In a controversial move approved by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, Japan is set to release treated radioactive water into the ocean, marking a significant step in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. The decision comes after 12 years of planning and amid mounting pressure due to limited storage capacity for the contaminated material.
Rafael Grossi, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently visited Fukushima to present the UN body’s safety review to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. However, the UN’s approval has not assuaged the concerns of neighboring countries’ residents and local fishermen, who continue to experience the lingering effects of the 2011 disaster.
The Fukushima nuclear plant suffered damage to its power supply and cooling systems following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. As a result, water within the plant became contaminated with highly radioactive material. Since then, new water has been continuously pumped in to cool the fuel debris, leading to the accumulation of over 1.32 million metric tons of wastewater, stored in massive tanks by the state-owned electricity firm, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
With storage space rapidly diminishing, TEPCO and the Japanese government have argued that releasing the treated wastewater is the only viable option for decommissioning the plant safely. The wastewater contains some dangerous elements, but according to TEPCO, the majority of these can be removed. The main concern lies with the hydrogen isotope tritium, which cannot be eliminated with existing technology. However, authorities claim that the released water will be highly diluted and gradually released over several decades, ensuring that tritium concentrations remain within international safety and environmental standards.
While the IAEA report states that the impact of the released water would have a “negligible radiological impact on people and the environment,” experts remain divided on the potential risks. Critics argue that dilution might not sufficiently reduce the impact on marine life, as tritium and other pollutants can accumulate within the ecosystem. Concerns are amplified given the existing stress on the world’s oceans from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution.
International reactions to the plan have been mixed. The United States has supported Japan, citing transparency and adherence to nuclear safety standards. Taiwan has stated that the impact on its region will be minimal. However, neighboring countries like China and South Korea have expressed strong reservations, warning of unpredictable harm to the marine environment and human health. Skepticism remains among the public, with concerns leading to increased sales of seafood and sea salt in anticipation of potential impacts.