushima Water Into the Ocean Amid Controversy

Japan has started pumping more than a million metric tons of treated radioactive water from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, August 24, 2023. This is part of a long-planned and controversial decision that has drawn sharp criticism from neighboring countries and environmental groups.

The water release began at 1 p.m. local time (midnight ET), according to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the state-owned operator of the plant. TEPCO said it expects to discharge only around 200 or 210 cubic meters of treated wastewater on the first day. From Friday, it plans to then continuously release 456 cubic meters of treated wastewater over a 24-hour period and a total of 7,800 cubic meters over a 17-day period.

Japan Begins Discharging Treated Fukushima Water Into the Ocean Amid Controversy
Japan Begins Discharging Treated Fukushima Water Into the Ocean Amid Controversy

TEPCO said that the operation would be suspended immediately and an investigation conducted if any abnormalities are detected in the discharge equipment or the dilution levels of the treated wastewater. It will send a boat later Thursday into the harbor to collect samples to monitor and ensure the discharged treated wastewater meets international safety standards.

The process will take decades to complete, as TEPCO has built over 1,000 tanks on the site to store what is now 1.32 million metric tons of wastewater, which is enough to fill about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Why is Japan doing this?

The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in March 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the power plant, causing meltdowns in three reactors and releasing large amounts of radioactive material into the environment. Since then, new water has been pumped in to cool fuel debris in the reactors, while ground and rainwater have leaked in, creating more radioactive wastewater.

Japan’s government has repeatedly said that the discharge of the treated water is safe and necessary, as space is running out to store the material and there are “no other options” but to release it in a treated and highly diluted form. The government has also said that the water has been filtered through an advanced liquid processing system (ALPS) that removes most of the radioactive elements, except for tritium, which is considered harmless in low concentrations.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said earlier this week that the country plans to discharge the water “in a transparent manner” and “with utmost consideration for safety.” He also said that Japan will “continue to explain its position sincerely” to other countries and international organizations.

Japan’s decision has been endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said in early July that Tokyo’s plans were consistent with international standards and will have a “negligible” impact on people and the environment. The IAEA also said it will monitor and review Japan’s implementation of the water release plan.

Who is opposed to it?

Japan’s move has been met with strong opposition from some neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea, which have expressed concerns about the potential threat to the marine environment and public health, as well as the lack of consultation and transparency from Japan.

China has been “gravely concerned and strongly opposed” to Japan’s release plan, according to its foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. Wang said Japan “is extremely selfish and irresponsible, as the discharge will spread the risks of nuclear contamination to its neighboring countries, including China, and the rest of the world.” He also urged Japan to “revoke its wrong decision” and “refrain from starting the discharge before reaching consensus with all stakeholders.”

South Korea has also condemned Japan’s decision as “unacceptable” and “unilateral,” saying it poses a serious challenge to the global marine environment and human health. South Korea’s foreign ministry said it will take “all necessary measures” to protect its people and territory from any possible harm caused by Japan’s water release. South Korea has also raised the issue at various international forums, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the International Maritime Organization.

Other countries that have voiced their objections include Taiwan, Russia, North Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Pacific Islands Forum.

In addition, some local fishing groups and U.N. human rights experts have also expressed their concerns about the water release plan, saying it could damage the livelihoods of fishermen and the reputation of seafood products from the region. They have also questioned the effectiveness and reliability of Japan’s treatment and monitoring system, as well as the potential long-term effects of tritium exposure on human and animal health.

Some environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have also criticized Japan’s decision as “reckless” and “irresponsible,” saying it violates the precautionary principle and the human right to a healthy environment. They have also argued that not all possible impacts have been studied and that there are alternative solutions to deal with the water problem, such as building more storage tanks or solidifying the water into cement.

What are the implications?

Japan’s water release plan has raised several implications for the region and the world, both in terms of environmental and political aspects.

On the environmental front, Japan’s water release plan could have an impact on the marine ecosystem and biodiversity, as well as the food chain and human health. Some experts have warned that tritium could accumulate in marine organisms and cause genetic mutations or reproductive problems. Others have pointed out that there could be other radioactive substances in the water that have not been fully removed or detected by Japan’s treatment system. Moreover, there could be uncertainties about the dispersion and dilution of the water in the ocean, as well as the effects of climate change and natural disasters on its movement.

On the political front, Japan’s water release plan could have an impact on its relations with its neighbors and allies, as well as its image and reputation in the international community. Some analysts have said that Japan’s decision could undermine its trust and cooperation with China and South Korea on various issues, such as trade, security, and denuclearization. Others have said that Japan’s decision could damage its credibility and leadership on environmental issues, such as climate change and ocean governance. Furthermore, there could be challenges for Japan to communicate and explain its position to other countries and stakeholders, as well as to address their concerns and demands.

Japan’s water release plan is a complex and controversial issue that involves scientific, technical, ethical, legal, social, economic, and political factors. It is also a long-term issue that will require continuous monitoring and evaluation by Japan and the international community. It remains to be seen how Japan will implement its plan in a safe and transparent manner, and how it will deal with the consequences and reactions from other parties.

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