The Water Is . . . Fine?

11/01/2023
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    The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged by a massive tsunami in 2011. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)
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    TEPCO stores radioactive wastewater in 1,000 tanks outside the wrecked power plant. (Kyodo News via AP)
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    In South Korea, thousands of protesters demand a stop to Japan’s wastewater release. (AP/Lee Jin-man)
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    A South Korean protester holds a mock fish with a “radioactive” label. (AP/Lee Jin-man)
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    At Mothers’ Radiation Lab Fukushima, a staff member tests seawater for radiation. The lab was established by concerned mothers who felt the need to track radiation levels independently. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)
  • 6 Fukushima
    In a city near Fukushima, U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel eats seafood with Mayor Hidekiyo Tachiya of Soma, Japan. (U.S. Embassy via AP)
  • 7 Fukushima
    Television footage from 2011 shows toxic smoke spewing from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. (AP/NTV/NNN Japan)
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THIS JUST IN

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Japan saw one of history’s worst nuclear disasters in 2011. It occurred at the now-infamous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Since then, contaminated water has been stored in tanks. But those tanks are filling up. Japan has decided to treat and dilute the water, and then release it into Pacific Ocean.

Officials at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) call this a milestone in the nuclear cleanup. But many people—including experts from nearby China and South Korea—are sounding an alarm about the potential environmental impact.

Twelve years ago, an undersea earthquake rattled the coast of Japan. The quake triggered a tsunami. The massive surge stretched to the height of a 13-story building. Thousands died in the tragic natural disaster.

But Japan’s troubles had just started. The tsunami ravaged the Fukushima power plant. It destroyed the power supply and cooling systems. Three reactors melted, spewing radioactive material into the air and sea. Families evacuated nearby towns. Some still haven’t returned. The area immediately around the plant remains unsafe. (For more on the dangers of radiation, see Radiation Dogs.)

Radiation contamination can linger for decades. High levels can lead to sickness and death. Japan plans to complete the cleanup by 2051. Some experts call that a low estimate.

The melted reactors still require fresh water for cooling. That water becomes contaminated. TEPCO treats it and stores it in more than 1,000 tanks.

But those tanks have nearly reached full capacity. TEPCO needs space to continue cleanup work. In August, the slow release of 31,200 tons of wastewater into the ocean began. That’s a lot of water—but it accounts for only 10 tanks. Later, TEPCO will empty the rest.

If you find that alarming, you’re not alone. Protesters from Japan’s concerned neighbors took to the streets in China and South Korea. Some carried fake fish labelled with radiation warning stickers. In August, China banned the sale of seafood from Japan. South Korean officials threatened to demand an immediate stop to the wastewater release if Japan deviates from its accepted plan. United Nations officials monitor the water release to make sure it follows safety protocols.

But Japanese researchers declare the water safe. By treating it, diluting it with seawater, and releasing it slowly, they aim to minimize environmental impact. A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency says the effects will be negligible. Many scientists agree.

In late August, a U.S. ambassador visited Japan. He criticized China’s seafood ban. As a show of support, he ate sashimi (raw fish) in a city near Fukushima.

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