Japan Begins Releasing Treated Radioactive Water at Fukushima

Japan began releasing into the ocean the first tranche of more than a million tons of treated radioactive wastewater from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Thursday, following years of regional and domestic objections to the plan. The government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the plant and is overseeing its decommissioning, have promised that the water is safe for humans and that they will monitor the continuing release to make sure that radioactive material does not exceed international standards.

In the two years since Japan announced its plan to release the wastewater into the sea, the plan has provoked serious political tensions with nearby China and South Korea, as well as anxiety at home. The Chinese government has criticized the plan as unsafe; in South Korea, the administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol supports Japan’s efforts, but opposition lawmakers have castigated the move as a potential threat to humans. Within Japan, fishermen’s unions fear that public anxiety about the safety of the water could affect their livelihoods.

Ever since a huge earthquake and tsunami in 2011 led to a meltdown at the Fukushima plant, Tepco, as the power company is known, has used water to cool the ruined nuclear fuel rods that remain too hot to remove. As the water passes through the reactors, it picks up nuclear materials. The power company runs the cooling water through treatment plants that remove most radioactive nuclides except for tritium, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said in July will not pose a serious health threat to humans if released to the ocean.

The Japanese government has said that with more than 1.34 million tons of wastewater already accumulated on site, the power company will shortly run out of storage room and that it has no choice but to release the water into the ocean.

The first release of 7,800 tons of treated water is expected to last about 17 days. Both Tepco and Japan’s fisheries agency have said they will monitor the ocean water for radioactive levels, and the IAEA has said it will also oversee the process, which is expected to last decades.

To compensate fishermen who lose business due to public anxiety, the Japanese government is allocating 80 billion yen ($552 million).

Miharu Nishiyama and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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