11 years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan is working hard to overcome challenges posed by its water. Since the Tohoku tsunami of 11 March 2011, Japan has been decommissioning and decontaminating the nuclear power plant, which is expected to take 30 to 40 years.
Now, the plant must urgently empty its water tanks.
Euronews spoke to Kimoto Takahiro, the Deputy Site Superintendent at D&D Communication Center, Fukushima Daiichi D&D., Co., Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to ask where the water comes from.
“The water that accumulates every day was used to cool the molten fuel”, Kimoto explained. “And there is also water from underground springs or rain that accumulates.”
This water is treated in ALPS, a unit specially designed for Fukushima. It removes almost all the radioactive substances.
The treated water is then stored in a thousand tanks, but they have reached their maximum capacity. Next year, Japan will release the treated water into the sea.
However, a small amount of radioactive substance, called tritium, still remains, as it’s inseparable from the water.
90,000 samples of treated water are analysed in a laboratory each year in preparation for dilution in the sea. After a second treatment in ALPS, the water will be discharged into the sea through a tunnel, which is one kilometre long and built at a depth of 16 metres. The tunnel is set to be completed next spring.
Just before it reaches the Pacific, the water will be diluted one last time in large seawater pools.
In order to find out whether marine life will be affected by the radioactivity, the nuclear power plant is rearing fish in separate pools.
"There are basins of natural seawater on one side, and basins of treated water mixed with seawater on the other”, Kimoto Takahiro told Euronews.
“We are going to discharge water at a much lower level than the drinking water standard set by the WHO”, he added.
But the fishermen of Fukushima are worried about the reputation of their products. In the port of Onahama, 60 kilometres from the power station, their work has already suffered from apprehension among consumers. From 25,000 tonnes per year before 2011, only 5,000 tonnes of fish are now caught, according to the president of the fishermen’s association.
"As a fisherman in Fukushima, I am against the release of radioactive materials into our workplace. What worries us is the negative reputation this creates”, said Nozaki Tetsu, Chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations.
However, Nozaki recognised that “in terms of the explanations we’ve had from the government over the last 10 years, they have not been false, so we appreciate their efforts. And therefore, if we can also presume their scientific explanations haven't been false, we will make an effort to continue fishing while at the same time fostering better consumer understanding, and, by doing this, I think we can limit most of the reputational damage."
After the daily catch, one fish of each species is analysed in this laboratory in the port. Everything is monitored.
Of the 63 species tested while Euronews was present, not a single one had any trace of radioactivity. That means they are all for sale.
In one year, only once has a fish exceeded the authorised stage. This stage is strictly set at 50 bequerel in Fukushima, whereas the international standard allows 1000 bequerel. The monitoring will continue after the discharge of water.
The authorities repeat that the dose of tritium released will not be dangerous:
22 terabecquerel will be released each year -- which accounts for far less than most power plants in the world. The waste reprocessing site of La Hague in France releases more than 11,000 terabecquerel annually.
Opponents say tritium from a nuclear accident is more dangerous. But one French scientist who has visited the Fukushima site 30 times insists that that is not true.
"Tritium is a radioactive element that is only slightly dangerous”, explained Jean-Christophe Gariel, the Deputy Director of the Institute of Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety. “There are no different types of tritium. The characteristics of the tritium that will be released at Fukushima are similar to the characteristics of those released by nuclear power plants around the world”.
The Japanese government is pleased that Great Britain lifted import restrictions on products from the region last June, showing a sign of renewed confidence, after years of effort by Japan.
Tanabe Yuki, the Director for International Issues at the Nuclear Accident Response Office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry told Euronews that, "so far, we have organised about 700 meetings with stakeholders, including the fishery industry. We have developed concrete projects to combat the bad reputation."
Indeed, Japan has taken all the necessary precautions on the sensitive issue regarding the discharge of treated water and has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to supervise the operations.
In May 2022, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi visited Fukushima.
The IAEA chief said in a statement that, “the request for IAEA reviews demonstrates Japan's commitment and will help send a message of transparency and confidence to the people in Japan and beyond”, emphasising the "remarkable progress on decommissioning at Fukushima Daiichi since my last visit two years ago."
The UN agency has set up a special task force. Last November, Gustavo Caruso, Director of Safety and Security Coordination. Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, and the head of this mission, returned to Fukushima.
"The task force held its third mission to Japan and it was this time composed of experts from Argentina, China, Canada, France, the Republic of Korea, Marshall Islands, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Vietnam", he announced.
The objective of the mission was to ensure the safety of the discharge. The UN agency examines the regulatory aspects and carries out analyses in independent laboratories.
“The evaluation report and the conclusions will be released in approximately three months, and the IAEA task force will also carry out another mission in Japan in January before the water discharge begins. The IAEA will issue a comprehensive report containing all the collective findings until now, and our conclusions about this process. All the standards that we apply are representing a high level of safety", Gustavo Caruso confirmed.
The first discharge should take place next year.
Japan is doing everything possible to make this operation a success and to protect the inhabitants and the environment. It’s the latest step in the reconstruction of a region that believes in its future.