Government officials in Japan are considering releasing over a million tons of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi site into the ocean. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated that he would “make a decision as soon as possible” as far as how to manage the radioactive water whilst visiting the plant.

It is estimated that Tokyo Electric Power Company, known as TEPCO, has contained over a million tons of radioactive water from the nuclear power plant. Okuma Town in Fukushima was rocked by an earthquake which triggered a tsunami back in 2011. The disaster resulted in over 15 000 deaths, 160 000 residents being displaced as well as millions of gallons worth of radioactive waste being released into the Pacific. In 2013, National Geographic reported that TEPCO is handling “an ever-increasing amount of contaminated water – nearly 150 000 tons a year” on site.

By the end of 2020, it is calculated that tanks will be able to hold 1.37 million tons of contaminated water, enough to fill over five hundred Olympic swimming pools. A new tank is currently being built every ten days. As of September, there are over 1 000 storage tanks on the grounds of Fukushima Daiichi; however tank space will reach capacity by the summer of 2022 due to lack of space to enable further storage. 

With room for containment slowly depleting and a lack of alternative solutions being proposed, a panel of experts have advised the Japanese government to allow the gradual release of the radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. A minister, Yoshiaki Harada, said, “The only option will be to drain it into the sea and dilute it,” but a final decision has yet to be announced. The government and TEPCO have previously stated they would not dispose of the contaminated water without consulting locals. However, Fukushima fishermen have voiced vehement disapproval to the current proposal, stating there would be serious economic and reputational damage on their part. Toru Takahashi, head of the Fukushima Trawl Fishery Association, says, “We cannot accept releasing the water into the ocean. People in some other prefectures are for the plan. But no one will buy fish from the sea where the water is discharged. Everybody will think fish from Japan are dangerous.” 

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The radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi is treated through an advanced liquid processing system (ALPS), and it is also desalinated. While this filtration process is able to extract radioactive substances such as strontium and caesium, tritium cannot be removed. Tritium exists naturally in small amounts. Scientists such as James Conca suggest diluting the water and releasing it gradually would be a viable measure, saying “Tritium is the mildly radioactive isotope of Hydrogen that has two neutrons and one proton, with radioactivity so low that no environmental or human problems have ever come from it, even though it is a common radioactive element in the environment. Tritium is formed naturally by atmospheric processes as well as in nuclear weapons testing and in nuclear power plants.”

However, there is still lingering hesitation and some uncertainty to commit to releasing the contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean in spite of tritium’s relative safety. In 2018, TEPCO admitted that when examining 70 000 tons of treated water, the level of radioactivity was 100 times more than government-mandated safety levels. The radioactive element Strontium-90 was discovered in the water, at 20 000 times the legal limit. Strontium-90 is known to be hazardous to humans, exposure to which can increase the likelihood of contracting diseases such as bone cancer and leukaemia. TEPCO has since apologised after these findings were revealed. In response, the company’s spokesman said: “We will filter the water in the tanks one more time to bring the levels to below regulatory limits before release into the ocean if a decision is made to do so.” 

If the government decides to release the radioactive water in Fukushima, new equipment would be required on site and the process of release would take two years alongside examination from The Nuclear Regulation Authority. A meeting is due to be held with cabinet ministers this month. The ramifications of releasing radioactive water could have detrimental consequences of the quality of the ocean water, and therefore the quality of the fish that people consume. If there were to be an adverse reaction, it would surely constitute a violation of residents’ right to live in a safe environment. 

Featured image by: Flickr