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Japan to start releasing Fukushima water into sea in 2 years

by Mary Sewell

TOKYO — Japan’s government decided Tuesday to start releasing treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean in two years — an option fiercely opposed by fishermen, residents, and Japan’s neighbors. The decision, long speculated but delayed for years due to safety concerns and protests, came at a meeting of Cabinet ministers who endorsed the ocean release as the best option. The accumulating water has been stored in tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since 2011 when a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged its reactors. Their cooling water became contaminated and began leaking. The plant’s storage capacity will be full late next year.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said ocean release was the most realistic option. He also pledged that the government would ensure the water’s safety and prevent damaging rumors. Disposing of the water is unavoidable for decommissioning the Fukushima plant, which is expected to take decades. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., and government officials say tritium, which is not harmful in small amounts, cannot be removed from the water. Still, all other selected radionuclides can be reduced to levels allowed for release. Some scientists say the long-term impact on marine life from low-dose exposure to such large volumes of water is unknown.


The government stresses the safety of the water by calling it “treated,” not “radioactive,” even though radionuclides can only be reduced to disposable levels, not to zero. Under the basic plan adopted Tuesday by the ministers, TEPCO will start releasing the water about two years after building a facility and compiling release plans adhering to safety requirements. It said the water disposal could not be postponed further and is necessary to improve the environment surrounding the plant so residents can live there safely. The amount of radioactive materials that would remain in the water is also still unknown.

Residents, fisheries officials, and environmental groups issued statements denouncing the decision as ignoring ecological safety and health while adding a further blow to Fukushima’s image and economy. Japan Fisheries Cooperatives Chairman Hiroshi Kishi said the decision less than a week after he met with Suga “is unacceptable.” Noting the government’s pledge not to act without the fishing industry’s understanding, Kishi said the decision “trampled on” all Japanese fisheries operators.

Lawyer Izutaro Managi and his colleagues representing residents in Fukushima and nearby areas said the government and TEPCO should not dump the water “only to impact the environment again” — referring to the radiation that still contaminates land closest to the damaged plant. The lawyers alleged that ocean release was chosen for cost-effectiveness and that forcing the plan “underscores their lack of regret” for the disaster.

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