Fukushima Radioactive Water Should Be Released Into the Sea, Experts Tell Japanese Government

Officials should release treated water from the Fukushima power plant into either the ocean or into the air. That is the advice an expert panel offered the Japanese government on Friday after more than three years of deliberation, the AFP reported.

There is an increasing sense of urgency over what to do with the radioactive water as space at the plant is running out. The water is currently being housed in a thousand tanks, and while more are being built, it is thought that even these will be filled by the end of 2022.

According to the AFP, the panel describes releasing water into the sea or the air (via vaporization) as "realistic options."

Before the water is released into the environment, it will have been filtered so that it only contains the radioactive chemical tritium.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), tritium is "a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen that is produced in the atmosphere when cosmic rays collide with air molecules."

Small traces can be found in groundwater as background radiation. Tritium is also a byproduct of nuclear power production. It is associated with an increased risk of cancer, but the extent of this increase depends on the measure of the chemical an individual is exposed to.

Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., told Newsweek releasing the water into the sea is the "most sensible option for disposal," provided the appropriate checks have taken place.

"As long as the tritium-contaminated water is properly diluted in seawater, it will present no risk of significant accumulation in marine organisms," he said.

"Tritium is a very weak emitter of beta radiation and it would take extremely high concentrations to cause potential health effects to marine organisms or people."

"Other countries worldwide, including the UK and France, have in the past released relatively large amounts of tritium to the marine system with no evidence of significant environmental impacts."

The proposal announced today is non-binding—the panel only plays an advisory role. The final decision of what to do with the wastewater rests with the Japanese government, which the panel hopes will "make a decision with a sense of responsibility and determination".

A spokesperson from the Nuclear Accident Response Office at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry told Newsweek the draft is due to be finalized within a few weeks after it has been revised to reflect the opinions from the panel's members.

According to the AFP, there is no deadline for a decision to be made and there is no indication of when the government will confirm whether or not to release the water. However, no announcement is expected before the summer, when the country's capital, Tokyo, hosts the Olympic games.

In the meantime, officials are expected to discuss the matter with local authorities and fishers, who have expressed concern over the release of wastewater into nearby oceans.

Fukushima Power Plant
An employee shows a dosemeter as he measures radiation in front of the Unit 2 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (Tepco) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on January 29, 2020 in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Experts are advising the Japanese government to release filtered water from the plant as storage space runs out. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

The advice follows a meeting in December 2019, which discussed the possibility of discharging radioactive water into the sea or air after it had been treated.

"There is no option (any longer) of simply storing the water for a long period of time," an agency official told the AFP at the time.

A decision was not made but officials said no members of the agency declared any opposition to proposals to discharge water into the sea or air.

Tsunami, 2011 Japan
A man looks across tsunami devastation in Minamisoma city, Fukushima prefecture on March 12, 2011. The tsunami triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty

The Fukushima disaster took place in 2011, when a nuclear plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was hit by a tsunami. This triggered a meltdown, affecting three of the plant's reactors.

More recently, government officials have started allowing humans back into the zone and reintroduced farming. Meanwhile, research published this year found wildlife is thriving in the area around the disaster site in the absence of humans.

This article has been updated to include comments from Prof. Jim Smith.