An International Atomic Agency team arrived in Tokyo on Monday for a final review before Japan began releasing massive amounts of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea. The team, which includes experts from 11 countries, will meet with officials from the government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, and visit the Fukushima plant during its five-day stay.
The plant was crippled by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, causing three reactors to melt and release massive amounts of radiation. The meltdowns were made worse because the damaged reactors could not be cooled as they were designed. The resulting pools of water, containing about 1.3 million tons of contaminated water, had to be stored in huge tanks lining the grounds around the plant. Now that the tank farm will reach its capacity in early 2024, TEPCO plans to release the water into the ocean. The plant and its owner say the move is needed to prevent accidental leaks in the event of another disaster and to make way for the eventual decommissioning of the site. They also argue that the ocean release, which will last decades, poses minimal environmental and health risks because the contaminated water is pumped into the sea after being extensively diluted.
But many in the local fishing communities and neighboring countries need convincing. They fear that the water releases will taint their seafood products, even though TEPCO has assured them that the levels of radioactive cesium found in fish and other seafood in Japan are well below the level permitted for food in their countries. So the Fukushima prefectural government is waging a PR campaign to convince the public and foreign tourists that their fish and shellfish are safe, holding regular briefings for diplomats in Tokyo and running ads on TV and in newspapers.
TEPCO says it will run the water through a complex series of filters called the Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, capturing 62 types of radionuclides, including cesium. It will then be diluted until it has a concentration of tritium, which is not filtered out, of one-fortieth what the government allows for discharge into the environment and about 1/7th of the WHO ceiling for drinking water.
But if the water contains too much tritium, it must be treated again. The Japanese government and TEPCO plan to pump the treated water through an undersea tunnel from the plant to the seabed, about a kilometer away. They have commissioned an expert to study whether the tunnel can withstand the pressure of the sea, and they are considering digging a longer, deeper tunnel, which would take a decade to complete. They have said they are prepared to spend about $50 billion on the construction work and will finance it with tax revenue from the seafood industry. However, the plan has been opposed by 55 of the country’s 63 regions and territories, which have imposed restrictions on imports of Japanese seafood.