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Story Publication logo August 9, 2023

Japan’s Plan To Discharge Radioactive Water Into the Sea Worries Residents



Japan is moving forward with a plan to discharge 1.3 million tons of radioactive water into the sea.

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Local residents protest against the discharge of radioactive water into the sea. Image by Minsha Ouyou. Japan, 2023.

The safety review from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published in July 2023 concluded that “Japan’s plans to release treated water stored at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station into the sea are consistent with IAEA Safety Standards.” But many residents in the areas do not feel the same, opposing Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the government. And this is not the first time.

On June 20, 2023, in the city of Fukushima, approximately 150 people protested in response to the government and TEPCO’s plan to discharge 1.3 million tons of treated radioactive water into the sea starting in 2023 and over the next 30 years. People marched to the Fukushima prefecture office, holding signs that read “Don’t pollute everyone’s ocean,” “Don’t release contaminated water into the sea,” and “Listen to our voice, too.”

They raised their voices together: “Don’t discharge the contaminated water! Protect fishery! Protect agriculture! Protect forestry! Protect nature! Protect children! Protect the future! Don’t pollute the ocean! We don’t need nuclear power plants! Don’t discharge contaminated water!”

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Later in the afternoon, a letter requesting that the government and TEPCO stop the release of the water without mutual understanding and consent was handed to an official inside the Fukushima prefecture office building. But their initial wish to directly meet and hand in the letter to the governor of Fukushima, Uchibori Masao, did not materialize.

As the plant produces approximately 100,000 liters of contaminated water daily from groundwater, rainwater, and cooling water, there are nearly a thousand tanks storing the water at the site. One of the cheapest solutions—water discharge into the sea—was chosen from several other proposals.

Before its discharge, the water will be processed to remove most of the 62 radioactive materials, except tritium, a radioactive form difficult to be removed. Then, the water will be diluted with a large amount of seawater to control the tritium level to meet the country’s limit.

The nuclear power plant has raised a long-standing concern for many people. The meltdown in 2011 after the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake, one of the largest nuclear accidents after Chernobyl’s disaster in 1986, resulted in high levels of radiation emitted as well as the evacuation of over 100,000 people from the surrounding area. Many locals are now raising environmental concerns over the discharge.

“I want to preserve the safe environment and beautiful earth,” said Tomoko Sato, one of the locals from Minami Souma, Fukushima, who is concerned about the impacts of the discharge.

Sato’s family lived 26 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant when the meltdown occurred. Worried about exposure to the radiation, her family evacuated, despite their home not being recognized as the designated recommended evacuation area, where additional evacuation aid was provided.

Takashi Ono, whose name has been changed for safety reasons, had worked at the nuclear power plant for almost three decades. He is also concerned about the discharge as he finds it difficult to believe TEPCO’s assurance of safety related to the water processing technology to remove radioactive materials.

Even though the public was told that the nuclear power plant was safe before the meltdown, Ono worried about nuclear accidents every day while working there.

“I could only pray there would be no fire, no plane crash, no terror, no tsunami, every day,” he said. “The building was weak and there was not sufficient security.”

Ships could easily enter the area of the plant and he worried it would be crushed someday, he said.

“The government is forcing the discharge, but I speak up,” said Yoichi Nakaji from Koriyama, Fukushima. Nakaji used to work for the teacher’s union.

Nakaji recalls the time around a year prior to the nuclear accident when he visited TEPCO to oppose the loading of mixed oxide (MOX), nuclear fuel made from reprocessed plutonium and uranium, into the plant. “It is still burned into my head that the expressions of the workers of TEPCO, laughing, and lacking a sense of seriousness, questioning why they were here making a fuss,” he said.

When the nuclear power plant meltdown occurred in the following year in 2011, Nakaji got a dosimeter to measure radiation levels near schools in Koriyama as he worried about children. Some schools were exposed to higher levels of radiation than usual, and he reported the results to these schools.

“Radiation isn’t simply about distance,” he said. He found that some places farther from the plant had higher radiation than places closer to the plant. In the center of Koriyama, he said he found a radiation level around 100 times more than the usual level.

Nakaji is concerned about impacts on the environment, including fishery, agriculture, and forestry, given the government and TEPCO’s plan to discharge treated radioactive water.

