The water release starts more than 12 years after the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns, caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
The tsunami-wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant‘s operator says it began releasing its first batch of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday – a controversial step that prompted China to ban seafood from Japan.
In a live video from a control room at the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings showed a staff member turn on a seawater pump with a click of a mouse, marking the start of the controversial project that is expected to last for decades.
“Seawater Pump A activated,” the main operator said, confirming the release was underway. TEPCO later confirmed that the seawater pump was activated at 1:03 pm local time, three minutes after the final step began.
Plant officials said everything was moving smoothly so far.
Japanese fisher groups have opposed the plan for fear it will further damage the reputation of their seafood. Groups in China and South Korea have also raised concerns, making it a political and diplomatic issue.
In response to the release, Chinese customs authorities banned seafood from Japan, customs authorities announced on Thursday. The ban started immediately and will affect all imports of “aquatic products” including seafood, according to the notice. Authorities said they will “dynamically adjust relevant regulatory measures as appropriate to prevent the risks of nuclear-contaminated water discharge to the health and food safety of our country.”
But the Japanese government and TEPCO say the water must be released to make room for the plant’s decommissioning and to prevent accidental leaks. They say the treatment and dilution will make the wastewater safer than international standards and its environmental impact will be negligibly small.
Still, some scientists say the long-term impact of the low-dose radioactivity that remains in the water needs attention.
In a statement on Thursday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said, “IAEA experts are there on the ground to serve as the eyes of the international community and ensure that the discharge is being carried out as planned consistent with IAEA safety standards.”
The United Nations agency also said it would launch a webpage to provide live data about the discharge, and repeated its assurance that the IAEA would have an on-site presence for the duration of the release.
The water release marks a milestone for the plant’s battle with an ever-growing radioactive water stockpile that TEPCO and the government say has hampered the daunting task of removing the fatally toxic melted debris from the reactors.
Fukushima’s fisheries, tourism and economy – which are still recovering from the disaster – worry the release could be the beginning of a new hardship.
The region's current fish catch is only about one-fifth of its pre-disaster level, in part due to a decline in the fishing population.