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Japan's plan to dump Fukushima water into sea raises alarm

Local fishermen fear release will raise concerns and devastate industry

Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings expects the wastewater storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to run out of capacity around 2022. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- As the Japanese government considers releasing contaminated water from the disaster-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the environment, it is reckoning with safety fears that could hamstring local fishers and farmers who have struggled since the 2011 meltdowns.

A Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry committee came out with a draft report Monday including three proposals for disposing of the water: discharging it into the Pacific Ocean, evaporating it into the atmosphere, or a combination of both. The water has been filtered to remove much of the radioactive content and would undergo further treatment before release.

The committee ruled out other possibilities, such as underground storage, that lack track records of success. At the meeting, members stressed the importance of selecting proven methods and said the government should make clear that releasing the water would have a significant social impact.

That experts have yet to come up with a conclusive answer to the disposal question after six years of discussion comes down to deep-seated fears, particularly in Fukushima Prefecture, about the reputational damage a release could cause. Fish catches in the prefecture already sit at less than a fifth of pre-accident levels now, well over eight years after the meltdowns, amid lingering safety concerns.

Releasing treated water into the ocean would do "immeasurable damage" to a fishing sector that has tried hard to get back to work, an industry source in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki said.

The evaporation proposal has fueled similar worries in farming and ranching circles, according to a source in the rice-growing business.

"The central government should understand the situation on the ground" and thoroughly consider its response, the source said.

Reactions in the international community are a factor as well, particularly with the Olympics coming up in Tokyo next summer. South Korea has already raised concerns about Japan's handling of the wastewater.

The committee's report said the government should be responsible for choosing a start date for the disposal, after accounting for public perception of the risks and hearing the views of those who would be affected.

The water contains tritium, which cannot be effectively removed with current technology. Tritium occurs in nature and emits relatively weak levels of radiation, and so-called tritiated water is routinely discharged from nuclear plants into the ocean by Japan and other countries.

METI estimates that neither evaporation nor ocean release will expose locals to radiation levels high enough to cause concern.

Discharging the water into the Pacific is generally seen by experts as the most logical option. Evaporation was successfully used for cleanup after the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in the U.S. But releasing water into the sea would cost less and, by ministry estimates, cut radiation exposure by more than half compared with evaporation.

The government is running out of time to make a decision. The roughly 1,000 tanks on the Fukushima Daiichi site held 1.18 million tons of water as of Dec. 12, not far from the total capacity of 1.37 million. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings expects to run out of space around 2022.

Even before then, the most important task in decommissioning the plant -- removing spent nuclear fuel -- is set to begin in 2021 at reactor No. 2. The tanks take up space that will be needed for this work.

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