Japan’s plot to discharge Fukushima nuclear-contaminated wastewater into sea

Comparing Fukushima's "treated water" with a typical nuclear plant's discharge is misleading, as the "treated water" had direct contact with the melted reactor cores.

7 mins read
People attend a rally against Japan's planned ocean discharge of nuke wastewater in front of the Japanese prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, Aug. 18, 2023. (Xinhua/Zhang Xiaoyu)

Despite public concerns and raging opposition from both home and abroad, Japan started releasing nuclear-contaminated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.

The ocean discharge, which could last several decades, has been planned for a long time. The incredibly selfish act blatantly violates international law and would impact the entire world.


Three reactors melted and were destroyed when a tsunami struck Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011. The highly contaminated water produced while cooling the damaged reactors, mixed with rain and groundwater, has since accumulated in the reactor buildings.

In April 2011, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima plant, deliberately discharged nuclear-contaminated water into the sea, sparking widespread concern. In December 2011, TEPCO said it had drawn up a plan to discharge “low-concentration contaminated water” into the sea.

In March 2013, the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), a key facility for treating nuclear-contaminated water, was put into trial operation. Since then, TEPCO has referred to contaminated water treated in this multi-nuclide removal equipment as “treated water.”

The ALPS has frequently experienced malfunctions. It has failed to remove isotopes adequately, with the adsorbents used to remove radioactive isotopes being replaced less often than they were supposed to be.

As a result, 70 percent of the water in the storage tanks still contains non-tritium radionuclides at a concentration that exceeds the regulatory standards applicable for discharge into the environment.

Where does the “treated water” go eventually?

As early as December 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) set up a subcommittee to conduct technical discussions on how to dispose of the ALPS “treated water.”

In June 2016, the working group released a report stating that among the five disposal options, namely discharge into the sea, underground burial, geosphere injection, vapor release and hydrogen release, diluting the “treated water” and discharging it into the sea is found to be the cheapest method.

The report set the tone for the subsequent ocean discharge plan. However, after its release, the report was vehemently opposed by Japanese agriculture, forestry and fishery groups. Even Masayoshi Yoshino, then minister for reconstruction, expressed his opposition to discharging treated nuclear-contaminated water into the sea.

Many experts have proposed various options for proper disposal. However, METI and TEPCO have deemed the ocean discharge plan an “established policy.”

In April 2021, despite persisting opposition from home and abroad, the Japanese government announced the controversial plan to discharge nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the sea in 2023. Since then, preparations for the ocean discharge have been in full swing.

In December 2021, TEPCO submitted the ALPS “treated water” construction plan for dilution and discharge facilities. In July 2022, it was approved by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

In January, the Japanese government confirmed that the discharge would start “in the spring or summer.” On June 26, TEPCO announced the completion of the construction of the discharge system.

On July 7, the NRA issued a certificate to TEPCO showing that the facilities for the ocean discharge had passed final checks, putting the country on track to start releasing the Fukushima wastewater into the sea.


On July 4, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi presented an assessment report on the disposal of Fukushima nuclear-contaminated water to the Japanese government during his visit to Japan.

The IAEA report concluded that the discharge plan “is in conformity with the agreed international standards,” and the Japanese side claimed that the plan’s safety had been “authoritatively verified.”

However, there are multiple doubts about the report. For starters, Japan made the ocean discharge decision before commissioning the IAEA to conduct a safety assessment. Clearly, it did not aim to find a scientific and reasonable solution to the problem but to use the agency to endorse its ocean discharge plan.

Secondly, before the IAEA assessment, Japan had already started making relevant arrangements for manipulating the “certification” process.

Tokyo Shimbun reported that the Japanese government had paid a large share of costs and other payments to the IAEA in the past, and various departments of the Japanese government had sent personnel to the IAEA, which would inevitably impact the IAEA assessment of the dumping plan.

South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party lawmakers said in a meeting with Grossi on July 9 that the UN nuclear watchdog’s verification of the plan was biased in favor of Japan from the beginning, losing its neutrality and objectivity. Regrettably, the IAEA came to a hasty conclusion without considering the plan’s impact on neighboring countries.

Thirdly, the IAEA report stressed at the beginning that it does not necessarily reflect the views of IAEA member states and is not a recommendation or an endorsement of Japan’s ocean discharge plan. The IAEA and its member states are not responsible for any consequences arising from the report. The disclaimer made it evident that the report did not represent the international community’s views and did not provide evidence of the legality of Japan’s dumping proposal.

Liu Senlin, a researcher with the China Institute of Atomic Energy who participated in the IAEA’s assessment work, said the report was released hastily and lacked sufficient consultation with experts.

Liu said that the IAEA’s assessment was limited as it neither included other possible disposal options nor addressed the effectiveness and long-term reliability of the water purification system.

Li Song, China’s permanent representative to the IAEA, pointed out that the conclusions of the agency’s report are one-sided and lack credibility, failing to prove that the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea is not harmful to marine environments, food safety and public health.

Without confirmation of the data’s accuracy, equipment reliability and supervision effectiveness, it is impossible to conclude that releasing more than 1.3 million tons of nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean for up to 30 years is safe, Li added.


