by Jonathan Lee (’22) | May 10, 2021
A decade ago, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the coasts of Japan. Combined with the tsunami that followed, a global nuclear disaster occurred: Fukushima. The destruction of the backup power generators resulted in a nuclear meltdown, subjecting the surrounding area to high levels of radiation. Fukushima and surrounding cities have since been deserted and have remained off-limits for the past decade. However, an issue concerning the debris has arisen; the water contaminated through maintenance of the plant is projected to surpass the amount of storage available by the fall of 2022. Ergo, on April 13, 2021, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government announced that they will release one million tons — enough to fill 500 Olympic swimming pools — of treated contaminated water from the nuclear disaster into the Pacific Ocean.
Although many critics suggest dedicating more land to building more storage units, the government deemed that the recovery of Fukushima relies heavily on the discharge of contaminated water into the ocean, stating that the release is the “most realistic” option and “unavoidable.” TEPCO stated that the wastewater has already been treated to remove most of the radioactivity. However, an unremovable radioactive hydrogen isotope still remains in the water: tritium.
According to Scientific American, the effects of ingestion of tritium-contaminated water would only be considered hazardous in copious amounts, noting that the result would be a slight increase in the probability of cancer development in a person’s lifetime. But despite many reassurances from TEPCO, the Japanese government, and international health organizations on the safety of the release, it wasn’t enough to prevent the immediate protests and critiques of neighboring countries, fishing communities, and environmental groups.
Both China and South Korea have stated that this is an “extremely irresponsible” act and are gravely concerned about the “potential threat to [their] citizens’ health and environment.”
Additionally, many fisheries regarded this decision to be a betrayal of trust, as the government stated that the wastewater would not be released without the support and consent of the fishing industry. With fishing sales at 17.5% of pre-quake levels, it is understandable that there are many concerns in this sector. The fishing industry argues that this disposal into the ocean would cause an irreversible downfall in marketing and devastate the already slowly rebounding sector. Furthermore, more recent disclosure of further required treatment and dilution to meet global standards has plagued all groups with more distrust and hesitancy.
Nevertheless, the International Atomic Energy Agency supports the decision made by Japan, pointing out that this is a fairly standardized process, and many other nuclear plants around the world use similar processes. Ned Price, the current spokesperson for the US Department of State, also commented on the issue, stating that “[Japan] appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards.”
With conflict on an international level and the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, the decision appears to be less than final. Whether or not a new solution emerges, the issue will be finalized over the next two years, and we can only hope that it will not have a major impact on society.