On 24 August at 13:00 local time, the first release of tritiated water started from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, in Japan, into the Pacific Ocean. This was the first of many, as it will take thirty, or even forty years, to discharge all the water that has accumulated at the site.
Water is used by nuclear power plants to cool their reactors, and tritiated water – which contains a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, tritium, that binds with oxygen – is a byproduct of both nuclear energy production and nuclear fuel reprocessing (a kind of recycling process). Tritiated water is discharged into seas and rivers by nuclear facilities all over the world and is generally considered safe because its molecule is similar to that of regular water, which allows it to pass quickly through organisms.
Until recently, there were two nuclear fuel reprocessing plants in Europe: Sellafield in the United Kingdom and La Hague in France. The former ceased operations last year, but for decades it released tonnes of tritiated water into the Irish Sea, and the French plant continues to do so in the English Channel.
“No one has ever really talked about tritium the way that they have for Fukushima,” says nuclear materials expert Nigel Marks, associate professor at Curtin University in Australia. However, since Japan announced in 2021 that it would release over 1.3 million tonnes of water from Fukushima Daiichi into the ocean, tritium is on everyone’s lips.
The discharge is one of the many consequences of the disaster that unfolded at the plant located in Fukushima Prefecture, part of the northeastern Tohoku region. On 11 March 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck this area, triggering a monstrous tsunami that claimed the lives of 20,000 people and inundated Fukushima Daiichi. What followed was one of the most severe nuclear disasters in history, second only to Chernobyl.
A complex decommissioning operation is ongoing at the plant, managed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the facility. The decommissioning should be complete by 2051, according to the Japanese government, with an estimated total cost of 136 billion US dollars – 15 times the budget of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Surrounding the plant’s six reactors are over 1,000 tanks containing 1.3 million tonnes, equivalent to over 500 Olympic swimming pools, of radioactive water, contaminated after coming into contact with nuclear fuel rods inside the reactors – the loss of power caused by the 2011 tsunami caused a core meltdown in three of the reactors. The water is the one intentionally used for cooling the reactors to prevent further incidents, as well as groundwater and rainwater that infiltrate the reactor buildings. All the water is then moved into the tanks.
Finally, in the stretch of ocean in front of the plant, there is a one-kilometre-long tunnel from which, at a depth of 12 metres, the Fukushima water is released (far from the coast to prevent it mixing with seawater used in the decommissioning process). A decision that has also unleashed a tsunami of dissent and triggered a global debate about the past, present and future of our energy systems.
Between the devil and the sea
In the first years following the disaster, up to 500 tonnes of water were accumulating in the tanks surrounding the plant every 24 hours. Today, this quantity has been reduced to 100 tonnes daily thanks to various interventions.
However, there is almost no roomleft in the existing tanks for additional water and no space to built new tanks on the plant’s site. What about offsite? The Japanese government refuses to buy additional land to store the water because “the waste that is generated onsite must be dealt with onsite,” says Tomohiko Mayuzumi, risk communicator at TEPCO’s public relations office. There is also the danger that future earthquakes could damage the tanks, according to the government.
Waste that is generated onsite must be dealt with onsite.
Tomohiko Mayuzumi, risk communicator at TEPCO
Fukushima Daiichi is on the border between two towns, Okuma and Futaba. Both are still partially under the evacuation order adopted in the wake of the nuclear incident and already host massive facilities for temporarily storing millions of bags of soil contaminated by radiation (removed from fields and other surfaces to reduce contamination levels following the disaster). According to Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace East Asia, the choice not to build additional tanks is a political one.
“The land that is available on the site has already been allocated, in particular for the storage of the nuclear fuel (once it is removed from the reactor buildings, ed.)… All the nuclear fuel, the nuclear waste, everything, has got to be removed (from the area),” according to a promise made by the central government to Fukushima Prefecture that it would make the area habitable once again, Burnie says. Convincing Okuma and Futaba to host tanks of radioactive water would be a tough sell.
Therefore, the water is released into the ocean after being filtered using the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which reduces the levels of 62 radioactive isotopes, or radionuclides, below Japan’s legal limits. However, the system isn’t capable of removing tritium and another radionuclide, carbon-14; as a result, water treated with ALPS is diluted 100 times with seawater.
