The first water release will occur in around two years, allowing plant operator Tokyo Electric Power enough time to begin treating the water to extract toxic isotopes, construct facilities, and obtain regulatory approval.
Japan has proposed that the water release is needed to go forwards with the complicated decommissioning of the site, which was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, pointing out that similarly filtered water is regularly released from nuclear plants around the world.
Nearly 1.3 million tonnes of polluted water, enough to fill approximately 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools, is housed in massive tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant at an annual cost of approximately 100 billion yen ($912.66 million) – and space is running out.
“On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release,” the government said in a statement, adding the project would take decades to complete.
The decision comes about three months ahead of the postponed Olympic Games to be hosted by Tokyo, with some events planned as close as 60 km (35 miles) from the wrecked plant. Former Japanese Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013 assured the International Olympics Committee in pitching for the games that Fukushima “will never do any damage to Tokyo.”
Tepco intends to disinfect the polluted water in order to eliminate isotopes, leaving only tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope that is difficult to isolate from water. Tepco can then dilute the water until the tritium levels are below regulatory levels before pouring it into the ocean. [nL4N2HS1MT] Formalized paraphrase
Tritium is thought to be comparatively safe because it does not release enough radiation to reach human tissue, and other nuclear plants around the world regularly discharge water containing low amounts of the isotope into the ocean.
After the meltdown of three reactors a decade earlier, Japan has collaborated closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency in its management of the site, according to the US.
“In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards,” the U.S. Department of State said in a statement on its website.
Opponents to the scheme, on the other hand, were concerned about potential quantities of tritium or other toxins.
South Korea voiced “serious concerns that the decision may have a direct and indirect impact on the safety of our people and the environment.” It urged Japan to provide more details about the expected water release and stated that it would increase its own radiological measuring and monitoring.
“It would be difficult to accept if Japan decided to release the contaminated water without adequate consultation,” the government said in a statement. China and Taiwan have also voiced their concerns.
Fishing unions in Fukushima have urged the government for years not to release the water, arguing it would have a “catastrophic impact” on the industry.
A Scientific American article reported in 2014 that when ingested tritium can raise cancer risks, while some experts are worried about other contaminants.
“My concern is about non-tritium radioactive contaminants that still remain in the tanks at high levels,” said Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
“These other contaminants are all of greater health risk than tritium and accumulate more readily in seafood and sea floor sediments,” added Buesseler, who has studied the waters around Fukushima.