Water tanks holding contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. (Credit: IAEA)

Science and technology

The decision by the Japanese government to release treated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean has ignited a storm of controversy and diplomatic strife. Several nations have promptly responded by halting imports of Japanese seafood, highlighting a complex mesh of environmental, health, and political factors at play. 

Dr. Kenji Sumita of Osaka University explains that the Fukushima plant's wastewater undergoes a purification process using the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), effective at removing most radioactive substances except tritium.

“Radioactive isotope of hydrogen, tritium H-3, cannot be separated chemically from water.” Sinikka Virtanen, senior inspector at Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority of Finland (Stuk) tells Helsinki Times. “Tritium is also naturally occurring radionuclide that is produced in the atmosphere. It has a half-life of 12,3 years. It is also a by-product of operating nuclear power plants. So, if Fukushima NPP would be still normally operating, it would anyway discharge tritium. For example, in 2022, 2,2 E+12 Bq of tritium was released from Olkiluoto units, and 1,54 E+13 Bq of tritium was released from Loviisa units in Finland.”

Image: IAEA 

Despite these reassurances and comparisons with existing nuclear facilities worldwide, the planned release of 8.3 E+14 Bq of tritium stored in Fukushima's tanks in 2021, remains a focal point of global concern, not only from the public, but there are also scientific arguments against TEPCO’s release plan.

In an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled: Why Japan should stop its Fukoshima nuclear wastewater ocean release, Dr. Tatsujiro Suzuki, writes: “The Pacific Island Forum expressed its concern in a statement in January 2023 about whether current international standards are adequate to handle the unprecedented case of the Fukushima Daiichi tritiated water release. Based on a report from an independent expert panel established by the forum, TEPCO’s guideline compliance plan does not appear to include the transboundary implications of IAEA’s guidance in its General Safety Guide No. 8 (GSG-8), which requires that the benefits of a given process outweigh the harms for individuals and societies.”

Tatsujiro Suzuki is vice director and professor at the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University, Japan. He is former vice chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, and now a member of the Advisory Board of Parliament’s Special Committee on Nuclear Energy since June 2017.

He also mentions the opposition of Japan’s National Fisheries Cooperatives to the discharge: In a June 2023 statement opposing the planned discharge of treated water, the head of Japan’s national fisheries cooperatives Masanobu Sakamoto said: “We cannot support the government’s stance that an ocean release is the only solution. … Whether to release the water into the sea or not is a government decision, and in that case we want the government to fully take responsibility.”

American scientists have also been raising concerns that marine life and ocean currents could carry harmful radioactive isotopes—also called radionuclides—across the entire Pacific Ocean.

“It’s a trans-boundary and trans-generational event,” Robert Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, and a scientific adviser on the discharge plan to the Pacific Islands Forum told National Geographic. “Anything released into the ocean off of Fukushima is not going to stay in one place.”

The experts also recommended the alternative method of using the treated water to manufacture concrete for the construction industry instead of releasing it to the sea. By immobilizing the radionuclides in a material, this alternative would imply a lower potential for human contact and would avoid transboundary impacts. 


International Reactions and Rationale

Countries like China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Russia have cited the potential risk of radiation contamination in their decisions to restrict Japanese seafood:


  1. China and Hong Kong: Both have expressed explicit concerns about radiation, with China banning all aquatic products from Japan and Hong Kong setting up special monitoring teams. These actions perhaps reflect not only safety concerns but also geopolitical tensions and an underlying mistrust regarding Japan's environmental policies.


  1. South Korea: With historical sensitivities and proximity considerations, South Korea's outright ban on Japanese marine and food products stems from both public opposition and longstanding distrust exacerbated by the Fukushima incident. The South Korean government's firm stance likely resonates with public sentiment against perceived environmental risks.


  1. Malaysia and Thailand: These countries have emphasized the safety of their citizens, echoing a common theme in the region's response: proactive measures against potential health hazards. Malaysia's active sampling of food products for investigation signifies a rigorous, science-based approach to food safety, resonating with broader public health policies.


  1. Russia: Russia's approach, involving intensified controls and potential restrictions based on investigation outcomes, mirrors its cautious stance on environmental issues and food safety, reflecting a balanced approach between scientific assessment and public health priorities.


Economic Impact and Diplomatic Implications

The economic fallout from these bans is non-trivial for Japan, a nation renowned for its seafood industry. The bans not only affect trade but also dent Japan's reputation as a safe food supplier. Diplomatically, this issue has become a touchpoint in Japan's relations with its neighbors, underscoring the delicate balance between environmental responsibility, health safety, and international relations.


Open Scientific debate and public sentiment

Despite the reassurance about tritium's relative harmlessness and adherence to WHO standards, not all experts are convinced about the safety of this release, especially as there are alternative solutions which are safer and would not endanger the wildlife or humans.

There's also a clear disconnect between expert opinions and public perception. This chasm is fueled by historical nuclear incidents, fears of long-term ecological impacts, and a pervasive skepticism about the handling of nuclear-related matters. The ensuing public sentiment and resultant governmental actions underscore the importance of open and transparent scientific debate in addition to considering fears and apprehensions of the general populace.