Last Thursday, Japan began the deliberate release of treated radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility into the Pacific Ocean. This action has stirred opposition from certain local activists and sparked vocal objections from neighboring nations, most notably China.
This strategy is a crucial step towards decommissioning the plant, more than a decade after a catastrophic 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami led to a catastrophic meltdown, emitting radioactive particles into the atmosphere, marking the world’s most severe nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl incident. In 2011, the plant was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, which triggered reactor meltdowns. To stop the meltdown, plant works filled the reactors with water.
Both the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear overseer, have greenlit this plan. In July, the Agency affirmed that this release adheres to global safety standards and will yield “negligible radiological impact to people and the environment.” The gradual discharge of approximately 1.3 million metric tons of wastewater will unfold over the span of 30 years.
The amount of water, equivalent to the contents of 500 Olympic size swimming pools and still mounting, has been utilized to cool the fuel rods inside the Fukushima plant’s nuclear reactors since the meltdown in 2011. Presently, it is stored in roughly 1,000 on-site tanks, nearly filled as stated by Japan. Despite undergoing filtration and dilution to eliminate a substantial portion of radioactive elements, trace amounts of tritium, a hydrogen isotope, persist.
Japanese officials affirm that tritium levels in the released water will remain far below the safety standards stipulated by the World Health Organization. They also underline that wastewater containing tritium is routinely discharged by nuclear plants worldwide, at times in higher concentrations. Notwithstanding Japan’s efforts to mollify public concerns – Prime Minister Fumio Kishida personally visited the area to emphasize the plan’s safety – critics have emerged. These include Japanese fishing collectives, anxious about the impact on their livelihoods, along with environmental activists and scientists skeptical of the full scope of risks.
Beyond technical and environmental considerations, the release has evolved into a political and diplomatic quandary, especially with countries entangled in complex historical dynamics with Japan. South Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Macau have all criticized the decision. Foremost among the critics is China, the largest consumer of Japanese seafood. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, criticized the decision, asserting that it “heedlessly shifts the peril of nuclear contamination to neighboring countries, including China, disregarding the long-term welfare of the region’s inhabitants and the global population.”
Alongside Macau and Hong Kong, China has prolonged an existing embargo on seafood imports from ten of Japan’s 47 prefectures, encompassing Fukushima and Tokyo. Officials recently declared elevated scrutiny for food imports from the unblocked prefectures. While South Korea’s government has reaffirmed its confidence in the water release plan’s scientific basis, the public remains anxious. Demonstrations have taken place across the nation, organized by the opposition party and civic groups.
Experts emphasize the thoroughness of the procedure. Marina Lorenzini from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government asserted that this decision has been meticulously contemplated and is in line with established global nuclear energy practices. Lorenzini’s assurance is bolstered by the active involvement of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has stationed an office at the Fukushima plant, pledging real-time monitoring and data dissemination.
Lorenzini expressed confidence, saying, “I think we have good reason to believe that this will be a well-monitored and well-maintained operation.”