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Japan to begin contentious Fukushima radioactive water release Aug. 24

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will start releasing treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea on Thursday, weather conditions permitting, despite concerns among local fishermen and persistent opposition from China.

The controversial decision was made at a ministerial meeting on Tuesday morning, as a significant amount of the water has accumulated at the site since the 2011 nuclear accident triggered by a devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

Kishida’s government is likely to face a backlash from people in the fisheries industry, who feel the plan is going ahead without their consent or sufficient explanation on whether the government can really safeguard the reputation of their seafood products.

Fishing boats moored at Ukedo fishing port in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, are pictured on Aug. 22, 2023, with the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant seen in the background. (Kyodo)

During the gathering at the prime minister’s office, Kishida vowed to make the utmost effort to dispose of the treated water and decommission the wrecked plant in a safe manner, saying, “The government will take full responsibility, even if it takes decades.”

In the wake of Kishida’s announcement, Tomoaki Kobayakawa, president of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., told reporters that he has instructed employees to “swiftly” begin preparations for the water discharge.

The amount of treated water from the Fukushima complex that will be released into the sea in fiscal 2023 through next March is set to be 31,200 tons, TEPCO said.

In April 2021, Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, gave his approval for the release of the water into the Pacific Ocean “in around two years.” The current government said in January that it would carry out the plan sometime from “spring to around summer.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded in July that Japan’s plan aligns with global safety standards and would have a “negligible radiological impact on people and the environment,” prompting the government to proceed with the water discharge.

While several European countries have lifted restrictions on Japanese food imports, China has introduced blanket radiation testing on seafood products from its neighbor in an apparent bid to urge Tokyo to halt its plan, a source of diplomatic tension.

For years, Beijing has expressed strong objections to the envisioned water discharge, refusing to use the pseudo-scientific term “treated” to downplay the risks of the “nuclear-contaminated water.”

China, along with Russia, called on Japan last month to consider vaporizing and releasing the water into the atmosphere, which they say would have a smaller impact on the environment, according to diplomatic sources.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads the junior ruling coalition partner of Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party, voiced willingness to explain the water discharge plan to the Chinese government when he visits the country next week.

Yamaguchi, chief of the Komeito party, known for its close ties with Beijing, will also hand over a letter from Kishida to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In South Korea, the government has said it respects the outcome of the IAEA’s review based on its own analysis of Japan’s plan, while the country’s opposition parties remain concerned about the negative effects of the water disposal.

Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2023, shows tanks storing treated radioactive water on the premises of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. (Kyodo)

At home, local fishermen have opposed the water release plan amid worries that the reputation of their seafood products could face further harm, arguing they have already endured years of arduous efforts to regain consumer trust after the initial nuclear crisis.

Considering such fears from the fishing community, the government has decided to discharge the treated water before the start of the trawl fishing season off Fukushima in September, sources close to the matter said.

Trying to convince fishermen to consent to the government’s plan, Kishida visited the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex on Sunday and spoke with the head of Japan’s national fisheries federation on the following day at the premier’s office.

However, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, under its head Masanobu Sakamoto, has remained opposed to the water release, saying it will erode the reputation of seafood from Fukushima and nearby areas.

At Monday’s meeting, Kishida said he will keep trying to communicate with local fishermen to win their group’s backing for his administration’s efforts to ensure the safety of the water and for its measures to respond to potential reputational damage.

The government has set up two separate funds worth 30 billion yen ($206 million) and 50 billion yen, respectively, aimed at responding to any harmful rumors and supporting local fishermen in sustaining their businesses.

Since the nuclear disaster, the water has been kept in more than 1,000 tanks installed at the site after undergoing treatment through an advanced liquid processing system, which is believed to be able to remove most radionuclides except tritium.

The operator has claimed that the tanks are nearing their capacity and are expected to reach their limit as early as 2024 unless the operator initiates the release of the treated water, of which there is now in excess of 1.3 million tons.

The government and TEPCO have insisted that the release of the treated water is indispensable for decommissioning the crippled plant, although reducing the number of storage tanks may not accelerate the process.

The treated water will be diluted with seawater to one-40th of the concentration permitted under Japanese safety standards before being discharged via an underwater tunnel 1 kilometer from the plant.

Japan, meanwhile, has pointed out that China and South Korea have both previously released liquid waste containing high levels of tritium into the sea from nuclear power plants located in their own countries.

Tritium is known to be less harmful to the human body than other radioactive materials, including cesium and strontium, given that it emits very weak levels of radiation and does not accumulate or concentrate inside the human body.

But critics say it remains uncertain whether the radioactive material is definitely safe for humans and the environment, citing a lack of long-term data.

Photo taken in June 2023 shows a crane barge anchored near where treated radioactive water will be released in waters off the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (Kyodo) 

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