According to the plan, the maximum amount of tritium released from the plant is approximately one-seventh of the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for drinking water; no more than 22 trillion becquerels (a unit measuring the activity of radioactive substances) a year. This may seem like a lot but it is, in fact, less – even significantly less – than releases by other nuclear facilities around the world. For example, “450 times lower than the La Hague releases,” says Jim Smith, professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the UK and an expert in radioactive environmental pollution.
In June, Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, stated that the Fukushima discharge is “consistent with relevant international safety standards” and “will have a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment,” as detailed in the IAEA’s comprehensive report on the plan’s safety.
Why, then, are so many people opposed to it?
At the forefront of opposition are concerned citizens like Chiyo Oda, member of Koreumi (“this sea” in Japanese), an anti-discharge group uniting people from Fukushima, such as Oda, and other parts of Japan. Oda is also one of 150 plaintiffs suing the government and TEPCO in an attempt to stop the release.
“We were once exposed to radiation as a result of an accident, weren’t we?” says the activist. “However, this discharge is something the government is choosing to do. We are very angry”.
Japanese fishers are one of the groups most vehemently opposed to the release, largely because they fear its economic and reputational impacts. Impacts that are already being felt: for example, China was the largest foreign market for Japanese marine products, but since the start of the release it has banned these imports, as have Hong Kong and Russia.
In recent years, local fishers have been asked to fill out several surveys on the issue of the release, say third-generation fisherman Yasuhiro Otomo and seaweed farmer Futoshi Aizawa, both from Miyagi Prefecture, which borders Fukushima to the north – and who are both opposed to the government’s plan. In 2015, the Japanese government reached an agreement with the Fukushima’s federation of fishery cooperative associations, stating that “treated water will not be released without the understanding of those involved”. The federation says the agreement hasn’t been honoured – to compensate for the economic damage, the government has allocated 530 million dollars to support the nation’s fishing industry.
The industry’s resilience is already being put to the test given the collapse of trade with China, the country that has been the most vocal opponent to the release. “The ocean isn’t Japan’s sewer,” has been the Chinese government’s message, reiterated on several occasions. Furthermore, social media is full of anti-Japanese posts by Chinese citizens and officials, and there has been a wave of actions targeting the Japanese embassy (which received a million nuisance calls in two months, according to Tokyo) and Japanese schools in China, as well as protest phone calls made from China to citizens and businesses in Japan. This landscape has complicated the already tense relations between Japan and China – a country which, as a nuclear energy producer, regularly releases tritiated water into the environment.
Another critic of the water release is the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a regional organisation bringing together 18 states – some of which, like Micronesia, Fiji and New Zealand, who are, however, not opposed to the discharge. “Based on our experience with nuclear contamination (from American, British and French nuclear tests over the course of the 20th century, ed.), continuing with ocean discharge plans at this time is simply inconceivable,” PIF Secretary-General Henry Puna wrote in The Guardian earlier this year.
A stance shared by nuclear and climate justice advocate Bedi Racule, who works in Fiji for the Pacific Conference of Churches. “The ongoing narrative that the dumping is being done within safety standards is flawed because those standards are arbitrary and, beyond that, is it the right thing to do?”
The ocean is for fishing, diving, sailing, playing… not for dumping nuclear waste! #DONTNUKETHEPACIFIC
Somewhat more nuanced is South Korea‘s stance: initially opposed to the discharge, it has changed its position, with incumbent president Yoon Suk-yeol trying to improve relations with Tokyo. However, domestically, he is under significant pressure from opposition parties and public opinion, which continue to be strongly against the release. According to a recent poll, 70 per cent of South Koreans oppose it.
“I couldn’t buy local products (in the market) like sea salt because supplies had run out, I think because people believe that the release will also impact the Korean coast,” says Yoonji Koo, who lives on the South Korean island of Jeju.
The ongoing narrative that the dumping is being done within safety standards is flawed… beyond that, is it the right thing to do?
Bedi Racule, nuclear and climate justice advocate
And what about the Japanese? While over half of people support the release plan, according to a recent poll, another survey found that three-quarters believe the government has not done enough to prevent reputational damage to fisheries.
The question, then, is whether the fears of those opposed to the release are grounded in solidscience.
What the science says
“Basically… no one in the scientific community who works in radiation science is concerned about (radiation) in the context of (the Fukushima release),” says Marks: the discharge is consistent with those carried out by other nuclear power plants for decades, which haven’t been connected to significant damage to human health or the environment.
