Japan has started the discharge of Fukushima’s contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening, the treatment process, and the concerns surrounding this move.
Reason for the Release
Every day, about 100,000 liters of tainted water, including cooling water from the crippled plant’s reactors, as well as groundwater and rain infiltration, accumulate at the site in northeastern Japan. With approximately 1.34 million tonnes of this water—equivalent to almost 540 Olympic pools—stored in a thousand steel containers by the sea, there is no more space left, authorities confirm. Japan resolved in 2021 to release up to 500,000 liters daily into the ocean via a kilometer-long pipe, following years of deliberation.
The plant’s operator, TEPCO, employs a specialized filtration system known as ALPS to remove radioactive elements from the water, including caesium and strontium, leaving only tritium behind. TEPCO diluted the water to bring radioactivity levels down to 1,500 becquerels per liter (Bq/L), well below the national safety standard of 60,000 Bq/L.
According to nuclear expert Tony Hooker from the University of Adelaide, the tritium levels remain significantly lower than the World Health Organization’s drinking water limit of 10,000 Bq/L. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supports the release, asserting that it adheres to international standards and will not harm the environment.
However, not everyone agrees. Greenpeace has criticized the water filtration technology, claiming that the IAEA disregarded highly radioactive fuel debris that continues to contaminate groundwater. China has accused Japan of endangering the Pacific and has imposed stringent radiation checks on Japanese food imports. While the South Korean government hasn’t objected, public concerns have led to protests and even panic-buying of sea salt.
Japan’s Response to Concerns
Japan has taken measures to allay fears, including organizing tours of Fukushima and live-streaming fish in the treated water. The government has also countered online misinformation about the release.
The more challenging task ahead involves removing radioactive debris and dangerous nuclear fuel from the three meltdown-stricken reactors. TEPCO plans to use robots for this endeavor, but concerns arise due to extreme radiation levels. This daunting process is anticipated to take 30 to 40 years and cost around $55 billion.
Japan’s discharge of water into the Pacific Ocean, spanning decades, marks a significant milestone in decommissioning the hazardous Fukushima site. This move is met with mixed reactions globally, reflecting the complexities of addressing the aftermath of one of history’s worst nuclear disasters.