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Politics

Japan faces tough call on releasing Fukushima wastewater

Reputational fallout looms large over Olympics and local fishermen

Workers stand near storage tanks holding radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Japanese government may need to make a decision regarding its fate as early as this summer.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is dragging its feet on the growing cache of radioactive water from the defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, concerned about the optics ahead of the Summer Olympics here.

Contaminated water from the Fukushima plant can be realistically disposed of only via discharge into the ocean or evaporation into the air, a panel under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry agreed Friday after six years of deliberations. It suggested that the first option would be better but stopped short of making a firm recommendation.

Around 1.18 million tons of contaminated water were being held in tanks on-site as of December. The planned maximum storage capacity of 1.37 million tons will be reached around the summer of 2022, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings estimates.

The water has been filtered for key radioactive materials. But it still contains certain isotopes like tritium that are difficult to remove, and the government worries that releasing it could hurt the area's public image.

The government considered five ways to dispose of the water, all with drawbacks. More cautious experts also clashed with bureaucrats desperate to act.

In a compromise, they issued a report whittling down the options to two while stressing that ocean discharge is more feasible. This method has been employed both in Japan and abroad, while the evaporation method has been used at only the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the U.S. Evaporation could also affect more industries, the report says.

"There should be no delays to decommissioning the plant," said panel head Ichiro Yamamoto, a professor at the Nagoya University of Arts and Sciences, on Friday. The report stresses the need to dispose of the water before decommissioning efforts are completed in three to four decades but did not say when disposal needs to begin.

The government will now hold hearings with involved parties. "We haven't decided" whom to talk to or when a final decision will be made, a METI source said.

Fukushima's fishing sector is particularly concerned about further blows to its image, given that its annual catch is still less than 15% of what it was before the 2011 accident. The report calls for greater efforts to prevent reputational harm, but few good options are on the table.

The Olympics complicate the issue further, with South Korea voicing concerns over the Fukushima wastewater to the international community.

Even after the government figures out what to do, "it will take at least two years to prepare," according to Toyoshi Fuketa, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority. It could be forced to make a decision as early as this summer should it opt not to expand storage capacity.

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