The World of International Organizations

IAEA supports plan to release Fukushima water

Water tanks with contaminated water in front of the reactor buildings at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi (AN/Susanna Loof)
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The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency offered support for the decision by Japan’s government on Tuesday to release more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive wastewater from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean starting in 2023.

Releasing the water from storage tanks “is an unavoidable issue that needs to be resolved” to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi plant badly damaged in the massive earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said. Cooling water from the damaged reactors became contaminated, and started leaking. “From now on, we will proceed with preparation work and begin the discharge into the sea in around two years,” he told a press conference.

With the plant’s water tank capacity of 1.37 million tons expected to be full by the end of 2022, Suga said the government based its decision on “more than six years of study by experts and assessment by international organizations.” Some of the radioactive wastewater is recycled as cooling water, but most of it — an expected 1.25 million tons — is filling more than 1,000 tanks, and now slated for release.

Cabinet ministers also took the decision to empty those tanks into the sea two years from now despite strong opposition from the governments of China, South Korea and Taiwan along with local residents and Japanese whose livelihoods depend on fishing.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, welcomed the long-anticipated decision, and said IAEA is ready to provide technical support by monitoring and reviewing the plan and its implementation. He described controlled wastewater discharges into the sea as a routine and safe practice among nuclear power plants worldwide, when properly regulated based on safety and environmental impact assessments.

“Tanks with the water occupy large areas of the site, and water management, including the disposal of the treated water in a safe and transparent manner involving all stakeholders, is of key importance for the sustainability of these decommissioning activities,” Grossi said. “The Japanese government’s decision is in line with practice globally, even though the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it a unique and complex case.”

The IAEA, which functions as both a global watchdog against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and as a leading promoter of the peaceful uses of atomic energy, said Japan asked for its cooperation in releasing the wastewater.

Confidence-building versus skepticism

The international organization indicated it will dispatch international experts to compare Japan’s plans with IAEA’s safety standards and to assist with environmental monitoring when the water is released. Since the accident a decade ago, the IAEA already has helped Japan deal with the Fukushima plant’s radiation monitoring, remediation, waste management and decommissioning.

“We will work closely with Japan before, during and after the discharge of the water,” said Grossi, a career diplomat from Argentina with more than 35 years of professional experience in nonproliferation and disarmament, who traveled to Fukushima during an official trip to Japan in February 2020 soon after starting a four-term as IAEA’s new chief.

“Our cooperation and our presence will help build confidence — in Japan and beyond — that the water disposal is carried out without an adverse impact on human health and the environment,” he said.

Hiroshi Kishi, chair of JF Zengyoren, Japan’s National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, said the government’s decision was “extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable” just a week after he and other representatives of local fisheries met with Suga to raise concerns the released wastewater will further hurt their chances of persuading consumers that the fish they catch is safe. Over the past decade their catch has been mainly used to test contamination.

“The government reversed its earlier position that it would not go ahead with the water disposal without gaining an understanding from concerned parties,” the federation said. “The decision tramples on the feelings of fishermen not only in Fukushima Prefecture but also in the rest of Japan.”

The plant generated radioactive wastes through the use of about 400 tons a day of cooling water. The accident released into the environment mainly gaseous radioactive materials and tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that causes little harm in tiny amounts. Japan’s government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, said the tritium cannot be removed from the water.

As a result, Suga said, the government will ensure environmental safety by “reducing the tritium concentration to one-fortieth or less of the domestic regulatory standard value.” The government describes the water as treated, despite the inability to eliminate all radionuclides from it.

“We must not allow the adverse impacts on reputation to lose hopes of local people for reconstruction,” he said. “The government as a whole will make utmost efforts to provide information based on scientific evidence, among other things.”

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