Japan said that it would start releasing more than 1 million metric tonnes of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant on August 24, putting into motion a plan that has drawn strong criticism both at home and abroad.
Tokyo claims that most of the radioactive material has been removed from the nuclear-contaminated water by the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) treatment. According to the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the radiological impacts on the environmental and public health will be negligible because the treated water will be discharged gradually over a long period of time.
Although most radioactive elements may have been filtered from the nuclear-contaminated water by the ALPS treatment, it is not completely radiation-free. For example, it is difficult with this treatment to separate tritium and carbon-14, two radioactive isotopes of hydrogen and carbon, from water. Both tritium and carbon-14 could pose risk to human beings if consumed (e.g. in tritiated water) in large quantities.
Since the Japanese government announced this highly controversial discharge plan, countries in the region, including China, Republic of Korea and the Pacific Island Forum member states, have raised grave concerns and opposition to the plan. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have also strongly voiced their opposition with Greenpeace releasing reports that have cast doubt on TEPCO's ALPS treatment process and criticized this treatment as not going far enough in removing all radioactive substances.
In fact, the fiercest objection to the Japanese government's discharge plan has come from the local fishing communities and the seafood industries of Fukushima and other surrounding areas. They believe that the plan risks damaging their reputation and destroying their livelihoods once again because consumers will avoid buying their catch, sending seafood prices plummeting.
Despite an assessment report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on July 4, 2023, saying that Japan's plan to release the nuclear-contaminated water into the sea complies with international standards, the IAEA's findings have done very little to ease the grave concern among regional countries, environmental groups and the local fishing communities in Fukushima. They have warned that this plan will contaminate the Pacific Ocean and when people consume seafood, they will inevitably feel anxious.
China's General Administration of Customs is launching intensified inspections of imported seafood from Japan, and sticking to the existing ban on imports of Japanese seafood from 10 prefectures of Japan, including Fukushima. The Republic of Korea, China's Hong Kong and Macao are all taking similar actions to ensure the safety of imported seafood from Japan.
The anger and anxiety sparked both at home and abroad by Japan's discharge plan are legitimate. The water in the Pacific Ocean spreads over a huge area, and pollutants originating from the nuclear-contaminated water in Fukushima could reach nearby regions or countries, affecting local marine environments and posing a threat to the life of local citizens.
The world has never before seen any actual practice of discharging such a massive volume of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea. It is therefore very difficult to assess any long-term impacts on the marine ecosystem, marine fisheries, environmental and public health.
Although releasing treated nuclear-contaminated water into the sea is a common practice for nuclear plants around the world, the nuclear-contaminated water from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is not ordinary nuclear-contaminated, but the by-product of an accident. The nuclear-contaminated water discharged from Fukushima directly contacted the fuel rods of the movement, and contains plutonium, strontium, cesium and many other radioactive substances, whilst ordinary nuclear plants do not discharge such highly toxic radiation.
Japan has so far failed to conduct open and extensive consultation and communication with either the fishing communities of Fukushima, neighbouring countries, or environmental groups.
Before addressing the anxiety and tensions among regional countries and the local fishing community, Tokyo should for the time being follow the right path of keeping the ALPS's treated nuclear-contaminated water in the tanks or building new ones if necessary. This will buy time for development of new processing technologies for nuclear contaminated water, as well as allow any remaining radioactivity to naturally reduce.