Japan is facing international backlash as it moves forward with plans to discharge over a million cubic meters of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear disaster site into the Pacific Ocean. This contentious decision has strained relations with neighboring countries, most notably China.
Rafael Grossi, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is scheduled to visit Japan to deliver a final report on the safety of the water release process. He will also meet with officials, including Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi. Additionally, a domestic nuclear regulator is expected to issue a crucial assessment on the matter.
Both studies are anticipated to support Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) in its bid to release the water, which is equivalent to approximately 500 Olympic-size swimming pools, into the ocean. This step is considered necessary to facilitate the complete decommissioning of the Fukushima site, which was severely damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, resulting in the world’s worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.
Japanese authorities have reassured other nations that the water release will be conducted safely and in line with industry standards. They argue that the release is necessary due to the imminent capacity limits of the 1,000 storage tanks at the Fukushima site, which is expected to occur in early 2024. The IAEA points out that other countries with nuclear plants already discharge similar diluted waste offshore.
This development takes place amidst a global reevaluation of nuclear power, with several countries seeking to enhance their energy self-sufficiency through the reactivation of idle reactors, the construction of new plants, or investments in innovative technologies. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida aims to build upon the improving domestic support for nuclear energy, and the successful closure of the Fukushima site is seen as crucial in instilling confidence.
However, Japan’s discharge plan is complicating diplomatic relationships with some nations. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, strongly condemned the proposal, emphasizing that the ocean should not be treated as Japan’s “private sewer.” He warned that the release carries risks for neighboring countries and Pacific island nations, describing it as a selfish move that jeopardizes the common interests of humanity.
Japan is set to win approval to discharge more than a 1,000,000 cubic meters of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear disaster site into the Pacific Ocean.— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) July 3, 2023
And China’s not happy https://t.co/jirvJycLLq pic.twitter.com/sVqx1nqQc6
Moreover, the issue has led to a viral campaign targeting Japanese cosmetics brands on Chinese social media platforms, spreading unverified safety allegations. In South Korea, there has been a surge in demand for sea salt as consumers stockpile the condiment out of concern that the wastewater release could contaminate future supplies.
Although the South Korean government has not publicly opposed Japan’s plans, a survey conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper and South Korea’s Hankook Ilbo in May revealed that 84% of respondents opposed the discharge. Another poll showed that almost three-quarters of South Koreans surveyed lacked trust in a delegation of experts sent from Seoul to assess Japan’s preparations.
The Pacific Islands Forum, an organization comprising 18 nations including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Australia, has urged Japan to explore alternative options and called for further discussions on the associated risks.
Nancy Snow, a reputation security consultant in Tokyo and author of a book on Japan’s public diplomacy, acknowledged the genuine fears and uncertainties of people in the region. She emphasized that regardless of the safety measures implemented during the release, the concerns of neighboring countries should not be disregarded.
The Japanese government had previously announced plans in 2021 to gradually release approximately 1.3 million cubic meters of treated wastewater accumulated at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant since 2011. Tepco has been continuously injecting water to cool debris and fuel at the damaged reactors, and the resulting contaminated liquid, along with groundwater and rainwater, undergoes a treatment process to remove most radioactive elements. The treated water, which still contains tritium, has been stored in tanks.
Tepco foresees that the storage tanks will reach maximum capacity between February and June next year. The utility argues that it cannot create additional space for more tanks as it is required for other aspects of the decommissioning process. Moreover, storing the water poses a risk of leaks, which is particularly concerning given Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes.
In a preliminary report released in April, the IAEA stated that Tepco had addressed concerns raised in previous safety reviews and made significant progress in updating its plans. This suggests that final approval from the agency is likely. Grossi, during his visit to Japan, will tour the Fukushima site and inaugurate an IAEA office there.
Tepco intends to dilute the treated water with seawater to reduce the concentration of tritium to levels well below the guidelines set by the Japanese government and the World Health Organization. The diluted water will then be discharged into the ocean over a period of up to 40 years through an undersea tunnel. Tritium has a radioactive half-life of slightly over 12 years, according to the IAEA.
Although Japan has not yet specified a date for commencing the water release, the government has expressed its commitment to ongoing discussions with local communities, including the fishing sector, in order to address their concerns.
The discharge of water from nuclear power plants is a standard practice globally, with most operations releasing small amounts of tritium and other radioactive materials into rivers and oceans, as previously stated by the IAEA.