Japan began releasing wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant on Thursday in an operation it insists is safe. The beginning of the discharge of around 540 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water into the Pacific over several decades is a big step in decommissioning the still hazardous site 12 years after one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
The wastewater being pumped from the plant into the ocean after cooling melted nuclear fuel has been undergoing treatment and dilution to reduce radioactivity to less than international safety standards. The government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. say they’re running out of space to store the water, and the safety of people and the environment need to begin transferring it to the sea.
Activists in Fukushima city and the surrounding area need convincing. They’re worried about the long-term impact of the release, and they’re concerned about the reputation of fish caught in the Pacific by Japanese fishermen, which makes up a significant part of the local economy.
But the most significant backlash against the wastewater discharge has come from China, which issued a stern statement condemning Japan’s decision and urging the country to reconsider. “The Chinese government fully opposes and strongly condemns Japan’s plan to dump the contaminated water into the ocean,” said a foreign ministry spokesman. “We hope the Japanese side will consider its impact on all nations and peoples.”
Japan is attempting to calm fears by pledging to monitor ocean water quality and pay compensation for fishermen who lose business because of public anxiety. It also says it will work with the IAEA, which has endorsed the planned releases, to ensure transparency.
The first water was released around 1 p.m. Thursday, after TEPCO determined weather and sea conditions were favorable. The company expects to continue releasing the water in four runs through next March. It has been said that releasing the wastewater is necessary to keep the facility stable and to prevent future accidents, like the tsunami that caused the three reactor meltdowns in 2011.
The first batch of water, which is expected to contain tritium, will be diluted to 1-40th of its concentration under Japan’s safety standards before discharge. The second batch, which will be diluted even more, will be released in August. The final batch, containing lower radiation levels, will be pumped into the ocean in October and November. Eventually, all treated water will be released into the ocean, but the process could take decades to complete. The IAEA has said that the dilution and monitoring will make the water safer than it would be without the treatment. The agency has promised to have monitors on-site for the duration of the discharge, which is expected to last several decades. During that time, the ocean will be tested for contamination, and fish samples will be taken.