In a controversial move, Japan has started releasing treated radioactive wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean on August 24th, 2023. This comes over a decade after the nuclear disaster in 2011, caused by a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeast coast.
The Release Plan
The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), began discharging the treated water starting at 1pm local time. TEPCO said the first release consists of 7,800 cubic meters of treated wastewater and will take around 17 days to complete. After that, TEPCO plans to release 456 cubic meters per day, totaling 1.37 million tons over the next 30-40 years.
The treated wastewater still contains the radioactive hydrogen isotope tritium, which cannot be removed. However, TEPCO states the tritium levels are reduced to about 190 becquerels per liter, below the World Health Organization’s safety limit of 10,000 becquerels per liter for drinking water.
Reactions to the Release
Japan says the release is safe and necessary for the decommissioning of the devastated plant. The plan was approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency, though neighboring countries like China and South Korea have strongly objected, concerned about potential environmental and health impacts.
China called Japan’s move “extremely selfish and irresponsible” and has imposed a ban on food imports from Japan. South Korea said it has no scientific concerns but does not agree with the release plan. Local Japanese fishing groups have also protested, worried about their livelihoods and reputation.
Monitoring the Discharge
To monitor the discharge, the IAEA has nuclear experts stationed near the site. TEPCO says it will closely track radiation levels and suspend releases if any abnormalities are detected. The company also plans to regularly test seawater, fish and sediments and publish the results online.
Neighbor Countries Concerned
The water has started being released through a 1.5 km (0.93 mi) underwater tunnel at a depth of 17 meters (56 ft). The release point is located about 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) from the nearest shore and about 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) from the nearest shipping lane.
China is located to the west of Japan, so the Fukushima water will not be released directly towards China. However, the water will eventually disperse throughout the Pacific Ocean, so it is possible that some of it could reach China.
The Japanese government has said that the release of the Fukushima water is necessary to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant was severely damaged by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and the water that is being released is contaminated with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
The release of the Fukushima water has been met with opposition from China and other countries. China has accused Japan of treating the ocean as its “private sewer”. However, the Japanese government has said that the release of the water is safe and that it will not have a significant impact on the environment.
Is the Fukushima Water Radioactive?
It is accurate to say that the Fukushima water is radioactive, but it is not entirely accurate to say that it is “radioactive water”. The water has been treated to remove most of the radioactive elements, but it still contains tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Tritium is a very weak radioactive emitter, and it is not considered to be a major health hazard.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reviewed the Japanese government’s plans for the release of the Fukushima water and has concluded that it is safe. The IAEA has stated that the levels of tritium in the water will be well below internationally approved levels, and that the release is unlikely to have a significant impact on the environment.
However, there is still some uncertainty about the long-term effects of the release of the Fukushima water. Some scientists have argued that the tritium could pose a risk to human health, especially if it is ingested or inhaled. Others have argued that the risks are very small and that the release is necessary to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.