LESS THAN an hour after north-eastern Japan was rocked by the biggest earthquake in the country’s history, in 2011, a towering tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant and triggered a triple reactor meltdown. In the decade since the disaster, water has continued to flow through the wreckage. Some 1.25m tonnes of liquid now sits in storage tanks near the reactors (pictured). But authorities are running out of space to put the stuff. On Tuesday the Japanese government announced it would release the wastewater into the ocean after treating it to remove most radioactive elements.
The decision was no less controversial for having long been expected. Debates about what to do with the water have raged for years. The government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant’s operator, insist the plan is safe and meets international standards for releasing wastewater at nuclear power plants. The discharges will begin only two years from now, subject to further approval by Japan’s nuclear regulator. Besides, it will be a gradual release over the course of several decades. Nonetheless, local fishermen, several neighbouring countries and many environmental activists remain fiercely opposed.
The waters are a mixture of fluids used to cool the cores of the damaged reactors, as well as ground and rainwater that constantly flow through the plant. TEPCO has tried in vain to stop the accumulation, even attempting to construct an underground ice wall to prevent water from seeping into the plant. Yet the water continues to build up at a rate of 170 tonnes per day, complicating the already devilish decommissioning process.
Before releasing any of the water into the ocean, TEPCO says it will be filtered with a treatment system designed to remove all but trace amounts of dangerous radionuclides. But it cannot separate tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that experts consider harmless in small amounts. The tritium-tainted water will be diluted with seawater until the concentrations fall below internationally-accepted limits. Both America, Japan’s most important ally, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have endorsed the approach. “The method Japan has chosen is both technically feasible and in line with international practice,” said the IAEA’s director, Rafael Mariano Grossi.
That is not enough to reassure sceptics. Local fishermen who have struggled to rebuild their businesses after the disaster worry that it will further taint the reputation of their catch. “No one is convinced or can understand it,” the head of one local fishery co-operative said on Monday as word leaked out of the impending announcement. The governments of South Korea, China and Taiwan have all raised safety concerns. Environmental activists accuse the Japanese authorities of playing down the radiation risks and ignoring other possible solutions, such as building additional storage tanks elsewhere. Greenpeace, a pressure group, argues that the Japanese government merely “opted for the cheapest option”.
The scepticism reflects another of the disaster’s legacies: an enduring mistrust of experts and official institutions. It is not entirely unfounded. In 2018, after years of insisting that the water in storage had already been filtered to contain only tritium, TEPCO admitted that much of it had not been treated properly and still contained other, dangerous, isotopes. Roughly 70% of the accumulated water needs to be re-treated before it can be discharged. Releasing the water may make it easier to rebuild the Fukushima area, but it will do little to help restore trust.