Japan has decided it will start releasing radioactive water accumulated at the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea after treatment, infuriating fishermen, local residents and neighbouring countries.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet made the decision on Tuesday morning, just over a decade after the nation’s worst-ever atomic disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Tokyo Electric Power is expected to start discharging the water into the sea in two years after it has been treated, the operator and the government said.
The operator has stored over 1.2 million tons of water in more than 1,000 huge tanks at the site. The operator said the space for tanks will be running out in 2022, though local officials and some experts say otherwise.
The plant suffered meltdowns at three of its six reactors after it was hit by a powerful earthquake and ensuing tsunami in March 2011.
Since then, the operator has continued to inject water into the three reactors to keep cooling melted atomic fuel there.
Radiation-contaminated water at the site has been treated through an advanced liquid processing system, but tritium – a radioactive isotope of hydrogen – cannot be removed from the water.
The government and the operator say tritium is not harmful to human health in low concentrations.
However, the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy said in a statement that the government “should strictly avoid releasing tritium into the environment as tritium is still radioactive material.”
The group, which includes a number of experts, rejected the government’s plan to release radioactive water into the ocean and instead proposed mortar solidification technology and a land-based storage system, using large tanks.
The group submitted the proposals to the Industry Ministry and held news conferences repeatedly. However, the ministry and Japanese media downplayed and ignored them, it said.
The government’s plan invited criticism and strong opposition at home and abroad.
Hiroshi Kishi, head of the Japan Fisheries Cooperatives, said the release is “totally unacceptable. We lodge a strong protest [with the government].”
Kishi held talks with Suga last week ahead of the decision, telling the premier the group was “absolutely against” the move.
Citizens’ groups and some experts slammed the Japanese government for insufficient explanation of the plan and consensus-building efforts.
Fukushima residents said they will continue to express opposition to reverse the decision.
Greenpeace Japan said the group “strongly condemns” the government’s decision as it “completely disregards the human rights and interests of the people in Fukushima, wider Japan and the Asia-Pacific region.”
China criticized Japan for “unilaterally” making the decision “before exhausting all safe ways of disposal and without fully consulting with neighbouring countries and the international community,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“This is highly irresponsible and will severely affect human health and the immediate interests of people in neighbouring countries,” the ministry said.
“China will continue to watch closely the developments of the matter together with the international community and reserves the right to make further reactions,” it added.
Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council said the decision was regrettable, adding that Taiwanese legislators have also opposed such a move, according to Japan’s Kyodo News.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called in Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koichi Aiboshi and lodged a protest over Tokyo’s decision, Kyodo reported.
Koo Yun Cheol, South Korea’s minister for government policy coordination, said Seoul “firmly opposes” the move, the report said.
The US State Department, however, issued a statement saying Japan “has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards.”