Why is Japan allowing the Fukushima plant to release radioactive wastewater into the sea?

ITV News' Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports on the issue, with words by Multimedia Producer James Gray

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant started releasing radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.

A live video from a control room at the plant showed a Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings staff member turn on a seawater pump with a click of a mouse.

Releasing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive water has split opinions across Japan and among its neighbours, with angry protests on potential food and environmental safety impacts.

China has banned seafood from Japan following the first release and one English language Chinese newspaper raised concerns it would cause a "real-life Godzilla".

A protester holds a sign which reads "Do not discharge the wastewater into the sea". Credit: AP

However, Tokyo has argued the move is needed to help alleviate issues created by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami from 12 years ago.

Here, ITV News breaks down the story and explores the arguments both for and against the plans.

Where is the Fukushima plant?

The nuclear power plant itself is located in eastern Japan near the towns of Okuma and Futaba, in the Fukushima Prefecture. It is more than 250km north of Tokyo.

How is the radioactive wastewater being released?

Japan's government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) - the company which operates the Fukuhsima Daiichi plant - said the wastewater is being treated and then diluted with seawater to levels safer than international standards before it is released.

At 4am on Thursday “Seawater Pump A activated," the main operator said, confirming the release was underway, this was confirmed at 4am.

TEPCO said an additional wastewater release pump was activated 20 minutes after the first.

Plant officials said everything was moving smoothly so far.

Why is radioactive wastewater being released?

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the release of radioactive wastewater is a key step in both the decommission process of the plant and Fukushima prefecture's recovery from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

On March 11, 2011, the combination of the two natural disasters destroyed the plant's cooling systems, causing three of its reactors to melt and contaminating its cooling water.

Ever since, 1.34 million tonnes of water has been collected, filtered and stored in around 1,000 tanks, which fill much of the plant's grounds. These are predicted to reach their capacity by early 2024.

TEPCO and the Japanese government have said the water must be removed to make room for the plant's decommissioning and to prevent accidental leaks.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant site is estimated to contain 1,000 tanks of radioactive wastewater. Credit: AP

How much radioactive wastewater is being released?

TEPCO executive Junichi Matsumoto said the company plans to discharge 7,800 tonnes of treated water in the first round of the release, which is slated to last 17 days.

He explained the idea is not to rush the process and minimise any environmental impact.

By the end of March 2024, TEPCO aims to have have released 31,200 tonnes of treated water, which would equate to emptying 10 of the estimated 1,000 tanks at the site.

How long will it take to decommission the Fukushima plant?

Japan's government estimates it will be decades before the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been completely decommissioned.

What precautions have been taken?

Prime Minister Kishida said the government has done everything for now to ensure the plan's safety, protect the reputation of Japan's fishing industry and clearly explain the scientific basis of the move.

"The government will take responsibility until the disposal of ALPS [Advanced Liquid Processing System] treated water is completed, even if it takes several decades," he said.

Seawater and marine life, where the radioactive wastewater is released, will be regularly tested and the results will be disclosed on both the government and TEPCO websites.

In July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded in its final report that the release, if conducted as designed, will cause negligible impact on the environment and human health.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the country's government has done everything to ensure the plan's safety. Credit: AP

After taking into account possible bioconcentration of low-dose radionuclides that remain in the water, the environmental and health impact is still negligible, TEPCO officials said.

The IAEA's Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, has confirmed that a United Nations (UN) agency office, which was opened at the plant in July, will continue to monitor the water release so to remain consistent with safety standards.

The group said it will publish real-time monitoring data and other information as and when applicable.

Scientists generally support the view of the IAEA, but some have argued the long-term impact of low-dose radioactivity that remains in the water will need further monitoring.

Who has opposed the plans?

Domestically, the proposals have faced backlash from Japan's fishing industries, which fear what long-term damage could be inflicted on marine life by the move.

To help sooth tensions, the Japanese government has pledged to protect the fishing industry's reputation until the release ends.

Prime Minister Kishida has also offered funding worth a total of 80 billion yen (£430 million) to aid promotional sales and sustainable fishing operations.

Regardless, Masanobu Sakamoto, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, has reiterated his organisation's opposition.

Japan's fishing industry has stated its opposition to the plans. Credit: AP

He said: "Scientific safety and the sense of safety are different. Even if it's safe, reputational damage occurs."

China, meanwhile, has banned seafood from Japan, its custom 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.”

Hong Kong and Macau have also announced they are banning products from Fukushima and nine other prefectures in response to the plans.

One Chinese newspaper, Global Times wrote the release "may become a landmine threatening the ecological environment of the world and the fears of real-life Godzilla among the public worldwide".

A member of a Seoul environmental group holds a mock fish during a rally to demand the stop of the Japanese government's decision. Credit: AP

In South Korea, which neighbours Japan to the West, the plans have also faced backlash.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has offered his endorsement to the proposals, but many residents have called for them to be abandoned altogether.

Earlier in August, hundreds of demonstrators marched in Seoul to voice their disapproval over food and environmental safety concerns.

International observers view President Yoon's decision as part of a wider strategy to grow ties between South Korea and Japan in the face of growing aggression from North Korea.

Park Ku-yeon, first vice minister of South Korea's Office for Government Policy Coordination, has said South Korea can request that Japan immediately stop the discharge if its government believes it has veered away from the agreed strategy.

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