Experts around the world have sounded alarm bells after Japan announced it would begin releasing radioactive water into the sea.
The Japanese government has come under fire after announcing it would begin dumping treated radioactive water from the 2011 Fukushima disaster back into the sea in two years time.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the releasing of more than one million tonnes of water containing radioactive substances was “unavoidable” as part of the decommissioning process of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was heavily damaged after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
The radioactive water – which includes water used for cooling the damaged reactors – has been accumulating in storage tanks since 2011. The tanks now occupy a large amount of space at the facility and the storage capacity will be full by late 2022.
Most of the radioactive elements have been filtered out but some, including the isotope tritium, cannot be removed.
The Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, which oversees Fukushima, plan to dilute the water to reduce the remaining contaminants to an adequate level to safely release into the Pacific Ocean.
TEPCO has been fighting an uphill battle ever since restabilising three of the plant’s reactors following the 2011 catastrophe, which still sits alongside Chernobyl as the only other tier seven radioactive disaster in history.
The ongoing build-up of contaminated water – costing the government 100 billion yen ($1.2 billion) annually – has forced Japanese officials to bite the bullet.
“The Japanese government has compiled basic policies to release the processed water into the ocean, after ensuring the safety levels of the water … and while the government takes measures to prevent reputational damage,” Mr Suga told reporters.
Officials have faced backlash from environmental groups and fishing unions rallying against the release of the water, insisting it would have “catastrophic” effects on the industry’s fractured reputation regarding food safety.
Japan’s neighbours China and South Korea also strongly criticised the decision.
Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Kazue Suzuki said the Japanese government had overlooked potential solutions to storing the potentially harmful water.
“The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima,” she told The Guardian.
“The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive waste. It has discounted the radiation risks and turned its back on the clear evidence that sufficient storage capacity is available on the nuclear site as well as in surrounding districts.
“The cabinet’s decision failed to protect the environment and neglected the large-scale opposition and concerns of the local Fukushima residents, as well as the neighbouring citizens around Japan.”
South Korean government minister Koo Yun-cheol slammed the plan as “absolutely unacceptable” and demanded more information from Japan about how the water will be treated, the Associated Press reported.
Chinese media and officials also railed against Japan’s decision, claiming the dump would bring severe negative impacts to marine life and plants in the East China Sea and Yellow River basins.
An official statement from Beijing labelled the decision “extremely irresponsible”, warning its neighbouring government that it “must not” release the water without approval.
“Japan has not exhausted safe disposal methods, regardless of domestic and foreign questions and opposition,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Japan must not initiate the discharge into the sea without authorisation until full consultation and agreement with various interested countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Former vice president of Guangdong Ocean University Zhu Jianzhen said claims that the ocean could self-purify itself of microscopic radioactive particles were “untenable”, insisting that currents would eventually spread the potentially harmful materials into the entire surrounding ocean.
“Unless we see this issue in the span of thousands of years, the adverse effects of the disposal in the ocean will not disappear in a short period of time – or even a few hundred years,” Zhu told the Global Times.