But perhaps even more worrying, Japan is setting a precedent for other governments that might be even less transparent. This is dangerous, particularly in Asia, where more than 140 nuclear power reactors are already in operation and, led by growth in China and India, dozens more are either being built, are in the planning stages or have been proposed. If Japan, a globally respected cultural and economic force, can get away with dumping radioactive water, what’s to stop other countries?
There’s no denying that Japan and Tepco are in a bind over what to do with the byproducts of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. Melted nuclear fuel debris inside the damaged reactors is being cooled by pumped-in water, which comes into contact with a toxic cocktail of radioactive substances known as radionuclides. To this is added approximately 100 tons of groundwater and rainwater, which leak into the reactor buildings each day and also become contaminated. All of the water is sent through a powerful filtration system to remove much of the radioactivity and is stored on-site in more than 1,000 giant steel tanks. But the amount of water is constantly growing, and Tepco has repeatedly warned that it is running out of storage space at Fukushima.
I have researched or written about Fukushima and affected communities ever since the disaster and have closely followed the official response. As early as 2013, the I.A.E.A. began advising Tepco to consider discharging the water into the sea. The government also looked at other options, such as releasing the water into the air as vapor or injecting it deep underground. But numerous experts and environmental groups have complained that there has been a consistent lack of sufficient public input and that some viable alternatives, such as long-term storage in more robust tanks, were not seriously evaluated. Despite opposition from many Japanese citizens, the country’s fisheries association, and neighbors like South Korea and China, the government announced in April 2021 that it had decided on releasing the water into the ocean.
Public hearings, some of which I attended, were held before and after the final decision, but these seemed more about selling the ocean release option than about giving the public a say. It was only months after the decision was announced that a radiological environmental impact assessment — conducted by Tepco — was finally released. When Tepco called for public comments for the study, some experts pointed out troubling information gaps, such as the lack of a full inventory of what radioactive elements remained in the tanks. There is no evidence that serious efforts were made to address some of these issues.
Involving local residents, civil society groups, technical experts and — when necessary — neighboring nations in decision-making can lead to notable successes. In choosing the site of a long-term repository for low-level radioactive waste, Belgian regulators in 1998 gave decision-making power to a broad cross-section of public and private stakeholders. In the end, two neighboring towns actually competed to be the site, and in 2006 a proposal by the municipality of Dessel was approved. After years of study and environmental approvals, a final permit was issued this year. Similar processes have been followed in Finland and Sweden.