Japan will start discharging radioactive water from the Fukushima plant into the sea in two years’ time

TOKYO (AP) – The Japanese government announced on Tuesday that it would release treated radioactive water from the devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Pacific within two years. It is a movement against which the fishermen, residents and neighbors of Japan are strongly opposed.

The decision, long speculated but delayed for years due to security concerns and protests, came at a meeting of cabinet ministers who endorsed the ocean’s release as the best option.

The collected water has been stored in tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the reactors and their cooling water became contaminated and started to leak. The factory’s storage capacity will be full by the end of next year.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said releasing the ocean was the most realistic option and that the discharge of the water is necessary to complete the decade-long decommissioning of the Fukushima plant. He said the government would work to make sure the water is safe and to help local agriculture, fishing and tourism.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., and government officials say that tritium, which is not harmful in small amounts, cannot be removed from the water, but all other selected radionuclides can be reduced to levels that can be released. Some scientists say the long-term impact on marine life of low dose exposure to such large amounts of water is unknown.

The government emphasizes the safety of the water, calling it “treated” and not “radioactive,” even though radionuclides can only be reduced to disposable levels, not zero. The amount of radioactive material that would remain in the water is unknown.

Letting the water flow into the ocean was described as the most realistic solution by a government panel that had discussed how to dispose of the water for nearly seven years. Last year’s report cited evaporation as a less desirable option.

Under the base plan adopted by ministers on Tuesday, TEPCO will begin discharging the water after building a facility and drafting release plans that meet safety requirements in about two years. It said the water runoff cannot be delayed any further and is needed to improve the environment around the plant so that residents can live there safely.

Residents, fishermen and environmental groups issued statements denouncing the decision for ignoring environmental safety and health and further harming Fukushima’s image and economy.

Hiroshi Kishi, chairman of the Japanese fishing cooperatives, said the decision trampled all Japanese fishing companies less than a week after meeting Suga.

The local fisheries have just returned to full operation after a decade where their catch was for testing purposes only, and they are struggling with declining demand.

Protesters gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Office to demand that the plan be scrapped.

TEPCO says its water storage capacity of 1.37 million tons will be full by the fall of 2022. Also, the area now filled with storage tanks should be used for new buildings needed for the removal of molten fuel waste from the reactors and for other decommissioning works in the coming years.

In the decade since the tsunami disaster, water intended to cool the nuclear material has been constantly escaping from the damaged primary containment vessels to the basements of the reactor buildings. To make up for the loss, more water was pumped into the reactors to further cool the molten fuel. Water is also pumped out and treated, some of which is recycled as cooling water, and the remainder is stored in 1,020 tanks that now contain 1.25 million tons of radioactive water.

Those tanks, which occupy a large space in the plant, are disrupting the safe and steady progress of the decommissioning, said Hiroshi Kajiyama, Minister of Economy and Industry. The tanks could also be damaged and leak in the event of another powerful earthquake or tsunami, the report said.

About 70% of the water in the tanks is contaminated beyond discharge limits, but will be re-filtered and diluted with seawater before it is released, the report said. According to a preliminary estimate, the gradual release of the water will take nearly 40 years, but will be completed before the plant is completely decommissioned.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a video message that ocean discharge was in line with international practice, although “the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it a unique and complex case.”

China and South Korea reacted strongly to Tuesday’s decision.

Koo Yun-cheol, minister of South Korea’s Office for Coordination of Government Policy, said the plan was “absolutely unacceptable” and urged Japan to disclose how the water is treated and its safety verified. South Korea has banned seafood imports from parts of Japan since 2013 and could step up those moves.

China criticized Japan’s decision as “extraordinarily irresponsible”, saying it had failed to take into account the health concerns of neighboring countries.