In a major step to decommission the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan began dumping wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. However, the move led China to impose a ban on seafood imports from Japan. The dumping of some 540 Olympic-sized pools of water over several decades is intended to clean up the aftermath of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents, which occurred 12 years ago.
The wastewater discharge was initiated by two engineers clicking computer mice, as seen in a video provided by plant operator TEPCO. A countdown then began before an official spokesman announced the opening of valves at the seawater pumps. Japan has repeatedly emphasized that the wastewater has been treated and will be harmless, a position supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog. The IAEA said new on-site tests have confirmed that the level of radioactive tritium in the discharged water is safe.
However, China expressed concern about ocean pollution and criticized Japan for its “extremely selfish” decision. As a result, China imposed an import ban on all Japanese seafood to prevent possible food safety risks associated with radioactive contamination. In response, Japan called on China to lift the ban. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also criticized Japan’s decision and called for its reversal.
Local fishermen joined the protests against Japan’s sewage dumping. The protests took place near Fukushima and TEPCO’s headquarters in Tokyo. Kenichi Sato, a protester in Tokyo, compared the sewage dumping to “dropping an atomic bomb into the ocean,” emphasizing that Japan was the first country to be atom-bombed.
Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, three reactor meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, killing some 18,000 people. Since then, TEPCO has collected 1.34 million cubic meters of contaminated water from the cooling of the damaged reactors, as well as groundwater and rainwater. Japan claims that all radioactive elements except tritium have been filtered out. Tritium levels are considered harmless and are lower than at operating nuclear power plants, including those in China.
However, environmental group Greenpeace says the filtration process is flawed. China and Russia have proposed vaporizing the water and releasing it into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the Japanese analysis is supported by most experts. Tom Scott of the University of Bristol explains that when tritium is released into the Pacific Ocean, it dissolves into a huge volume of water and quickly reaches a level of radioactivity indistinguishable from ordinary seawater.
TEPCO plans to conduct four releases of purified water between Thursday and March 2024. The first release is expected to last about 17 days, and the full discharge of wastewater is expected to take about 30 years. With 1,000 steel containers to hold the water, TEPCO needs to make room for the removal of highly hazardous radioactive nuclear fuel and debris from three damaged reactors.
Even before the release, China had banned seafood imports from 10 of Japan’s 47 prefectures and imposed radiation inspections.