Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.02.03

Japan needs to reassure neighbors on release and safety of treated radioactive water

Other nations have released water from nuclear reactors and done so safely

the Japan Times on January 11, 2023

This coming spring, as the war in Ukraine enters its second year, Japan will start releasing treated water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the ocean.

The plan, which was announced in 2021 after two years of objective due processes, both domestic and international, is to treat the water with scientifically proven methods to ensure maximum environmental safety.

The New York Times ran an article late last year stating that “The proposal has angered many of Japan’s neighbors, especially those with the most direct experience of unexpected exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.” The article also quoted an environmental advocacy group that criticized the plan: “How can the Japanese government … wish to further pollute our Pacific with nuclear waste?”

Tokyo has sincerely heard their concerns and committed to prioritize people’s safety. As a Pacific maritime island nation with a close affinity to the sea and as the only nation ever to be the victim of atomic bombings, it is only natural that Japan and its people are sensitive to nuclear-related issues. These sentiments are historical, genuine and grounded on values of respect and dignity for humanity.

Japan also precisely understands that there are other maritime countries in the Pacific that share these sentiments. The nation’s postwar history has proven that this special aversion to nuclear weapons is widely shared, not only by the highest-ranking policymakers, but also by the general public. This will not change.

At the same time, many Japanese, in spite of such sentiment, are beginning to understand the inevitable choices that the country now must make. Based on the most scientific and neutral analyses possible, the following are facts about the treated water from Fukushima, which has been one of the most sensitive and emotionally controversial issues for the Japanese as well.

Is such water highly contaminated? The New York Times article stated, “The Japanese government plans to begin releasing the water into the Pacific after treatment for most radioactive particles, as has been done elsewhere. The Japanese government, saying there is no feasible alternative, has pledged to carry out the release with close attention to safety standards.”

The water to be released will not be highly radioactive because it will be treated using the advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, to purify the contaminated water to remove radioactive materials to meet safety standards. The only particle ALPS cannot remove, however, is tritium.

Tritium is a member of the hydrogen family and is widely present in our surroundings, such as rainwater and tap water. Therefore, it is quite probable that we may be drinking it daily without knowing it. Tritium emits beta rays, a type of radiation, but its effect is negligible. Even when consumed with water, beta rays do not accumulate in the human body and are eliminated more quickly than other radioactive materials.

In fact, The New York Times story notes that wastewater containing tritium has been released from numerous nuclear reactors operated in various countries, including France, the United States, Canada, China and South Korea. Those facilities routinely discharge tritium with other liquid waste into the ocean and rivers or into the atmosphere through ventilation. No adverse tritium-related side effects have been recorded around those nuclear facilities.

After years of discussion, experts have concluded that the ocean discharge plan is the most realistic solution to the problem based on experiences in Japan and elsewhere. Before being released into the ocean, the ALPS-treated water will be diluted more than 100 times with seawater, lowering the concentration of tritium to less than one-fortieth of the level permitted under Japanese safety standards and approximately one-seventh of that of the World Health Organization.

For years, Japan has committed to working closely with the island nations in the Pacific.

In 2021, Tokyo hosted The 9th Pacific Island Leaders Meeting with the aim of contributing to the stability and prosperity of the region as well as strengthening the partnership between Japan and the Pacific island nations through a frank exchange of views on various issues.

Japan, however, can and must do more, such as sharing more relevant information related to the proposed release of the ALPS-treated water with the Pacific island nations. In addition, Tokyo should directly and most sincerely engage with as many political leaders of those island nations as possible.

As an island nation dependent on ocean resources, Tokyo is concerned about the health of its own people as it is with the health of peoples in other countries. In such an unlikely event that water that causes adverse health effects was discharged into the ocean, it would be the Japanese people, including those in Fukushima, who would be the first and most directly affected. To protect the environment in the Pacific, Japan knows that it must start with protecting its maritime environment around Fukushima.

It is a scientifically established fact that ALPS-treated water is hardly harmful or highly radioactive. If it were, nations that release similarly treated water into rivers and oceans would have stopped operating nuclear power plants already. The International Atomic Energy Agency has evaluated Japan’s plan and said it was based on sound “scientific evidence.”

Of course, the treated water is still a highly sensitive political issue in Japan. That said, however, what Tokyo needs now is intellectual honesty, scientific transparency and to show the utmost sincerity vis-a-vis its friends in the Pacific islands. Excessive politicization of this issue will also hardly go toward solving the problems of nuclear testing or the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.