One of the common criticisms, however, is that Fukushima’s water is “different” because it has come into direct contact with nuclear fuel and doesn’t only contain tritium. “It is wrong to say that it is different,” says Marco Pellegrini, project associate professor at the Nuclear Professional School of the University of Tokyo. “Once the radionuclides have been removed, that water is no longer radioactive, regardless of where it came from”.
The water is treated to reduce radioactivity to minimal doses, Marks explains: the Pacific Ocean contains around 8.4 kilogrammes of tritium (which is naturally occurring) and just 0.06 grammes of tritium is scheduled to be released from Fukushima Daiichi each year.
This position, however, is challenged by some scientists and experts based on three main points. The first is tritium. While it is true that tritiated water passes through organisms, part of it can transform into something called organically-bound tritium (OBT) when tritium binds with carbon atoms. Once it enters cells, tritium, which emits low-energy beta radiation, can cause cellular damage, says Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on environmental radioactivity who used to work for the UK government.
Evidence that OBT can accumulate near nuclear power plants and the need for further investigation into the consequences of these build-ups are highlighted by some studies. Marks, however, points to another study that simulated the radiological effects of the Fukushima Daiichi release on marine biota.
“If you take into account OBT and sediments, everything you can possibly think of, and you end up with a lifetime’s worth of tritium – if you eat just those fish that live near the outlet, it’s less than biting on a banana”. And the overall dose from all the radionuclides would be equivalent to a dental X-ray, Marks adds.
OBT is little discussed among the wider public because the IAEA, TEPCO and the Japanese government don’t highlight its existence, while not denying it. So, when people learn about the fact that OBT can occur, this can lead to an erosion of trust in the institutions that are responsible for the release plan and how it is conveyed to the public.
This leads to the second point. Tritium is the centre of attention, but the water also contains other radioactive isotopes. “In 2018… I especially wanted to know what was in the water (in the tanks at Fukushima Daiichi) besides tritium,” Azby Brown, lead researcher at environmental monitoring organisation Safecast, told LifeGate in 2021. “I asked TEPCO engineers, and they gave me data that showed only tritium. In September that year, it became known that… there were a lot of other radionuclides in the tank-stored water… they’d lied to me“.
An investigation by the Japanese news agency Kyodo had revealed high levels of various radionuclides and that TEPCO would have to re-treat 70 per cent of the water that had already been filtered with ALPS.
Mayuzumi of TEPCO claims that “for water treated with ALPS until 2018, the prerequisite was not that it had to be released,” but the goal was to reduce the radiation dose inside the power station and at its boundary. TEPCO admits, however, that at the time of the Kyodo investigation, the way information was being shared wasn’t satisfactory. “To improve, one thing (we did) was create the treated water portal… disclosing information in an easy-to-understand way,” says Mayuzumi. Furthermore, data on the water release is now shared in real time.
The issue of data, the third point raised by critics, is especially sensitive. According to a panel of scientists appointed by PIF to evaluate the release, the data provided by TEPCO on radiation levels in each of the 1,000 tanks is insufficient.
Smith says that he is not too worried “because the water for discharge is comprehensively checked and if necessary re-treated before going into the ocean”. Marks too doesn’t deny scientific critiques of the release but says: “There’s all these facts that I would say may be true but are not actually relevant to the situation” – highlighting just how polarised and polarising the issue is even within the scientific community.
“One scientist says this, another scientist says that… It’s a question of whose opinion has merit,” says Marks, who does admit, however, that Fukushima’s is a unique situation. Nuclear industry professionals wonder “why on Earth are (people) worrying about releasing a relatively modest amount of tritium into the water,” but in doing so, they don’t take into account how the source of that water is perceived, says Marks.
In this complex scenario, the role of institutions is to chart a well-defined and clear path. But many believe that the Japanese government has not been up to the task.
One scientist says this, another scientist says that… It’s a question of whose opinion has merit.
Nigel Marks, associate professor at the Curtin University
To understand the origins of the Fukushima water release plan, we need to go back to 2011. In December that year, TEPCO proposed to treat the water accumulating at the plant for it to be released into the sea, Kohta Juraku, professor at Tokyo Denki University and a specialist in the sociology of science and technology, recounts in a 2016 book.
The same day TEPCO put forth this (now familiar) proposal, the president of the national fisheries association called it unacceptable due to the reputational damage it would cause, and the issue was postponed. “The fact that TEPCO (chose) deferring action ‘for the time being’ in response to the opposition of stakeholders… may have considerably hindered the overall optimization of the contaminated water management,” in the years following the disaster, writes Juraku.
