water barrels contained at fukushima power plant

Final safety inspection begins at Fukushima before treated wastewater is released

Image credit: reuters

Japanese regulators have begun the final inspection before treated radioactive wastewater is released from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean.

The inspection at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant began today (Wednesday), one day after the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco) had installed the last piece of equipment needed for the release – namely, the outlet of the undersea tunnel dug to discharge the wastewater one kilometre offshore.

Tepco said the Nuclear Regulation Authority inspectors were to examine the equipment related to the treated water transfer and its safety systems as part of their three-day inspection from today until Friday.

The permit for releasing the water could be issued around one week later, allowing Tepco to start discharging the water soon after, although an exact date has not yet been decided.

The plan has faced fierce protests from local fishing groups concerned about safety and reputational damage.

In 2015, the Japanese government and Tepco promised not to release the water without consent from the fishing community, but many in the fishing community say the plan was pushed through regardless.

Neighbouring South Korea, China and some Pacific Island nations have also raised safety concerns.

Chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Wednesday that the government “abides by its policy of not carrying out a release without the understanding” of fishing groups in Fukushima.

He said the government will continue to communicate closely with them and others involved, while ensuring safety and addressing the issue of reputational damage. Fishing groups fear the wastewater release will cause consumers to stop buying seafood from the area.

Government and utility officials say the wastewater, currently stored in approximately 1,000 tanks at the plant, must be removed to prevent any accidental leaks and to make room for the plant’s decommissioning.

They say the treated but still slightly radioactive water will be diluted to levels safer than international standards and will be released gradually into the ocean over decades, making it harmless to people and marine life.

Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to radionuclides is unknown and the release should be delayed. Others say the release plan is safe but call for more transparency, including allowing outside scientists to join in sampling and monitoring the release.

According to the findings of a research project, released in October 2021, animals living in the area near the damaged nuclear power plant are reportedly not suffering any adverse health effects, despite being exposed to high levels of radiation.

Japan has sought support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to gain credibility and ensure that safety measures meet international standards.

IAEA has dispatched several missions to Japan since early 2022, and its final evaluation report is expected soon, although the organisation has no authority to actually stop the plan.

IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to visit Japan in early July to meet Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and visit the plant.

In January this year, the Japanese government approved the plans to start releasing the 1.5 million tonnes of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean.

Last year, the ongoing and wildly expensive clean-up operation was postponed by robot development delays. The removal of highly radioactive melted fuel from Fukushima’s damaged reactors had to be postponed due to delays in the development of a remote-controlled robotic arm. Tepco had originally planned to begin removing melted fuel from the Unit 2 reactor at the plant in 2021, 10 years after the disaster.

A massive earthquake and the resulting tsunami on March 11 2011 destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and their cooling water to be contaminated and leak continuously.

The contaminated water has been collected, treated and stored in the tanks, which will reach their capacity in early 2024.

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