Having acknowledged that the ALPS cannot remove the radioactive substance of tritium from the nuclear-polluted water, TEPCO continues to assert that the impact of the substance on fish and its subsequent effect on humans through the food chain is “negligible.”

An aquatic breeding facility is set up at the crippled power plant as a platform to support this claim. Within this facility housing common flatfish found along the Fukushima coastline, one tank contains ordinary seawater, while another tank holds the treated nuclear-contaminated water, known as the “treated water.”

However, as highlighted in a report by a third-party group of experts invited by the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), TEPCO has failed to assess the “long-term impact” of radioactive tritium’s conversion to organically-bound tritium on marine ecology.

From a scientific perspective, both experts and environmental organizations are deeply skeptical about the data provided by TEPCO concerning the treatment of nuclear-contaminated water and related matters.

“The quantity and quality of the data are inadequate, incomplete and inconsistent to support a decision to release tank waters,” said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a nuclear physics expert and adjunct professor at U.S. Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Environmental protection organizations have listed various problems with TEPCO’s claims about the so-called “treated water”: Certain radioactive substances remain above acceptable levels even after the ALPS treatment. TEPCO only treated 3 percent of the stored polluted water, rendering the results non-representative. Comparing Fukushima’s “treated water” with a typical nuclear plant’s discharge is misleading, as the “treated water” had direct contact with the melted reactor cores.

Furthermore, concern is rife over TEPCO’s dark past of data manipulation and cover-ups in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. From downplaying “core meltdowns” as “core damage,” covering up new leaks of highly contaminated water into the ocean to exaggerating wastewater safety with faulty dosimeters.

“Does TEPCO have the qualifications for ocean discharge?” Naoya Sekiya from the University of Tokyo questioned, noting that issues related to management and safety have not been isolated to Fukushima alone, as other TEPCO-run nuclear power plants have also experienced problems, leading to doubts about their capability for proper disposal of the wastewater.

TEPCO and the Japanese government’s breach of trust is also evident in their flip-flopping stance. In 2015, the Japanese government and TEPCO agreed with fisheries cooperative associations of both Fukushima prefecture and the nation that they would not proceed with any wastewater disposal “without the understanding of relevant parties.”

Despite their persistent efforts over the years to persuade those in the fishing industry, the Japanese government and TEPCO have not succeeded. Yet, they ignored their own promises by pushing ahead with the ocean discharge, disregarding strong public opposition.

“Nothing will change in our opposition to the release of water into the ocean without the understanding of fishermen and the public,” said Masanobu Sakamoto, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, in a statement on Tuesday.


Facing strong domestic and international opposition to the contaminated water dumping plan, Japanese authorities have launched massive public relations campaigns to promote the water’s “safety,” which became a focal point of the country’s diplomacy.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and METI, among other departments, established special links on their official websites to propagate the safety of ALPS-treated water. Social media accounts associated with these departments prominently featured related promotional videos in multiple languages.

The decades-long discharge’s potential harm to marine environments and the fisheries industry is self-evident. However, the Japanese government and TEPCO have spared no effort in a propaganda campaign, claiming the still contaminated water is “safe” instead of focusing on reducing the contaminated water’s impact on human beings and the environment.

Advertisements have been placed on television, in newspapers and online to promote the “safety” of nuclear-contaminated water.

The country, doing everything possible to publicize the safety of the radioactive water, frequently holds press tours for diplomats and foreign journalists from various countries on the toxic water-dumping plan.

In the Japanese side’s instructions on the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea, especially in foreign language materials, the term “treated water” is generally used instead of “nuclear-contaminated water,” intended to downplay its pollution characteristics and potential hazards.

In April, Japan sought to use its Group of Seven (G7) presidency to drum up endorsement from the wealthy bloc. However, it was slammed after G7 environment and energy ministers met in the Japanese city of Sapporo.

Despite opposition, Japan included the wording — “transparent efforts based on scientific evidence” and “support for independent IAEA review” — in the final G7 statement.

Japan’s aggressive publicizing also reached Pacific Island countries, which hold a strong stance against the discharge plan. According to a recent METI report, the Japanese government has done “explanatory work” to all PIF countries and regions since February.

According to IAEA’s safety regulations regarding releasing radioactive materials into the environment, authorization for such releases should involve providing information and consulting with interested parties, including “other states, especially neighboring states.”

However, facing concerns of neighboring countries, Japan, instead of engaging in sincere communication, wantonly downplayed the release of the contaminated water and labeled other countries’ reasonable concerns about the marine environment and food safety as “playing politics.”

In July, the Chinese Embassy in Japan pointed out that Japanese statements regarding “dialogue and consultation with China” lacked sincerity, as it persisted in advancing the discharge plan according to its set schedule, disregarding China’s position.

The discharge of Fukushima nuclear-contaminated wastewater is not merely a domestic matter for Japan but a global concern impacting oceanic environments and human health. By ignoring international objections, reneging on international obligations, and forcefully proceeding with the discharge, the Japanese government poses threats to the environment and the legitimate rights of neighboring countries.

History cannot be undone, and its repercussions are enduring. Japan’s selfish actions and shameful attempts to shift blame will undoubtedly stain its reputation.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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