Ten years after the Fukushima nuclear plant incident, Japan has now decided to dump more than 1 million metric tons of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Though Japan believes that the plan offers an adequate solution for the unavoidable radioactive water problem, it is facing opposition from nationals and neighboring countries alike.
“We have decided that guaranteeing safety far above the accepted standard, and ensuring the entire government’s best efforts to prevent reputational damage, means releasing it to the ocean is a realistic option,” stated Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Source of the radioactive water
In 2012, a powerful earthquake triggered a 15-meter tsunami in Fukushima, Japan. The cooling systems of the Fukushima nuclear plant got damaged, creating one of the most devastating nuclear meltdowns since Chernobyl in 1986. The accident, coupled with the aftermath of the tsunami, caused the death and disappearance of almost 18,500 people.
Thus, to stop the severely damaged three plant cores from melting, they continuously pumped cool water into the system. Hence, the uranium fuel rods contaminated the water and turned it radioactive.
After decades of debate on where to release the water, the Japanese government decided to dump it in the Pacific ocean. However, the government is stressing the fact that the water will not be released without modification. They will treat it in a way that removes almost all the radioactive materials, leaving only tritium. Moreover, small amounts of the left hydrogen isotope are not harmful to humans. According to the government, since Tritium emits only weak forms of radiation, it will barely leave any substantial impact.
Furthermore, even though Tritium is a radioactive substance, it only has a half-life of around 12 years. Thus, they are confident that the substance can disappear from the environment within limited centuries.
“Before the discharge, the water in tanks will also be sufficiently diluted so that the concentration of tritium will be much lower than Japan’s national regulatory standards, which is compliant with international standards,” the Prime Minister’s office explained in a statement.
Moreover, Japan’s Ministry of Economy stated that third parties, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will monitor the water’s dilution.
“It is not like you are going to see the sea glowing in purple or green, and all fish will be dead, and the Pacific Ocean will be killed. Of course not,” IAEA Director, General Rafael Mariano Grossi, said. “This has been done … in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, in many parts of the world, and there is no adverse environmental impact whatsoever. There wouldn’t be any authorization or any endorsement if I can put it like this, from the IAEA to an operation that is causing harm or that is not environmentally neutral.”
The most opposing national voice of this decision is the Japanese fishing industry. The industry already suffered the most from the nuclear incident in 2011 since many countries banned the import of fish caught on Japan’s north-eastern coast. Thus, they will be the ones most burdened in case of a problem. Tritium radiation can be ingested, which is the main reason behind their concern. If fish ingested these substances, they risk the contamination of the seafood industry. However, while the risk isn’t zero, scientists believe that it doesn’t pose any threat to human health.
On the other hand, the decision is sparking distrust within the fishing community and the government. “The government and TEPCO said that without consent from the fishing communities, they won’t discharge the contaminated water,” said Ayumi Fukakusa, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Japan. “That promise was completely broken.”
Following the announcement, some of Japan’s neighboring countries expressed their opposition. For example, South Korea voiced its concern stating that the Japanese decision can have consequences reaching far beyond its territory. “[The decision can] directly or indirectly affect the safety of the Korean people and the surrounding environment in the future,” stated South Korean Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, Choi Young-sam.
“The government has been emphasizing that the decision needs to be made through transparent disclosure of information and consultations with neighboring countries. If the Japanese government decides to discharge contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant without sufficient consultation, it is difficult for us to accept this.”
China also expressed its concern while urging Japan to handle the matter more responsibly. “Japan has … unilaterally decided to discharge nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident into the sea, which is extremely irresponsible and will seriously damage international public health and safety and the vital interests of people in neighboring countries,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
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