After 12 years have passed, the area where the plant is located is still recognized as the difficult-to-return zone, and permission for entry is needed.

Masaya Komatsuzaki, a senior at Fukushima University, worries about entering that area to conduct his research on radiation given the impact of the discharge. But he continues his research, as he hopes it can contribute to a solution to ongoing issues associated with radiation.

Shota Hoshi, another senior at Fukushima University, researches fish in the difficult-to-return-zone. He finds it hard to have a definitive opinion, as he still cannot fully judge if a dataset is accurate or not.

TEPCO has a history of tampering with data. In August 2002, TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency reported that there were 29 cases of misconduct related to self-inspection records, according to the city of Kashiwazaki. This includes a case associated with the Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Station Unit 1; despite detecting signs of cracks in the shroud during a voluntary inspection, it was recorded as having no abnormal conditions and the matter was not investigated at the plant. Eight more cases of improper handling of the recirculation system’s pipe inspection repair were found. 

Other issues associated with the leakage rate inspection of the Fukushima Daiichi Unit One reactor containment vessel have also been discovered. “You can change as much data as possible,” Ono said. “I know it very well as a person on the site.”

Locals find it hard to believe the safety assurance promised by TEPCO after all the relentless troubles they have gone through. The discharge of radioactive water was something the government and TEPCO wanted to avoid initially.

In 2013, the government and TEPCO created three principles to manage the radioactive water: "No Leak, No Approach, and Remove." The current plan of discharging the water into the sea is against the principle of “No Leak,” said Naoaki Shibasaki, a professor at Fukushima University specializing in research in groundwater.

Robert Richmond, a Kewalo Marine Laboratory Professor at University Hawaii Manoa and an expert reviewing Japan’s discharge plan for the Pacific Islands Forum, visited the plant in February. He believes it is irresponsible to say Japan’s discharge is scientifically impeccable. “As a scientist, I strongly disagree with that comment,” Richmond said.

Despite some nuclear physicists and chemists claiming the discharge isn’t a problem because of dilution with seawater and the low level of radiation, “they’re ignoring a very big part of it, and that is the biological uptake, what we call trophic transfer,” Richmond said.

When radioactive materials enter the sea, they can be absorbed by small organisms like phytoplankton, which, through photosynthesis, turn sunlight into carbohydrates—food for other animals. These phytoplankton can serve as food for small animals, and they can be fed on by larger animals and eventually result in the accumulation of radioactive substances in larger animals.

The discharging water is also different from other countries in a way as Japan has experienced a nuclear disaster. The accumulated cooling water at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant since the disaster and associated reactor meltdowns has more radionuclides and higher levels of radioactivity than what would be expected at a normally functioning facility, said Richmond.

“Some people say, ‘Well, you know, it's worse to be on an airplane and fly from Tokyo to New York,’” but “there is a big difference between external exposure to tritium and beta emitters than internal. Your skin is usually enough to block most low-level beta emitters. But once you ingest something that is contaminated with radionuclides, your inner cells have no such protection and therefore that's when the DNA damage can come,” said Richmond.

Richmond also recalls his visit to the plant: “They need to rebuild the seawall…And then they have radioactive soil that's been bagged up and it's around the site, but that should be stabilized in case there's a typhoon or a big storm. You don't want those radioactive soils to be redistributed into the ocean either,” he said.

Richmond says there has been “… a whole series of mistakes, shortcuts, inattention to detail, failures on behalf of TEPCO that got us into this position.”

“After reviewing documents for the last year and a half, I would have to say my confidence in the ability of TEPCO to get everything to go to plan over a 30-year release period is very low. I have very low confidence in that,” Richmond said.

Shibasaki also has very little faith in ending the discharge in 30 years, as he thinks the fundamental issue of the plant is still not solved—the radioactive water is still being produced and slurry is also produced after the water treatment, which needs to be stored.

It is necessary to solve the actual problem and fix the infrastructure of the site to prevent more contaminated water from being produced, Shibasaki said.

“There is no remediation opportunity once it's released into the ocean. Once the levels may be too high and once it gets into marine organisms, you can't flush it, you can't filter it, there's no way,” Richmond said.

Instead, Richmond says this should be “an opportunity for the IAEA and Japan to be world leaders in being proactive and coming up with better ways of addressing something that we know will be a problem in the future.”


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