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South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party lawmakers and party members hold placards reading, "We oppose the dumping of Fukushima contaminated water into the sea," during a rally against Japan's plan to release treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant, at the National Assembly in Seoul on 7 July 2023. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

South Korean Officials Green Light Plan to Release Fukushima Wastewater into the Pacific Ocean

South Korean officials pledged their support on Friday for a controversial plan to release wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station into the Pacific Ocean.

The decision to support the plan came after nearly two years of scientific reviews and assessments from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which found that releasing the wastewater would pose “negligible environmental and health impacts” and meet international safety standards, the Associated Press reports.

Despite these assessments, however, critics maintain that there are still uncertainties about the effects of the wastewater on the ocean and marine life, according to Nature. This is because the waste will contain carbon-14 and tritium—a β-radiation emitter, which can damage DNA—even after it has been treated for discharge.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) says “fishing is not routinely conducted in an area within 3 kilometers of where the pipeline will discharge the water,” Nature reports. But scientists are “concerned the tritium could concentrate in the food web as larger organisms eat smaller contaminated ones.”

South Korean Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, who lost the 2022 presidential election and faces accusations of property graft, has also been vocal in his opposition to the plan that current South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has supported to release the wastewater into the ocean.

“(Yoon’s government) is putting the lives and safety of its citizens on the line,” Lee said in a report from the AP.

The Disaster

On 11 March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake created a tsunami off the coast of Japan that caused damage to the electric power supply lines and operational and safety infrastructure of the Fukushima plant.

“Despite the efforts of the operators at [Fukushima] to maintain control, the reactor cores in Unite 1, 2, and 3 overheated, the nuclear fuel melted, and the three containment vessels were breached,” according to the IAEA.

“Hydrogen was released from the reactor pressure vessels, leading to explosions inside the reactor buildings in Units 1, 3, and 4, that damaged structures and equipment and injured personnel. Radionuclides were released from the plant to the atmosphere and were deposited on land and on the ocean. There were also direct releases into the sea. People within a radius of 20 kilometers of the site and in other designated areas were evacuated, and those within a radius of 20-30 kilometers were instructed to shelter before later being advised to voluntarily evacuate. Restrictions were placed on the distribution and consumption of food and the consumption of drinking water.”

More than ten years after the disaster, the landscape around Fukushima remains forever changed. Some of the villages and towns within the original evacuation zone have not reopened, while a massive sea wall was built on the coastline to attempt to prevent future tsunamis overwhelming the plant.

The Containment

After initial containment of the disaster, Fukushima personnel still needed to cool the plants fuel debris to keep the reactor in a stable condition. This is done by using groundwater, which becomes contaminated and is stored on site in more than 1,000 special tanks.

TEPCO has since developed a procedure—called the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS)—to remove radioactive contamination from the water, as well as reduce the amount of contaminated water created each day. The ALPS process removes 62 radionuclides from the water but does not remove all radioactive material or any tritium, the IAEA says.

This process has helped maintain stability at the plant, but Fukushima is slowly running out of space to store the contaminated wastewater. The AP reports that TEPCO assesses that it will reach capacity to store the wastewater in early 2024.

The Discharge Plan

This predicament of running out of storage containment space led officials to begin studying in 2013 how they might dispose of or release the wastewater, releasing a report in February 2020 for independent review by the IAEA.

“The report concluded that, of the five disposal methods analyzed in detail (out of many more theoretical options considered), vapor release and controlled discharges into the sea were the most practical options taking into account safety concerns, the existing technology available, and time constraints,” according to the IAEA. “The report also concluded that discharge into the sea could be ‘implemented more reliably, with respect to mitigating environmental and human health impacts, given that this discharge method is commonly used among nuclear plants around the world; discharge facilities have positive track records for safety; and controlled discharges into the sea can be monitored most accurately.’”

These discharges would only be released after the wastewater is mixed with seawater in a controlled system, diluting the wastewater more than 350 times before it is released into the Pacific Ocean during a 30- to 40-year period. The IAEA conducted its own review of the report’s plan and found that it is consistent with IAEA Safety Standards.

“The IAEA notes the controlled, gradual discharges of the treated water to the sea, as currently planned and assessed by TEPCO, would have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi in a press release issued Friday.

To provide additional transparency into the wastewater release process, the IAEA also plans to display on its website ALPS treated water flow rates, seawater flow rates for dilution, online radiation monitors at multiple locations, and concentration of tritium after dilution rates.

“This will ensure the relevant safety standards continue to be applied throughout the decades-long process laid out by the government of Japan and TEPCO,” Gross wrote in the forward of the IAEA’s assessment. “By doing so, the IAEA will continue to provide transparency to the international community making it possible for all stakeholders to rely on verified fact and science to inform their understanding of this matter throughout the process.”

While South Korea has officially committed its support to the release plan, Japan is likely to face opposition from China since it previously called the discharge “extremely irresponsible,” The Guardian reports.

China “reiterated its opposition on Tuesday, calling for the discharge to be suspended,” according to The Guardian. “Through its embassy in Japan, China said the IAEA’s report should not be interpreted as a ‘pass’ for the water release.”