Japan Plans to Release Fukushima Water in the Pacific Ocean

Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The decision by the Japanese government to release diluted water from the Fukushima nuclear disaster into the sea is being met with scepticism and worry by some dependent on the waters for their livelihoods.

According to local reports and officials briefed on the process, releasing the contaminated water into the ocean is regarded as the only viable option.

Three out of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered meltdowns in March 2011 when a tsunami knocked out their cooling systems. Thousands of tonnes of water were pumped into the reactors as coolant and groundwater has continued to flow into the damaged structures, becoming contaminated with radioactive nuclides.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power, known as Tepco, has stored more than 1m tonnes of this water in tanks at the site but it is running out of space. Officials said that capacity would run out by 2022, and with around two years needed to build equipment to discharge the water, a decision on how to handle it was urgent.

Tepco has processed the water through a filtration plant and said it had removed almost all the radioactive nuclides, but there is no effective technology to separate tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, the lightest element. Japan’s government argues that tritium is released routinely by working nuclear reactors around the world and that there is no risk to human health.

Scientists advising the Japanese government looked at a range of options to deal with the water, including evaporating it into the atmosphere or injecting it into underground reservoirs. Diluting it and then releasing it into the ocean was judged the safest and most cost-effective approach.

Releasing the water is vehemently opposed by residents of Fukushima and by Japan’s fishermen, however, who have faced export bans because of the nuclear accident. Fishing in waters near the Fukushima Daiichi plant is still restricted.

JF, an umbrella body for Japan’s fishing co-operatives, told ministers that they were “absolutely against” releasing the water into the ocean.

“We recognise that the handling of this water is a pressing and important national problem, but if this water is released into the ocean, we will suffer inevitable damage to our reputation,” the co-ops declared.

“Our fear is that it will have a severe impact and all the effort of fishermen [to recover from the Fukushima disaster] will go down the drain.”