Troubled Waters at Fukushima Daiichi

Since the 2011 triple disaster decimated Japan’s northeast Tohoku region, the area surrounding Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has seen the construction of hundreds of massive temporary water storage tanks. 

These vessels contain highly contaminated water used to cool melted uranium fuel rods in the sites’s three reactors. In the days following the tsunami, each reactor sustained hydrogen explosions and subsequent nuclear meltdowns, releasing significant amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Given the over 150 tons of water needed daily to prevent further meltdowns, the amount of contaminated waste stored on-site grew to over 1.3 million tons—enough to fill five hundred Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

Facing storage limitations and leaking tanks at Daiichi, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) long-sought government approval to dispose of its accumulating radioactive waste. In April, the Government of Japan (GOJ) finally approved TEPCO’s plan to gradually release treated water into the Pacific Ocean over the next few decades, starting in 2023.

Japan’s neighbors immediately criticized the decision, with South Korea and China issuing condemnations and threats to take the GOJ to international court. South Korean anti-nuclear organizations went so far as to label the move “nuclear terrorism” before delivering a petition with more than 60,000 signatures to the Embassy of Japan in Seoul. Likewise, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson claimed “the ocean is not Japan’s rubbish bin, the Pacific Ocean is not Japan’s sewers.”

Much of this international criticism is valid given the potential risks posed by the water discharge plan. However, water discharge remains the least bad option given the utter lack of unproblematic disposal methods. The biggest safety risks associated with the plan come from TEPCO’s unsafe practices that the GOJ underregulates. Both parties should implement long-desired reforms to mitigate these risks through transparent and democratic practices. 

The Least Bad Option

In 2020, a GOJ subcommittee identified five potential options for disposing the contaminated water: geosphere release, sea discharge, vapor release, hydrogen release, and underground burial. However, most of these options were unfeasible and unsafe. Ultimately, TEPCO chose sea discharge and vapor release, both recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the least risky options in terms of human and environmental safety, as well as their “precedent in current practice.” Indeed, Japan’s limited landmass and proximity to other countries limit its options for disposal. The GOJ ultimately approved the sea discharge plan, a decision supported by the US and the IAEA.

Before release, the water will be treated on-site by TEPCO’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove most of the remaining sixty-two types of radionuclides, including the hazardous strontium-90, cobalt, and plutonium. However, the ALPS cannot remove the radionuclide tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope that is not particularly harmful to humans in small doses. TEPCO will instead dilute the tritiated water to one-fortieth of the nationally accepted level in drinking water before release.

Although this plan seems like the least bad option on paper, it has its problems. As was the case in Fukushima Prefecture after the triple disaster in 2011, the public’s negative perception of fish products’s contamination causes consumer distrust, threatening fish markets across East Asia. Contamination from Daiichi destroyed the fishing industry in Fukushima; it barely maintained 14 percent of its pre-disaster catch volumes as of October 2020. Further, fifty-four countries outright banned international exports of various agricultural products from the prefecture.

While US and EU regulatory bodies eased bans this fall, several major economies in Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, still maintain their bans with no end date in sight. Similar economic damages across other fishing and ocean-related industries in Japan, South Korea, China, or other potentially affected countries would be nothing less than catastrophic. 

Domestically, national and local actors oppose the plan. The National Federation for Fisheries Cooperatives chairman expressed the organization’s opposition to the plan to then-Prime Minister Suga after its approval. At the local level, a 2020 poll of voters in Fukushima Prefecture found that 57 percent of those surveyed opposed the release plan. Despite the very high stakes and both internal and external pressure, the GOJ continues to act against the wishes of local citizens, domestic organizations, and fishing cooperatives, as well as the governments and industries in neighboring countries. It is doing so despite clear IAEA agreements that require governments to consult stakeholders during transboundary releases of radioactive material. 

Environmental organizations have also pointed out the massive risks of residual radionuclides in the contaminated water. Currently, the ALPS system is also incapable of removing carbon-14, a radionuclide with a half-life of over five thousand years. Though it is not particularly hazardous to human health in low doses, Greenpeace posited that Fukushima’s water contains dangerous amounts of this radionuclide and that will subject regional and global communities to elevated doses for generations to come. 

Unsound Practices

Beyond the many problematic aspects of the ocean discharge plan, broader domestic institutional factors could make water discharge risky. Based on past behavior and policies, there are serious doubts that the public can trust both TEPCO and the GOJ’s nuclear regulatory mechanisms to deliver safe policies and practices. 

TEPCO’s guise of transparency through publishing press releases, statistics, Q&As, and water-related visuals (available in Korean and Chinese) is misleading given the company’s entirely secretive in the decommissioning process. For seven years following the disaster, TEPCO insisted that the ALPS removed all radionuclides and that the water was well within safety limits. 

This assertion turned out to be entirely false. In 2018, investigators found that 84 percent of stored water contained levels of radioactive materials higher than the legal limits. In some tanks, levels of the highly radioactive isotope strontium-90 even reached 20,000 times the legal limit. 

TEPCO does not allow for independent measuring of radionuclide levels. Currently, all data available to the public and GOJ come from the company. Given a history of dishonest practices, it is unclear to what extent public data on the water is accurate.  