In the years following the disaster, the government came up with five different options for dealing with the water, including injecting it deep into the geosphere, burying it, releasing it as steam, or releasing it as hydrogen.
Civil society groups also advanced their own proposal. Kanna Mitsuta, executive director at NGO Friends of the Earth (FOE) Japan, recounts how the Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy, a Japanese anti-nuclear citizens forum which she advises, “proposed two alternative plans to the government, one of which was to store the water in large tanks and the other to dispose of the waste by mortar solidification, and then storing it semi-underground”.
According to Mitsuta, their proposals were never taken seriously, including in meetings with the relevant authorities. “To dispel the impression that the decision had been made solely by TEPCO and the Economy Ministry (the one overseeing the decommissioning process, ed.) – and here I’m not only referring to the issue of contaminated water – Japanese authorities tend to invite experts who don’t object to their ideas and pretend to discuss them”.
Japanese authorities tend to invite experts who don’t object to their ideas and pretend to discuss them.
Kanna Mitsuta, executive director at Friends of the Earth Japan
After years of evaluations and discussions, the official announcement came on 13 April 2021. “The release of treated water is an inevitable matter,” declared then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Negative reactions started pouring in. For example, three United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights spoke out against the decision, stating that “the release… imposes considerable risks to the full enjoyment of human rights of concerned populations in and beyond the borders of Japan”.
Partly, such harsh reactions can be attributed to the fact that no substantial international consultation process took place on whether to go ahead with the release plan – a decision perceived as unilateral by many – beyond the forum of the IAEA.
Furthermore, according to Brown, best practices for involving stakeholders – including in “defining the scope of the study” and giving the public “access to raw data” – were not adopted at all by either TEPCO or the government. “The decision was made, (it was very) non-transparent… And the IAEA said, ‘oh, we think their public communication was very good’. How on Earth could they reach that conclusion?”
Beneath the Fukushima water release
On 11 September, the first release of water from Fukushima Daiichi was completed, and the second and third rounds began on 5 October and 2 November, respectively. According to TEPCO and the IAEA, the levels of radionuclides, including tritium, have always been within the safety limits.
The line separating those in favour of the discharge and those against it – without forgetting a substantial group of people who are undecided or indifferent – follows another, even more contested division between supporters and opponents of nuclear energy.
People like Burnie don’t trust the assurances of the IAEA and those of the Japanese government which, he feels, is “obsessed with nuclear energy,” namely with reviving an industry it considers key to reducing its emissions (all nuclear power was halted in Japan following the 2011 disaster and only eleven out of 33 operable reactors have since been reactivated).
The fact that the discharge is compatible with international standards means little in Burnie’s eyes because “nuclear regulation… is there to allow the nuclear industry to operate”.
Some, also, don’t accept any kind of radioactive release into the environment. This is the result of advocacy by groups who are ideologically opposed to anything nuclear, and poor education among the general public about radiation and its real risks, according to Antony Hooker, associate professor and director of the Centre for Radiation Research, Education and Innovation at the University of Adelaide in Australia: “There is a lack of scientific evidence to prove that, at low doses, (radiation) is in fact dangerous, as it is very hard to see any effect of radiation on cancer with such a high background cancer rate”.
Hooker is the only member of the PIF scientific panel to support the release plan, though he does concede that this may be an “opportune time… to investigate alternative solutions to tritium disposal into seas and waterways”.
Because regardless of the scientific validity of the release, the issue touches deep chords. “There’s even part of me that wonders… do we do something that is a poor choice scientifically, but the population perceives it as being OK?” Marks posits.
Beyond the headlines, protests and cacophony of opinions, there is the (not so linear) line between Fukushima as a place of destruction and one of rebirth. For some, Fukushima will always be a synonym for nuclear disaster, but for others, this area needs to be restored to something at least reminiscent of what it was before.
But the release has not quelled the fire. It has very much stoked it. “We’re aware that the wastewater issue isn’t a simple question, but it is more important to (focus on) environmental justice,” says Miku Narisawa, founder and co-director of Odyssey Nature Japan, an organisation engaged in environmental education for younger generations. Narisawa lost her home and friends in the tsunami and is using that trauma to generate positive change, helping her community become more resilient.
Because, once the spotlight shifts elsewhere – for instance, to other issues related to the decommissioning process – local communities will be the ones left to pick up the pieces and prevent a wave of events outside of their control from overwhelming them once again.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.