Japan's government announced a decision to begin dumping more than a million tons of treated but still radioactive wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean in two years.
The plant was severely damaged in a 2011 magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami that left about 20,000 people in northeast Japan dead or missing.
Despite Tokyo's assurances that discharging wastewater will not pose a threat to people or the environment, the decision was roundly criticized by the local fishing community, environmental groups and Japan's neighbors. Within hours of the announcement, protesters rallied outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," Japan's government said in a statement after Cabinet ministers finalized the decision. The water will be further treated and diluted, and the release will begin in two years, and take decades to complete.
The damaged Fukushima plant will take at least decades to decommission. A swath of land around the plant remains uninhabitable, thousands of residents remain displaced, and the wastewater issue is another example of the 2011 disaster's complex, long-term effects.
Since the quake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, water used to cool the nuclear reactors and contaminated groundwater have been stored in massive tanks at the plants.
The plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), says that by around next summer it will run out of space to build new tanks to hold the accumulated 1.25 million tons of wastewater. Critics argue that the government could acquire more land to build storage tanks.
Last year, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said Japan's plan to release the water — or alternatively, to let it evaporate into the air — was technically feasible, "routinely used by operating nuclear power plants worldwide," and soundly based on safety and environmental impact assessments.
TEPCO says the wastewater has been treated to remove most of the radioactivity. However, tritium — a radioactive hydrogen isotope — remains.
But environmental groups remain skeptical of the government's and TEPCO's claims. "This process of decision-making is quite undemocratic," says Ayumi Fukakusa, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Japan, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization.
"The government and TEPCO said that without consent from the fishing communities, they won't discharge the contaminated water," she notes. "That promise was completely broken."
She adds that a series of hearings intended to canvass residents' opinions on the Fukushima water issue involved almost all men, thereby excluding women's viewpoints.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met last week with Hiroshi Kishi, the president of JF Zengyoren, a nationwide federation of fishing cooperatives, and asked for their understanding about the government's decision, but Kishi said the group's stance remains unchanged.
Another problem, Fukakusa adds, is that "TEPCO and the government said the water just contains tritium, which cannot be separated from water. But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before."
"That kind of attitude is not honest to people," she says. "They are making distrust by themselves."
The nonprofit Health Physics Society says tritium is considered to be hazardous to health only in large amounts and "may very slightly increase the probability that a person will develop cancer during his or her lifetime," although humans are naturally exposed to many other forms of radiation.
But Friends of the Earth Japan says the water in the storage tanks contains unknown quantities of radioactive contaminants besides tritium. Local media report that in February, shipments of black rockfish were halted after one sample caught near Fukushima contained cesium far in excess of acceptable levels.
Fish catches are at 17.5% of pre-quake levels, and many fishermen have been subsisting on handouts from TEPCO. They argue that the government's decision to dump the wastewater will make it impossible to sell their catch and will devastate their industry.
China expressed grave concern at the decision to dump wastewater, which the Foreign Ministry called "extremely irresponsible" and damaging to neighboring countries' interests.
In Seoul, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-moon summoned Japan's ambassador to Seoul to protest the decision, expressing "deep regret over the potential threat to our citizens' health and environment."
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price commented in a statement that Japan "appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards."
TEPCO again apologized for the nuclear accident in a statement Tuesday, saying it would work to restore trust in the company, "ascertain the root causes of these incidents and strengthen countermeasures throughout the entire organization."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Japan announced today that it will dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. Local fishermen, environmental groups and neighboring countries all protested the move. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, discharging the water and cleaning up the wrecked plant will take at least decades.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Announcing the government's decision, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga claimed that the government's plan is realistic and pledged that its handling of the water would exceed safety standards.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER YOSHIHIDE SUGA: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: "Discharging the treated water is an unavoidable issue," he said, "in the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant."
The government says the water will be treated before being released gradually. It'll start in two years and continue for decades. Haruo Kurasawa is a Tokyo-based science journalist. He says that the decision represents a consensus within the Japanese and international establishments.
HARUO KURASAWA: (Through translator) At this point, we have no choice but to release the treaded water. This is the general perception of researchers, the government and nuclear regulators.
KUHN: The water was used to cool reactors at the Fukushima plant since it was wrecked by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There's also contaminated groundwater. It's been stored in huge tanks at the plant. But the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, says they'll run out of space next year. Kurasawa says that while dumping the water in the ocean is problematic, there are no other great options.
KURASAWA: (Through translator) It's also not desirable to keep the water in tanks and place them so close to where people live.
KUHN: TEPCO initially argued that treating the water removed all radioactive contaminants except for tritium, which some scientists say is only harmful in large doses. But Ayumi Fukakusa, a campaigner at Friends of Earth Japan (ph), a Tokyo-based NGO, says TEPCO has created mistrust by withholding information in the past.
AYUMI FUKAKUSA: It turned out that the water contains more than tritium, some more radioactive materials that also in the water. But they didn't disclose that information before.
KUHN: Japanese media say that as recently as February, shipments of black rockfish from Fukushima had to be halted after samples were found to contain unsafe levels of another radioactive contaminant, cesium. Fukakusa also accuses Japan's government of ignoring the voices of its citizens.
FUKAKUSA: The process of decision-making is quite undemocratic. The government and TEPCO said that, without consent from the fishing communities, they won't discharge the contaminated water. But that promise was completely broken.
KUHN: Last week, Prime Minister Suga met with Hiroshi Kishi, president of Japan's National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, to try to get the group's support for dumping the water. Kishi spoke to reporters afterwards.
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HIROSHI KISHI: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: "Our opposition to the move will never change, not even one bit," he said. "It's important for the government to handle this matter responsibly."
Neighboring South Korea called Japan's decision to dump the water a potential threat to its citizens health and environment. China called it extremely irresponsible. The U.S. State Department commented in a statement that Japan's approach appears to be in line with global standards.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.