Beyond TEPCO’s lack of transparency, its practices throughout the decontamination process bring its credibility into question. TEPCO repeatedly makes critical mistakes involving the stored water at Daiichi. For example, in 2014, operators pumped wastewater into an already full storage tank, causing three hundred tons of extremely radioactive water to leak onto the ground. The water in this incident contained 230 million becquerels per liter of radionuclides. For reference, the WHO has set ten becquerels per liter as the maximum safe limit for drinking water. 

Other mistakes include the incident where TEPCO left two broken seismographs unrepaired for over six months, during which a magnitude six-plus earthquake struck. Instances like these, in addition to its lack of transparency, contribute to public doubts about whether the company’s practices are safe.

The GOJ, for its part, also carries much culpability for the present situation at Daiichi and has done a consistently poor job of regulating the situation. The present Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and its pre-disaster predecessor, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency, consistently fail to regulate the company rigorously. In the ten years since the disaster, it has not implemented any regulations for independent verification of radionuclide levels in wastewater at Daiichi. The NRA has also not released any comprehensive environmental impact reports on the risks posed by water discharge, adding to the lack of transparency surrounding the situation. Since the current regulatory structure leaves all public information in TEPCO’s hands, transparency, or lack thereof, will remain a major issue for both the Japanese people and the international community. 

International Precedent

The issue of precedent has remained at the core of the debates surrounding the water discharge plan. Both the GOJ and TEPCO claim that ocean discharge is well within nuclear waste disposal’s precedent. However, this is somewhat misleading messaging: there has been no ocean discharge of radioactive material involved in a nuclear disaster at this scale. 

Critics argue the release would create an unsafe international precedent. Some experts believe that releasing radioactive materials in shared oceans without consulting neighboring countries would result in others following suit due to the IAEA’s lacking enforcement mechanisms in monitoring radiation releases. 

Moreover, Japan’s release plan could set a precedent for other nuclear states. Currently, thirty-two nations possess a total of 448 nuclear reactors. An additional thirty emerging nuclear countries are considering, planning, or starting their nuclear power programs. Given the number of existing or emerging nuclear nations, concerns over international precedent on radioactive waste disposal are not far-fetched. 

The storage and disposal of radioactive waste is an issue faced by every nation possessing nuclear energy capabilities. TEPCO and the GOJ’s decision not to consult its neighboring countries brings implications for the global nuclear waste management system. If individual states choose to follow Japan’s suit in dumping radioactive waste in the world’s oceans, the potential environmental and human impacts would be unimaginable. 

Moving Forward

Despite the many past, present, and future problems associated with the water discharge plan, the GOJ and TEPCO are pressing onwards with it. Given the precedent of both parties employing dangerous and dishonest practices, it is unclear how much the Japanese people and the international community should trust TEPCO and the GOJ with delivering a safe disposal process. Due to the high-stakes nature of water discharge, for Japan, its East Asian neighbors, and the international community as a whole, both parties must implement significant changes in their practices.

First, TEPCO must implement further transparent practices throughout the many components of its decommissioning efforts at Daiichi. In particular, the company needs to open the on-site water tanks for independent inspection and allow monitoring and verification of the water discharge process. This recommendation is not an unreasonable demand given the high potential risk to members of the Japanese public and international community, in addition to the high degree of responsibility TEPCO shoulders for exacerbating the disaster at Fukushima in the first place. TEPCO and the consequences of its actions should not be immune from comprehensive public scrutiny.

Further democratization and transparency are likewise necessary on the part of the GOJ. The lack of consideration of the interests, stakes, and dangers faced by domestic and international entities both sets a dangerous precedent and erodes democratic practice. The risks of this situation necessitate consultation and cooperation at all stages of the process, not top-down policies that disregard public opinion and interest. In particular, the GOJ should also implement much more rigorous regulations for TEPCO. 

Specifically, they should mandate transparency in the disposal process through rigorously sharing data and third-party monitoring at every juncture. International organizations like Greenpeace or Safecast are well equipped to serve such roles and already possess the infrastructure to share radiation data with the public. Further regulations should also mandate on-site regulators at Daiichi from other bodies like the IAEA or NRA to transparently monitor TEPCO’s decommissioning procedures. In short, regulatory institutions should justify the high degree of trust placed in TEPCO through rigorous standards. 

The GOJ has already taken some measures towards implementing transparency. In February of this year, a task force of experts from the IAEA traveled to Daiichi to review and inspect the discharge plan. The same month, the GOJ strengthened its plan to test tritium levels four times a year in the seawater off the region’s coast by measuring levels at fifty locations instead of twelve. Though these are steps in the right direction, consulting UN experts and increasing testing in Japan’s waters are not enough to implement transparent and democratic practices adequately. 

In terms of democratizing the international situation, representative experts from neighboring countries should monitor and inspect the discharge process. Both on-site observation and direct participation in international monitoring programs from stakeholders are necessary for a transparent and democratic disposal process. Countries that face risks from the disposal process have a right to observe its implementation and support its success. While discharge may be necessary, TEPCO should not do it behind closed doors without comprehensive and inclusive international observation.

Despite the glaring need for change, both the GOJ and TEPCO have not yet implemented major reforms in light of international and domestic opposition. Only time will tell if the two parties will rise to the occasion and do what is right for both Japan and the world.

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