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Japan to release radioactive water into ocean

The Japanese government plans to release treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean, but the plan doesn’t come without controversy.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, one of the strongest ever recorded, triggered a massive tsunami along Japan’s Pacific coastline. The incident caused the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.

The Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations (ICANPS) was established to identify the causes of the disaster and propose policies to minimize damage and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

In its final report, released in July 2012, the committee found fault in the inadequate legal system for nuclear crisis management, and a lack of coordination between the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company. The report also highlighted complacency towards nuclear safety and insufficient crisis management as key factors in the disaster.

The after-effects of the incident greatly affected citizens.

The disaster caused a discharge of contaminated water into the environment following the meltdown, mainly through water vapor, groundwater, and seawater. Despite a frozen soil barrier being constructed to prevent further contamination, it proved to be inept.

As of 2019, 1.17 million cubic meters of contaminated water were stored in tanks with a purification system that removes radionuclides.

The purification process has been effective in removing most of the radioactive material from the water. However, the removal does not include tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. While it is considered a low-energy radiation emitter and relatively harmless in small quantities, high levels of exposure can pose health risks.

With that, the Japanese government wants to release the purified water into the environment because the tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are filling up. The plant is currently storing about 1.2 million tons of contaminated water, and the tanks are expected to be full sometime this year.

The government first proposed releasing the purified water into the environment in 2013 but the plan was met with opposition from citizens and neighboring countries, and it was not until 2021 that the government announced that it would begin the process.

To aid Japan in its efforts, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been involved in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster since the beginning. It has provided technical assistance to the Japanese government and has also helped to coordinate the international response to the disaster.

In 2021, the IAEA Task Force on Fukushima Daiichi Treated Water Release was established to review the safety of Japan’s plan to release the treated water into the ocean. The government and the IAEA both concluded that the release of the water would have a negligible impact on human health and the environment.

However, the IAEA has also said that more research is needed to understand the long-term effects of exposure to low levels of tritium. This comes after scientists and environmental groups expressing concerns about the release, arguing that the long-term effects of exposure to low levels of tritium are unknown.

Other parties of opposition include the Japanese citizens and neighboring countries. If released into the oceans, the tritium could be absorbed by marine life and end up accumulating in their bodies. In the event of tritium’s effect on marine animals, seafood would be unsafe to consume, hence the concerns of not only the Japanese fishing industry but the Chinese and South Koreans too.

As of 2021, the Japanese fishing industry’s contribution to the GDP was approximately 637 billion Japanese yen. Any consequences from its seafood due to the tritium would tarnish the reputation and any confidence in the Japanese fishing industry.

Economic concerns about seafood aside, chronic exposure to elevated levels of tritium may still have some potential health effects on marine organisms. These effects can include genetic and cellular damage, disruptions to physiological functions, and potential impacts on reproductive and developmental processes.

If tritium exposure causes harm to marine animals, it can have cascading effects on the broader marine ecosystem. Disruptions in key species can impact the food chain, biodiversity, and ecological balance, potentially leading to population declines or ecosystem imbalances.

Japan has stated that it precautions would be taken to maximize the safety of the tritium content. One of them includes diluting the purified water with seawater. Dilution helps to reduce the concentration of tritium in the water, minimizing its potential impact. Monitoring systems are reportedly in place to continually assess the quality of the released water and its impact on the marine environment.

Additionally, the Japanese government has emphasized the importance of transparent communication and providing accurate information about the tritium release plan.

They have engaged in discussions with relevant stakeholders, including local communities, fishing industry representatives, and international organizations, to address their progress. Despite efforts from the Japanese government, it is clear that there is no unanimity between all stakeholders involved.

In the end, many hope that the intentions of the Japanese government do not lead to a disaster in the Pacific Ocean that would be harmful to marine life and human health in the future.