TOKYO -- Japan on Tuesday finalized a decision to discharge wastewater from the disaster-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea as the accumulation of on-site storage tanks threatens to interfere with decommissioning efforts.
Cabinet members and other officials from relevant agencies gave the plan the go-ahead in a meeting at the prime minister's office. The move drew swift rebukes from neighbors South Korea and China, while the U.S. voiced support for the solution.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, "We have no choice but to take on the wastewater issue, as we need to proceed with decommissioning of the nuclear reactors." He added that the government will do all it can to ensure the safety of the treated water and to avoid possible reputational damage from the release.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings will be encouraged to start releasing the water in about two years under the basic guidelines approved at the meeting.
Water will be discharged only after the Nuclear Regulation Authority gives the green light. The government will also bolster efforts to monitor the quality of seawater and prevent reputational damage in the surrounding areas.
Fukushima Daiichi suffered core meltdowns from the deadly earthquake and tsunami that hit eastern Japan in March 2011. Cooling the plant's reactors to prevent further damage produces large amounts of heavily contaminated wastewater.
Though Tepco removes key radioactive contaminants before storing the water in tanks, the process cannot remove tritium -- a radioactive form of hydrogen. More than 1,000 tanks now hold still-tainted wastewater at Fukushima Daiichi, and removal is considered a key step toward fully decommissioning the idled plant.
Tritium-containing water is routinely released into the ocean by nuclear facilities around the world. The guidelines call for the treated water to be diluted with at least 100 equal volumes of seawater before being discharged into the ocean. That way, the tritium is diluted to a seventh of the limit recommended in drinking water by the World Health Organization's guidelines.
The volume of tritium wastewater released into the sea within a one-year period will be less than the target amount set by the Daiichi nuclear plant before the accident.
The government and Tepco will step up tritium monitoring at fishing grounds and beaches. The agricultural, forestry and fisheries sector will participate in collecting and testing samples, as will members of local governments.
A committee of experts on the marine environment will vet the monitoring process and provide guidance.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the NRA have expressed the view that releasing tritium wastewater into the ocean is scientifically sound and does not pose environmental issues. But consumers could still shun products from areas near where the wastewater is discharged.
The government and Tepco will help Fukushima and surrounding prefectures expand sales channels for marine and other food products, both at home and abroad.
Tuesday's guidelines also require Tepco to quickly and appropriately provide compensation when reputations are harmed by the release of wastewater.
The government will launch a new cabinet-level dialogue to identify and address the move's potential impact on area fisheries, for example.
Japan will also need to seek understanding from neighboring China and South Korea, which strongly oppose the release of the wastewater and reiterated their positions on Tuesday.
Koo Yoon-cheol, the head of Seoul's Office for Government Policy Coordination, expressed "strong regret" over the decision, as the South Korean government convened an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.
In the run-up to the decision, South Korean citizens' groups and media commentary argued releasing the water would be dangerous. Jeju Province's governor has threatened to take Japan to international court if it presses ahead with the release plan.
South Korea -- whose own nuclear energy industry routinely releases treated wastewater into the ocean -- has long urged Japan to share information in advance.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Tuesday calling the decision "extremely irresponsible," and saying it reserves the right to make a further response.
Last Friday, ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Japan should "disclose relevant information in a voluntary, timely, strict, accurate, open and transparent manner, and make prudent decisions after full consultation with neighboring countries."
Both China and South Korea have barred imports of foods from parts of Japan. Taiwan also voiced concern over the decision on Tuesday.
On the other hand, the U.S. State Department backed Japan's handling of the water and downplayed any safety worries.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," spokesman Ned Price said in a statement after the decision was announced.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on Tuesday insisted that Tokyo has indeed been open with its neighbors.
"We have provided information to the IAEA and to the diplomatic corps, and also to the international community including China and Korea," he said, stressing there is still time to ensure safety. "We will follow international laws and regulations. An effort will be made to solicit understanding from the international community and avoid harmful rumors."