Fukushima Plan: Dimensions of the Impact of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Water Discharge Plan on Japan’s Interests

In a controversial move, the Japanese government announced the start of a process to discharge over one million tons of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, after diluting it. In 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the northeastern coast of Japan’s Honshu Island, causing a loss of backup electricity at the Fukushima nuclear plant, ultimately leading to the meltdown of three reactors and one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. Since then, Japan has used water to cool the damaged reactors, but due to containing radioactive elements, the cooling water became contaminated and accumulated in over 1,000 steel tanks at the power plant. With storage space running out at Fukushima and the potential for internal tank collapses, Japan announced a plan to discharge this water into the ocean. Japan proceeded with implementing this plan on August 24th last year, sparking widespread controversy both domestically and internationally.

Water Discharge

The Japanese government has been studying ways to dispose of treated water from the Fukushima plant with minimal harm for years. Finally, in consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Japan decided to dispose of this water in the Pacific Ocean. Generally, Japan’s plan to discharge Fukushima plant water is associated with several main dimensions:

Exceeding the capacity of Fukushima plant tanks:

The Japanese government began collecting and storing treated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant site following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. However, the water reached the maximum capacity of these tanks, amounting to 1.34 million tons, equivalent to the volume of water in 540 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This led the Japanese government to seriously consider how to handle this ticking time bomb of radioactive water. After years of storage, Japan decided in 2021 to resolve the issue by discharging the water one kilometer off its marine coasts, through a channel connecting its coasts to the ocean. The discharge operation will continue until 2050, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, with a maximum daily rate of 500,000 liters.

Japanese government justifications for the plan:

In addition to exceeding the current tank capacity, the Japanese government justified this step by emphasizing the need for the land currently occupied by the tanks to build new facilities, as well as avoiding risks such as tank collapses in the event of natural disasters. Tokyo’s government also previously stated that the discharged water contains reasonable levels of tritium and carbon, in accordance with global nuclear safety standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

TEPCO’s role in the discharge process:

TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima plant, is working to remove over 60 radioactive substances, in addition to designing an emergency valve system to prevent accidental discharge of untreated water. Employees can manually halt the discharge process quickly in the event of a tsunami or earthquake. The company confirmed that the discharge plan will take place over a long period, up to thirty years, while continuing to monitor and test the impact of this discharged water on ocean water and biological life.

International Atomic Energy Agency support for the plan:

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which approved the discharge project in July 2023, stated that approval followed two years of monitoring and studying treated water by an agency team consisting of nuclear safety experts representing eleven countries. The team conducted five periodic review visits to Japan, published six technical reports to monitor the current situation, and held regular meetings with officials from the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to finalize approval of the discharge plan.

Key Ramifications

Despite the Japanese government’s continuous reassurances that the discharge process is safe and not a cause for concern, and that it will span approximately thirty years until completion, many countries have criticized this step. This is despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s approval of the process in May 2023, considering it environmentally benign. Specifically, China has been particularly critical of Japan’s decision, as well as some fishing groups, and its negative impact extended to domestic Japan. Overall, Japan’s plan has triggered several key ramifications, including:

Risks associated with the Fukushima plant water discharge plan: Despite the Japanese government’s assurance that the plan will not pose major risks, there are concerns about significant risks. The water will not be completely free of radioactive materials, as tritium removal from water—a form of radioactive material primarily composed of hydrogen—is extremely challenging. Although this material decays over time into the less harmful helium, the decay process takes a very long time.

Tritium’s rapid spread also exacerbates its danger, with expectations that it will take a hundred years for the material to decay and its radioactive activity to decrease, making this process a concern for many scientists. Environmental experts have warned of the dangers of Japan’s decision and urged Tokyo decision-makers to retain this water until advanced modern technologies are available that can naturally reduce any remaining radioactive activity.

Domestic division in Japan over the plan: The plan has also sparked widespread public debate in Japan. An August 2023 survey by Asahi Shimbun showed that only about 53% of Japanese support the plan, while 41% strongly oppose it. Fishing communities fear that water discharge may affect their livelihoods. A group of fishermen organized a protest outside the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence on August 15 last year, urging the government to reconsider the plan and halt the discharge process.

Wide scientific criticisms of Japan’s step: With continued flow of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, Japan has faced international criticism for actions described by some as “irresponsible, illegal, and unethical”. Some scientists are uncomfortable with the execution of the plan now and argue that more studies are needed on how discharged water from the nuclear plant will impact the ocean floor and marine life in general. They added that the assessment conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency was insufficient to approve and ensure the safety of biological organisms in the ocean, alongside risks that accidental leakage of contaminated water could occur into other bodies of water.

Escalation of human rights groups’ criticism of the decision: Several human rights activists have expressed regret over this decision, stating that this discharge may affect the lives and livelihoods of millions in the Pacific Ocean region. Independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council said, “Releasing a million tons of contaminated water into the marine environment poses significant risks to the enjoyment of human rights by citizens in the region”. Greenpeace has issued reports criticizing the treatment conducted by TEPCO, claiming the company has not taken necessary steps to fully remove radioactive materials.

China’s use of the plan to pressure Tokyo: China has topped the list of countries criticizing Japan’s plan, accusing Japan of violating “international ethical and legal obligations” and “putting its own interests above the long-term well-being of humanity”. China also claimed that Japan treats the ocean as its private property and pollutes it with nuclear radiation. Wang Yin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Minister, also affirmed that the ocean is a common asset for humanity, not just Japan, to selfishly act upon and pollute with nuclear radiation. Beijing further stated that it would take all necessary measures to ensure marine environmental protection, food safety, and public health.

Shortly after Japan implemented the discharge plan, China expanded its ban on imported Japanese food from Fukushima and some prefectures to include the entire country, while China remains Japan’s largest importer of fish.

Complications have increased amid tension between the two countries, with Tokyo bolstering its military cooperation with the United States and openly supporting Taiwan. Tokyo has urged the Chinese government to immediately lift the ban on imports. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated in a press conference that Japan strongly encourages expert discussions based on science, and that China’s claims are baseless, also calling on Beijing to protect the Japanese diplomatic mission and ensure their safety following unacceptable behavior towards them by some Chinese citizens.

Japanese-Korean consensus on the plan: In contrast to the Chinese position, the South Korean government supported Japan’s plan, respecting the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It accused protesters of causing unwarranted panic and disturbance without any scientific basis supporting such claims.

However, this approach has sparked a wave of public anger in Seoul, where thousands participated in protests demanding that the government take strict measures to address this situation. Additionally, 80% of South Koreans expressed concern about water leakage according to a recent opinion poll.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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