Fukushima's Contaminated Water Will End Up In The Ocean. Should You Worry?

More than 1.2 million tons of treated water has accumulated, and time is running out.
Derya Ozdemir
Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant in Fukushima, JapanIAEA Image Bank

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that the government will soon have to decide whether to release the contaminated water building up at the meltdown-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea after a year of uncertainty. 

Suga made the remarks at a meeting with Hiroshi Kishi, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations known as JF Zengyoren, who voiced the strong opposition by fisheries industries to the decision. According to the Prime Minister, the government has put off the decision for long enough, and due to the plant almost running out of space to store the contaminated water, releasing the water into the ocean is "unavoidable," The Japan Times reports.

1.2 million tons of water accumulated

The problem is this: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which suffered core meltdowns due to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, has been generating a massive amount of radiation-tainted water after being used to cool melted fuels. Now, the storage capacity for water tanks at the complex, which have accumulated more than 1.2 million tons of treated water, is expected to run out around the fall of 2022. Since it will take two years of preparation for the water to be released, Suga's administration wants to make a formal decision as soon as possible. 

This water is treated with an advanced liquid processing system known as ALPS. The system removes most of the contaminants; however, it cannot remove radioactive tritium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors. 

Last year in February, a Japanese government panel proposed different ways of disposing of the water, from evaporating or storing it underground to releasing it into the ocean. In March, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) -- which owns the plant -- devised a plan to dilute the water to below the legal limit for the concentration of radioactive materials, and while the government hoped to make a decision in October last year, it was decided that more time for discussions was needed.

Is the plan really dangerous?

When cost and technical feasibility were considered, diluting the tritium-containing water and releasing it into the sea was preferred by the government. After purifying the water as best as possible and diluting the tritium, the water might be dumped over the course of 30 years. This method will ensure the water won't be dangerous to people, Japanese officials say.

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However, the controversial plan is strongly opposed by fishers and some local governments who fear possible reputational damage to local seafood. Neighboring countries such as China and South Korea have also expressed concerns over the discharge of contaminated water. 

While the plan remains unpopular, the International Atomic Energy Agency has backed the Japanese government's plan. Director General Rafael Grossi, while visiting the Fukushima complex in February, said the process is "in line with international practice in the nuclear industry," and that it is a common way to release water at nuclear power plants. 

However, it should also be noted that, according to The Japan Times, 15 countries and regions still restrict imports of Japanese agricultural and fishery products more than 10 years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, so the concerns of the people still remain valid.