Japan Plans to Dump Radioactive Wastewater into The Pacific: Is It Safe?

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

Thirteen years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan has revealed its controversial plan to dispose of treated radioactive water waste into the oceans. The United Nations' nuclear watchdog has approved the plan, which had been pending for years. Despite the authorisation, many are questioning the approach, given the potential risks involved.

What Happened in 2011? 
In 2011, Fukushima, Japan was hit by a devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami. The aftermath caused widespread contamination and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents in the surrounding areas. This disaster stands as the most severe nuclear incident since Chernobyl.

While there were no immediate radiation fatalities, the tsunami waves overwhelmed the Fukushima nuclear plant's protective barriers. As a result, explosions occurred in some of the plant's reactors, and radioactive materials were released into the atmosphere. Workers at the plant have since been working to contain the hot nuclear fuel, knowing they would eventually need to find a sustainable way to dispose of it.

The Current Situation

There are 1.3 million metric tons of contaminated water on-site that Japan has worked hard to treat, dilute, and discharge into the Pacific Ocean via an underwater pipeline. The International Atomic Energy Agency has supported this move, allowing the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) to slowly release the water through a 1-km-long underwater pipe. The Japanese Government plans to gradually do this over the next 30 years.

The Reaction in Japan

Since the plans were made public, many in Japan have been disgruntled about not being consulted on the wastewater plans. The wastewater contains 64 radioactive elements, including carbon-13, iodine-131, caesium-137, and tritium, which are unstable chemical elements known as radionuclides that emit radiation. Although dilution is planned to reduce their concentrations before discharge, this has done little to ease the concerns of those unhappy with the plan.

Many fear that even small amounts of tritium and carbon-14 could bioaccumulate in the food web, posing risks to human health and the environment. Local fishermen have strongly opposed the plan, demanding that the government take full responsibility for any negative impact on the fishing industry, their environment, and their livelihoods.

In response, the Japanese government has set up a fund to promote Fukushima seafood and provide compensation in case of sales fall due to safety concerns. Officials argue that removing the water is necessary to prevent accidental leaks in case of an earthquake and to make room for the plant's decommissioning, making the release, whether supported by the local community or not, inevitable.

International Concerns

The controversy extends beyond Japan's borders, with neighbouring countries, including South Korea, China, and some Pacific Island nations raising safety concerns. South Korean vessels have staged protests against the plan despite their government's acceptance of the nuclear plant meeting global safety standards and the UN nuclear watchdog's approval for the release. South Koreans have also been rushing to stockpile salt over the last few weeks, sending prices up by 27%. This is based on fear of what the disposal will do to the sea, and by extension to sea salt.

Hong Kong, a major buyer of Japan's fish, has also expressed its concerns, announcing plans to ban seafood imports from 10 prefectures in Japan if the release goes ahead. China has also been particularly vocal in opposing the plan, accusing Japan of treating the Pacific Ocean as its "private sewer". In response, China has threatened to ban some Japanese food imports and implement radiation tests on foods from other parts of Japan. This adds further strain to the already delicate Japan-China relationship.

Europe's Stance

Unlike its Asian neighbours, Europe has taken a different stance. The EU initially conducted pre-export radioactivity checks on food and agricultural feed from Japan. However, after the assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the bloc decided to lift all import restrictions on food, including fish, produced near the Fukushima nuclear plant. Given Europe and Japan's shared interests and responses to Chinese expansion, it is not unreasonable to interpret this move as a necessary step to uphold a strong partnership.

The UK's Position

As one of Japan’s biggest importers of Fukushima seafood, some are concerned the UK may be impacted by the developments. The public perception of the safety of Japanese seafood could influence supply and demand dynamics within the UK's seafood industry. Nevertheless, the UK has already lifted restrictions on Japanese seafood for a year, and with strengthened relations between Japan and the UK, it appears that panic-buying of Japanese products is unlikely.

While concerns over releasing unstable chemicals into the ocean are understandable, it is crucial to remember that water containing tritium is routinely released into the sea. The threat posed by this release, even in the worst-case scenario, is minimal compared to other environmental risks in the region, such as the effects of the ongoing climate crisis on the Pacific Ocean.