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 and their cooling water became contaminated and began leaking. The plant's storage capacity will be full late next year.
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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said ocean release was the most realistic option and that disposing the water is unavoidable for the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant, which is expected to take decades. He also pledged the government would work to ensure the safety of the water and to prevent damaging rumors on local agriculture, fisheries and tourism.
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, but 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.
The amount of radioactive materials that would remain in the water is also still unknown. Under the basic plan adopted Tuesday by the ministers, TEPCO will start releasing the water in about two years after building a facility and compiling release plans adhering to safety requirements.
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It said the disposal of the water cannot be postponed further and is necessary to improve the environment surrounding the plant so residents can live there safely. Residents, fisheries officials and environmental groups issued statements denouncing the decision as ignoring environmental safety and health, while adding a further blow to Fukushima's image and economy from the water discharge that will continue for decades.
Japan Fisheries Cooperatives chairman Hiroshi Kishi said the decision less than a week after he met with Suga “is absolutely 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.
Local fisheries have just returned to full operation after a decade in which their catch was only for testing purposes, and they are struggling due to dwindling demand.
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 in a statement that ocean release was chosen for cost effectiveness and that forcing the plan “underscores their lack of regret" for the disaster.
Protestors also gathered outside the Prime Minister's Office to demand the plan be retracted.
TEPCO says its water storage capacity of 1.37 million tons will be full around fall of 2022. Also, the area now filled with storage tanks will have to be freed up for building new facilities needed for removing melted fuel debris from inside the reactors and for other decommissioning work that's expected to start in coming years.
The tanks could also be damaged and leak in case of another powerful earthquake or tsunami, the report said.
Releasing the water to the ocean was described as the most realistic method by a government panel that for nearly seven years had discussed how to dispose of the water. The report it prepared last year mentioned evaporation as a less desirable option.
According to a preliminary estimate, gradual releases of water will take nearly 40 years but will be completed before the plant is fully decommissioned.
Japan will abide by international rules for a release, obtain support from the International Atomic Energy Agency and others, and ensure disclosure of data and transparency to gain understanding of the international community, the report said.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, in a video message, said the ocean discharge was in line with international practice, though “the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it a unique and complex case.”
He said the IAEA will support Japan in environmental monitoring “before, during and after the discharge.”
China and South Korea reacted strongly to Tuesday's decision.
Koo Yun-cheol, minister of South Korea's Office for Government Policy Coordination, said the plan was “absolutely unacceptable" and urged Japan to disclose how the water is treated and its safety is verified.
China criticized Japan's decision as “extremely irresponsible,” saying it had not considered the health concerns of neighboring countries.