Japan has planned to begin Thursday evacuating more than a million liters of water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was destroyed by a huge tsunami in 2011, to the Pacific Ocean.
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According to Tokyo and international experts, this process is safe because the water has been previously treated and the process will be extremely gradual. But some neighboring countries, especially China, are alarmed.
Why a discharge into the sea?
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant generates an average of more than 100,000 liters of contaminated water per day – water from rain, groundwater or injections, which is needed to permanently cool the cores of its reactors melted in 2011.
The water is collected, filtered and stored on site, but the available capacities are soon exhausted: 1.34 million tons, the equivalent of almost 540 Olympic-size swimming pools, are collected in more than a thousand gigantic cisterns.
In 2021, after years of deliberation, Japan decided on the solution of discharging one kilometer offshore via a purpose-built underwater pipeline.
Under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the process should last until the early 2050s and a maximum of 500,000 liters per day will be evacuated, according to Tepco, the operator of the plant in the decommissioning course.
Is it safe?
The water is treated through a filtering process called Advanced Liquid Handling System (ALPS). This removes most of its radioactive substances, but the tritium could not be removed with existing technologies.
Tritium is a radionuclide that occurs naturally in seawater and has a low radiological impact. Tritium can pose a risk if inhaled or swallowed, but only very high doses are harmful, experts say.
Tepco plans to dilute this “tritiated” water to reduce its radioactivity level to less than 1,500 becquerels per liter (Bq/L), well below the national standard of 60,000 Bq/L for this category.
For decades, tritium has been regularly released into water from operating nuclear power plants around the world, as well as from nuclear waste reprocessing plants like that at La Hague in France, recalls Tony Hooker, a radiation specialist at AFP University, at AFP Adelaide (Australia).
“We have not identified any environmental or health impacts,” he said.
The IAEA approved the Japanese plan in early July.
Who cares and why?
Environmental organizations criticize the Japanese plan, such as Greenpeace, which accuses the Japanese government of minimizing radiation risks.
Japanese fishermen also fear that this will damage the image of their products both at home and abroad.
On the side of neighboring countries, China deemed the Japanese plan “extremely selfish and irresponsible” and criticized Tokyo for wanting to use the Pacific Ocean as a “sewer”.
Beijing decided in July to ban food imports from ten Japanese departments, including Fukushima Department, for security reasons. China has also conducted radiation tests on food from the rest of Japan.
Seoul, whose relations with Tokyo have been warming in recent months, did not object. But the opposition and the South Korean population are concerned: demonstrations have already broken out in the country and panicked consumers are stockpiling sea salt for fear of imminent contamination.
What is Japan doing to calm down?
Japanese authorities and Tepco have been trying to persuade the skeptics for months, organizing visits to the Fukushima power plant, holding technical briefings, or even live-streaming an experiment in which fish swim in tanks of treated and diluted water on YouTube.
Tokyo is also battling the online disinformation that is thriving over his project.