Japan will soon unleash radioactive water from Fukushima into the sea. How concerned ought we to be?

Japan is set to release treated radioactive water into the ocean after receiving approval from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog for a controversial plan 12 years after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. The plan has been in the works for years, with the environment minister declaring in 2019 that there were "no other options" as space runs out to contain the contaminated material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, Rafael Grossi, arrived in Japan to visit Fukushima and present the UN body's safety review to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The plan involves releasing treated wastewater into the ocean, which contains some dangerous elements but cannot be removed from the water. The real issue is the hydrogen isotope called radioactive tritium, which cannot be taken away. Japan's government and the IAEA argue that the contaminated water will be highly diluted and released slowly over decades, meaning the concentration of tritium being released would be on par or lower than the amount other countries allow, and meet international safety and environmental regulations. The plan involves treating the wastewater to filter out all removable harmful elements, then storing it in tanks and analyzing it to measure how radioactive it still is. Much of it will be treated a second time, according to TEPCO. The wastewater will then be diluted to 1,500 becquerels of tritium – a unit of radioactivity – per liter of clean water. For comparison, Japan's regulatory limit allows a maximum of 60,000 becquerels per liter. The diluted water will then be released through an undersea tunnel off the coast, into the Pacific Ocean. Third parties including the IAEA will monitor the discharge during and after its release. The plan has met mixed reactions from some corners, with support from some corners and skepticism from others. The US has backed Japan, with the State Department saying in a 2021 statement that Japan had been "transparent about its decision" and seems to be following "globally accepted nuclear safety standards." Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council said the amount of tritium being released is estimated to be "below the detection limit, and the impact on Taiwan will be minimal." Many bodies, including the IAEA, point out that nuclear plants around the world routinely and safely release treated wastewater containing low levels of tritium. The US' Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed that virtually all nuclear plants in the US discharge water containing low levels of radioactivity to the waterway on which they are located.


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