The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP / Lafforgue / Hans Lucas

In a long-anticipated decision, Japan announced Tuesday that starting two years hence it will release into the sea radioactive water held at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga addressed both technical and political concerns in a statement to media on the matter.

“Disposing of the treated water is an unavoidable issue in decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant,” he said, according to the Kyodo news agency. Suga vowed to ensure that “safety standards are cleared by a wide margin and firm steps are taken to prevent reputational damage.”

The first release of what is currently one and a quarter million tons of water will not take place for another two years, due to the need to build new facilities at the site and emplace strict safety screening protocols and related regulatory authorizations.

The water, a mixture of coolant water, ground water and rainwater, has been building up at the facility after all fail-safes failed amid the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The disaster at Fukushima sent shockwaves across the world, leading to a critical reappraisal of nuclear energy in Japan and other nations.

The full decommissioning of the plant is expected to take decades and the release of the water is a necessary early step in that process, officials have said.

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami rolls over the sea wall towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP /TEPCO / JIJI Press

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has greenlighted Tokyo’s release strategy, saying it is in line with international norms used by operating nuclear plants. And with the announcement coming just three days before Suga meets US President Joe Biden for a Friday summit, Washington was also supportive.

But the US, while politically close to Japan, is geographically distant.  Ripples of opposition have spread from Japanese shores to its immediate neighbors.   

As expected, both Beijing and Seoul condemned the move. More unusually, Taipei, which customarily enjoys good relations with Tokyo, has also expressed concern, while environmental NGO Greenpeace says other, safer options for the irradiated water are feasible.

Following the core meltdown at the plant amid the 2011 disaster, the need for a decision on the stored water has been mounting with increasing urgency.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc, anticipates running out of storage capacity for the water by next autumn. A Japanese government subcommittee concluded in February 2020 that releasing the water into the sea and evaporating it were both options, with the former more feasible.

The problematic water – some 1.25 million tons of it –  is held in a series of tanks at the site, and is reportedly increasing at a rate of some 140 tons per day.

TEPCO plans to treat the water using an “advanced liquid processing system,” which filters out the most dangerous radioactive isotopes such as strontium and then diluting it with seawater before releasing it into the Pacific.

However, this process leaves behind tritium, a radioactive isotope that occurs in nature. It is believed to be of minimal risk to humans at low concentrations, although a 2014 report cited cancer risks.

Under the release plan, the tritium will be heavily diluted to one-40th of the concentration permitted under Japanese safety standards and one-seventh of the World Health Organization’s guideline limit for drinking water, Kyodo reported.

On the technical front, Tokyo appears to have lined up its ducks before making today’s announcement.

For a decade, the IAEA has been cooperating closely with the Japanese government “in areas such as radiation monitoring, remediation, waste management and decommissioning” of Fukushima.

An aerial photo shows Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima Prefecture on April 7, 2021. The sapace for contaminated water tanks is running out in the near future. Photo: AFP / Koji Ito / The Yomiuri Shimbun

In a review published last year, the IAEA said the options outlined by Japan – i.e. vapor release or ocean discharge – were both technically feasible. These methods, the IAEA said, are routinely used by nuclear power plants worldwide under regulatory authorizations based on safety and environmental impact assessments.

Washington is on-side. Japan, “in close coordination with the International Atomic Energy Agency, has taken measures to manage the aftermath” of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the US State Department noted in a statement on its website.

Japanese authorities had “examined several options related to the management of the treated water currently being stored onsite at the Fukushima Daiichi site,” the US statement continued.

“In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards,” the same statement said.

Diplomatic fallout mushrooms

One alternative to nuclear power: Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (L) visits a hydrogen production facility in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 6, 2021. Photo: AFP / Strinhrt

But beyond the US, Tokyo’s public relations and diplomacy challenges look steep.

Suga, in his statement before cameras, warned against “harmful rumors” – a likely reference to the fact that many Japanese are less than sanguine about the release plan. Government officials were reportedly being deployed to the Fukushima area Tuesday to explain the decision.

There is high public mistrust of TEPCO, a key player in the mighty industry lobby group known in Japan as the “nuclear village.” Local governments in the Fukushima area, and fishermen’s unions in particular, have lobbied against any sea release of the contaminated water for fear it will increase public mistrust in seafood, a mainstay of Japanese cuisine.

According to the Associated Press, Japan Fisheries Cooperative Chairman Hiroshi Kishi said the decision was “absolutely unacceptable” and that it “trampled on” Japanese fishermen.

TV news reports showed protesters outside the prime minister’s office in Tokyo Tuesday morning. There was also a small demonstration outside the office building that houses the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

South Korea has long expressed concerns about the contamination of the northwestern Pacific and there have even been some calls for Seoul to boycott the Tokyo Olympics to safeguard the health of Korean athletes.

Koo Yoon-cheol, head of South Korea’s Office for Government Policy Coordination, convened an emergency vice-ministerial meeting to discuss Seoul’s position Tuesday morning.

“The government expresses strong regret over the Japanese government’s decision to release contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean,” Koo told media.

On Monday, anticipating Tokyo’s decision, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian expressed “grave concern” and asked the Japanese government to “adopt a responsible attitude.”

Even Taipei, which customarily enjoys good relations with Tokyo, expressed concern on Monday, Taiwanese media reported.

A woman gazes out to see off the coast of Fukushima. Photo: AFP

Influential environmental NGO Greenpeace has long opposed the move. It accuses Tokyo and TEPCO of constructing “a series of myths to support their plan.”

In a detailed report published last year, Greenpeace critiqued Japanese arguments that there is no further space for storage of the water; that tritium will be the only contaminant in the water, and that it is harmless; and there are no better alternatives to discharging the water into the ocean.

According to Greenpeace’s statement, “the only acceptable solution is continued long-term storage and processing of the contaminated water.” This strategy is “logistically possible” and will “allow time for more efficient processing technology to be deployed as well as allowing the threat from radioactive tritium to diminish naturally,” Green Peace insisted.