Monday, July 24, 2023

Fukushima's Muddy Waters

Kishida Administration Provokes an International Dispute on Nuclear Contamination

By Takuya Nishimura, Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
July 17, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently submitted to the government of Japan a report on the safety of discharging “treated water” from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS). The FDNPS is still in the process of decommissioning after the severe accident caused by Great East Japan Earthquake 12 years ago. The IAEA determined that Japan’s discharge plan is relatively safe, saying “the discharge of the ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) treated water -- will have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.”

 However, there is considerable skepticism about the report both inside and outside Japan. By inviting an international organization to weigh in on the dispute over the uncontrollable by-product of cooling down the broken reactors, the Japanese government seems to have made the issue an international problem.

 The IAEA’s review followed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s announcement in 2021 that the diluted contaminated water from the FDNPS would be released into the sea.  The FDNPS storage tanks are reaching their capacity limits. At the Japanese government’s request, the IAEA established a task force of international experts. The task force analyzed data provided by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA) of Japan and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). The report is not an assessment of political impact of discharging, but simply a scientific analysis of data provided by Japan.

 The report has concluded that the approach to the discharge of treated water processed by the system named Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, and the associated activities by TEPCO, NRA and the government of Japan are consistent with relevant international safety standards. Even so, IAEA notes that once discharges begin, many of the technical topics reviewed and assessed by the task force will need to be revised by the IAEA. In his July visit to Fukushima, the IAEA Secretary General, Rafael Grossi, assured residents “We’ll be here until the last drop is safely discharged.”

The main concern in Japan about the treated water focuses on a substance called tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope, that remains even after the ALPS has processed water from the FDNPS. The IAEA report estimates that the annual amount of tritium, limited to 22 TBq in Japan’s plan, to be as low as the pre-accident level and much lower than the annual production on the planet due to natural processes. According to the report, the biological half-time of tritium in humans is 10 and 40 days, while its physical half-time is 12.3 years. The report concludes that the discharged tritium has limited impacts on people and the environment.

 It is not strange for the IAEA to support Japan’s plan for the discharge of treated water because the organization was established by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to promote the use of atomic energy. When Japan was not able to find a way to dispose of contaminated water in 2015, the IAEA, under the leadership of the Japanese Secretary General, recommended that Japan discharge the water into the sea. Not surprisingly, then, the IAEA report is on the side of the Japanese government.

 With the IAEA report in hand, the Kishida administration believes that it has cleared the last hurdle and has decided that the discharge may begin. A few days after the report was published, the NRA issued an approval to the facilities for discharging on its safety. METI has already announced that the discharge will be started this summer.

 The IAEA’s endorsement of the discharge met with an immediate and unfavorable international response. Korean protesters chanted not to approve Japan’s discharge plan as Grossi entered and exited the building in Tokyo where he held a press conference early July. The parliamentary members of an opposition party in South Korea argued in a Tokyo press conference that releasing “contaminated water” (never calling it treated water) would violate international laws such as the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and the London Convention and Protocol on prevention of marine pollution. The party members said that they would continue their protests until Japan stops discharging the water. Although the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has shown credibility in responding to Japan’s plan, the citizenry’s anxiety about contaminated water is causing a sharp political dispute in South Korea.

 China is firmly against the release of the water. Soon after the IAEA report was issued, the Chinese government announced that the review of IAEA “should not be the ‘shield’ or ‘green light’ for Japan’s discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean.” The government will consider more stringent inspection of imported seafood from Japan if Japan starts dumping the contaminated water into Pacific Ocean.

 When the buildings containing nuclear reactors exploded, TEPCO began to use water to cool down the reactors, instead of burying them. Ever since, the crippled plant has produced contaminated water. Although the FDNPS has taken various steps to reduce the risks, including the purifying process through ALPS system. Several measures, however, including blocking the water flow with underground frozen walls set around the site and lifting the water up before it reaches the site, the contaminated water, even though processed, is still increasing in the tanks built in FDNPS site. TEPCO and the government of Japan have yet to ensure that, in the words of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the contaminated water in Fukushima is “under control.”

 TEPCO has said that the water must be discharged into the sea because the tanks are going to be filled soon. But the company has been building new tanks when they have become full. If there is no more space in the FDNPS tanks, TEPCO can build new ones anywhere on their own property. That is the point that the neighbor countries have been making. TEPCO’s justification sounds as if Japan is risking the environment of the planet to save money. Kishida has shown no sign of refuting these criticisms.


Kyodo News opinion poll & results from Tokyo Shimbun, July 17, 2023  Tokyo Shimbun , p. 21, Questions & answers (%), provisional translation for education use

Q8: The government plans to take the treated water from the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, dilute it so that the concentrations of radioactive substances are below national standards, and release it into the ocean around this summer. Local fishermen as well as China and some of Japan’s other neighbors are opposed to this. Are you in favor of or opposed to releasing the treated water into the ocean?

In favor







Q9: The government says it will gain the understanding of the Japanese people and of the international community so that no economic damage arises through the spread of groundless rumors with the release of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, local fishermen and others are expressing concern. If the government releases the treated water into the ocean, do you think economic damage will arise through the spread of groundless rumors?

Major economic damage will arise through the spread of groundless rumors


Some economic damage will arise


Little economic damage will arise


Absolutely no economic damage will arise




Q10: Do you think the government has given an adequate explanation of the release of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi plant?







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