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Japan must commit to safely disposing of nuclear wastewater

LAST week, the operator of the tsunami-devastated nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, began releasing into the Pacific Ocean water that had been used to cool the facility's reactors.

The discharge of the wastewater was approved by the Tokyo government after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that the procedure passed “relevant international safety standards.” Despite the IAEA's stamp of approval, the move has whipped up a storm of protest from Japan's neighbors and environmental watchdogs. Critics insist more studies need to be done. China has been the most strident detractor. “By dumping the water into the ocean, Japan is spreading the risks to the rest of the world and passing an open wound onto the future generations of humanity,” its foreign ministry said.

UNPOPULAR MOVE A general view shows the facilities of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (back), as seen from Ukedo fishing port in Namie. The Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission in Fiji has condemned Japan's discharge of nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the ocean, urging the Pacific Island leaders to stand in solidarity to oppose Tokyo's move. AFP PHOTOUNPOPULAR MOVE A general view shows the facilities of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (back), as seen from Ukedo fishing port in Namie. The Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission in Fiji has condemned Japan's discharge of nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the ocean, urging the Pacific Island leaders to stand in solidarity to oppose Tokyo's move. AFP PHOTO

UNPOPULAR MOVE A general view shows the facilities of the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (back), as seen from Ukedo fishing port in Namie. The Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission in Fiji has condemned Japan’s discharge of nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the ocean, urging the Pacific Island leaders to stand in solidarity to oppose Tokyo’s move. AFP PHOTO

A state-run newspaper in Beijing turned to a popular cinematic monster to dramatize its criticism. “What will be unleashed once the Pandora's box is open?” it said. “The answer to this question may become a landmine threatening the ecological environment of the world and the fears of real-life Godzilla among the public worldwide.” To underline its point, China has banned all seafood imports from Japan and is calling on other Pacific countries to follow its lead.

At the core of the debate on the safety of dumping nuclear wastewater into the sea is tritium. The hydrogen isotope is a byproduct of nuclear fission that is used to either kill or heal: it can enhance the destructive power of a nuclear bomb, but it is also a highly effective tool in radiotherapy, acting as a “tracer” to draw a diagnostic map of a particular human organ.

Tritium and other radioactive elements contaminate the water used as a reactor coolant, so a nuclear plant must find a way to safely dispose of its wastewater. One way is to store it in secure above-ground tanks. Or it can be buried in wells or caves deep underground.

The most common method is to treat nuclear wastewater before releasing it into the sea. Nuclear plants around the world, including those in the United States, have been disposing of their tritium-tainted water this way for decades, according to studies.

Thirteen nuclear power plants in China each dumped more tritium into the ocean in 2021 than the amount to be released from the Fukushima plant in one year, according to the Japanese news agency NHK, citing Chinese statistics.

'Science-, fact-based perspective'

Tokyo has guaranteed that the water from the Fukushima plant will go through a state-of-the-art filtering system that removes 62 different radioactive materials, leaving only tritium. The level of the remaining tritium will be “consistent with relevant international safety standards” and “will have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment,” Japanese officials assured.

The first batch of discharged water from the Fukushima plant contained about 190 becquerels of tritium per liter — well below the World Health Organization drinking water limit of 10,000 becquerels per liter, the officials said. Tokyo has been on a PR offensive to defend the discharge of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific. Japan will “continue efforts to gain further understanding from the international community while scientifically refuting politically motivated opinions,” its ambassador to Manila, Koshikawa Kazuhiko, said in a statement last week. Japan will continue monitoring the process “in a multi-layered manner with the involvement of the IAEA,” Kazuhiko said. “And if some event occurs, such as radioactivity levels exceeding standards, appropriate measures, including not discharging or suspending the discharge, will be taken.” The Philippines has been cautious in endorsing the wastewater discharge, saying only that it “recognizes” the IAEA's technical expertise on which Japan based its decision.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippines “continues to look at the issue from a science- and fact-based perspective and its impact on the waters in the region.” We fully agree with the DFA stand. It prevents the country from getting swept deeper into the swirling political undercurrents affecting the region.

Draining the 1 million tons of wastewater from the Fukushima plant will take 30 to 40 years. What we need from Japan is a firm commitment that it will stay the course.

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