Japan criticised over plan to release treated water from Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean

Published Aug 23, 2023


TOKYO: Japan said on Tuesday it will start releasing more than 1 million metric tonnes of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea on August 24, going ahead with a plan heavily criticised by China.

The plan, approved two years ago by the Japanese government as crucial to decommissioning the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has also faced criticism from local fishing groups fearing reputational damage.

The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station was knocked out by a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed around 18 000 people in March 2011, sending three of its reactors into meltdown.

Operator TEPCO has since collected 1.34 million tonnes of water used to cool what remains of the still highly radioactive reactors, mixed with groundwater and rain that has seeped in.

TEPCO says the water will be diluted and filtered before release to remove all radioactive substances except tritium, levels of which are far below dangerous levels.

"I expect the water release to start on August 24, weather conditions permitting," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

The announcement comes a day after the government said it had won "a degree of understanding" from the fishing industry over the release of the water into the Pacific Ocean, even as fishing groups said they still feared the reputational damage would ruin their livelihood.

The water will initially be released in smaller portions and with extra checks, with the first discharge totalling 7 800 cubic metres over about 17 days starting Thursday, TEPCO said.

That water will contain about 190 becquerels of tritium per litre, below the World Health Organisation drinking water limit of 10 000 becquerels per litre, according to TEPCO. A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity.

Japan has said that the water release is safe. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, greenlighted the plan in July, saying that it met international standards and that the impact on people and the environment was "negligible".

About 56% of respondents to a survey conducted by Japanese broadcaster FNN over the weekend said they supported the release, while 37% opposed.

"The IAEA and many other countries have said it's safe, so I believe it is. But fishermen are facing so many problems so the Japanese government needs to do something to convince them," said 77-year-old NGO worker Hiroko Hashimoto.


Despite assurances, some neighbouring countries have also expressed scepticism over the safety of the plan, with Beijing the biggest critic.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the move "extremely selfish". He said China was deeply concerned about the decision and had lodged a formal complaint.

"The ocean is the common property of all humankind, not a place for Japan to arbitrarily dump nuclear-contaminated water," Wenbin said Tuesday.

Wenbin said China "will take all necessary measures to protect the marine environment, food safety, and public health," but did not mention any specific measures.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee called the discharge "irresponsible" and said the city would "immediately activate" import controls on Japanese seafood, from regions including capital Tokyo and Fukushima starting Thursday.

The ban, which will also be implemented by Macau, would cover live, frozen, refrigerated, and dried seafood, as well as sea salt and seaweed.

South Korea said in a statement released Tuesday that it saw no problem with the scientific or technical aspects of the plan, but did not necessarily agree with or support it.

A nuclear expert, however, said the level of tritium was well below World Health Organization drinking water limits.

"Tritium has been released (by nuclear power plants) for decades with no evidential detrimental environmental or health effects," Tony Hooker, a nuclear expert from the University of Adelaide, told AFP.


This water will be released, if weather conditions allow, into the ocean off Japan's northeast coast at a maximum rate of 500 000 litres (132 000 US gallons) per day.

The UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in July that the release would have a "negligible radiological impact on people and the environment".

On Tuesday, the IAEA said its staff would be on site for the start of the discharge and beyond, and would publish "real-time and near real-time monitoring data".

Japan's fisheries agency will take samples of bottom-dwelling flatfish at two designated sampling spots near the outlet of the water pipe.

But environmental pressure group Greenpeace has said the filtration process is flawed.

Japan "has opted for a false solution -- decades of deliberate radioactive pollution of the marine environment -- during a time when the world's oceans are already facing immense stress and pressures", Greenpeace said Tuesday.

Salt panic

Many South Koreans are alarmed at the prospect of the release, staging demonstrations and even stocking up on sea salt because of fears of contamination.

Dozens of protesters gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Tuesday, with more rallies planned.

One protester held up a sign reading: "We denounce the Japanese government for killing the ocean!"

But President Yoon Suk Yeol's government, taking political risks at home, has sought to improve long-frosty relations with Japan and has not objected to the plan.

James Brady from the Teneo risk consultancy said that, while China's safety concerns may be sincere, there was a distinct whiff of geopolitics and economic rivalry in its harsh reaction.

"The multifaceted nature of the Fukushima wastewater release issue makes it quite a useful one for Beijing to potentially exploit," Brady told AFP.

The threat of restrictions worries people in Japan's fishing industry, just as business was beginning to recover.

"Nothing about the water release is beneficial to us," third-generation fisherman Haruo Ono, 71, whose brother was killed in 2011, told AFP in Shinchimachi, 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of the nuclear plant.

The matter has required President Yoon Suk Yeol to strike a balance as he seeks better relations with Japan while risking consumer backlash at home.

Despite the unease abroad, Kishida said he believed an "accurate understanding" of the matter was spreading in the international community.

Japan says it will remove most radioactive elements from the water except for tritium, a hydrogen isotope that must be diluted because it is difficult to filter.

"Nuclear power plants worldwide have routinely discharged water containing tritium for over 60 years without harm to people or the environment, most at higher levels than the 22 TBq per year planned for Fukushima," Tony Irwin, an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University, said in a note.

A Japanese official said the first test results of the seawater after the discharge may be available at the start of September. Japan will also test fish in the waters near the plant, and make the test results available on the agriculture ministry's website.