The operators of Japan's stricken Fukushima power plant have finally started discharging treated wastewater, after months of furious diplomacy to woo concerned parties and staunch opposition from local fishers and some regional neighbours.
- TEPCO will start discharging relatively small amounts, releasing 30 storage tanks worthby April
- Experts say the levels of radioactivity areextremely low and the plan is safe
- But Pacific activists called on the UN to interveneon human rights grounds
In a live video from a control room at the plant,a staff member turns on a seawater pump with a click of a mouse.
"Seawater Pump A activated," the main operator said. Anadditional wastewater release pump was activated 20 minutes after the first, and plant officials said everything was moving smoothly so far.
There are some 1.4 million tonnes of wastewater stored in large containers, which had been used to cool three melted nuclear reactors destroyed when a powerful tsunami struck the region in 2011.
The plant's operators, TEPCO, have stated it was running out of room, and needed to discharge the water to allow the clean-up to continue.
TEPCO will start discharging relatively small amounts, releasing 30 storage tanks worthby April. There are 1,020 tanks holding the treated water on site to be released over 30 years.
Some 500,000 litres-a-day of treated wastewater will eventually be discharged into the Pacific Ocean, through an underwater pipe that extends a kilometre from the Japanese mainland.
Japanese authorities have vowed the water will not harm the health of local people, marine life, or the environment, which will be released only after passing through an intense filtration system and verified as safe.
It secured the backing if the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which stated the plan met international norms and environmental damage would be "negligible", after a two-year investigation.
But the Japanese government has been unable to convince local fishermen, who hold grave fears about reputational damage.
The Japanese public remained mixed about the discharge, with a recent poll showing just over half of Japan's residents, 53 per cent, support the move, while 41 per cent said no.
Seventy-five per cent of respondents said the government had not done enough to prevent reputational damage.
Fishers have accused TEPCO of breaking a promise in 2015 that it would not "will not dispose of [treated water]without gaining the understanding of those concerned".
"Even though it is scientifically safe, the reputation damage [to local business] remains," the head of the Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, Masanobu Sakamoto, said this week.
Environmental activists have also launched a last-ditch complaint to the UN's Human Rights commission.
What's the science behind it?
An intense filtration system, known as ALPS, removes harmful radioactive materials, except a form of radioactive form of hydrogen called tritium, which cannot be removed.
The water is then heavily diluted, so the amount of tritium falls well within "safe" drinking standards determined by the World Health Organisation.
Specifically, authorities state the water will contain about 190 becquerels of tritium per litre, far below the drinking water limit of 10,000. A becquerel is a measurement of radioactive activity.
Tritiated water, as it's known, is commonly released from nuclear power plants across the world.
"This is safe," said Tony Hooker, director of the Centre for Radiation Research at the University of Adelaide.
"We have not seen any environmental or human health effects from these previous tritium releases and the tritium releases from other nuclear facilities around the world are much, much higher than what the Japanese will release.
"There will be trace elements of other radionuclides but they're well below any regulatory limit."
Australian scientist Nigel Marks from Curtin University agreed the plan was safe, saying thelarge volume of water —enough to fill 500 Olympic swimming pools —had "extremely low levels of radioactivity" and wasn't much greater than what wasalready found in the environment.
"There is about threegrams of pure tritium in that very large volume of water, so most of the water is just plain regular water that we would normally drink or swim in," he told the ABC.
"It is radioactive — there'sno denying that — but it's at such low levels that it won't hurt the fish that swim near that outlet point, it willbe perfectly safe to eat the fish. It'll have no discernible effect whatsoever anywhere in the world.
"It's the kind of thing thatsounds wrong, but it's actually very safe."
TEPCO has vowed to provide real time data on their website, and a safety shut-off valve will kick in if any abnormalities are detected.
The IAEA vowed to continue monitoring the release, which is expected to take 30 to 40 years.
China slams plan as 'selfish'
China has led a campaign against the release, calling it "extremely selfish and irresponsible", and imposing somefood import bans.
Chinahas banned all imports of all aquatic products originating from Japan, customs authorities said in a statement.
"We will continue to pay attention to the situation of the discharge of nuclear contaminated water into the sea in Japan, and adjust relevant regulatory measures," they added.
But associate professor Marks pointed out China has its own nuclear industry and has also released tritium into the water for similar reasons to Japan.
"I would see the interactions between China and Japan through a political lens rather than a scientific one," he said.
But there are mixed views across the Indo-Pacific.
South Korea, which is trying to mend thorny historical differences with Japan, has said it neither opposes nor endorses the discharge, but accepted it was within "international standards" and it held no scientific concerns.
Some Pacific Island nations have opposed the water release, citing concerns about the threat to the marine environment and public health.
Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Henry Puna acknowledged the "divergent views" on the issue among the Pacific leaders, but said he had been given assurances by Japan's prime minister that the release would not take place until the water was safe.
"That's a commitment that our leaders I'm sure we will be holding Japan to, should anything go wrong," he said.
"We've done our best to get Japan not to commence a dischargeuntil there is full agreement that it's verifiably safe to do so. But Japan has taken a sovereign position. And that point is now past."
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australia "has confidence in the process that has led to the decision by Japan to release the treated water".
Pacific activists called on UN to halt release
Meanwhile, civil society groups have made a last-minute attempt to halt the plan, calling on the United Nations Human Rights Committee to urgently intervene.
The Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) wrote to the UNHRC, saying the water release risks violating Pacific people's human rights.
PANG coordinator Maureen Penjueli said she was particularly concerned about the right to a healthy environment and the rights of future generations in the Pacific.
"It will affect the livelihoods of our people, our cultural practices," she said.
"We would like the [UN] special rapporteurs to put out a call to effectively put a halt to Japan's decision until all of the matters raised in the complaint, as well as the viable alternatives have been fully exhausted."
A spokesperson for the special rapporteur on toxics and human rights told the ABC they would carefully consider requests for new communications.
"Several special rapporteurs have written to Japan repeatedly raising concerns about the discharge of Fukushima waters to the Pacific Ocean," they said.
Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Matai Seremaiah has also urgedmembers of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, who are meeting in Vanuatu's capitalPort Vila,to denounce Japan's plan.
Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has previously backed the release, as has Palau's Prime Minister Surangel Whipps Jr.
"They're not releasing the treated water in Palau, they're not releasing it in Fiji, they're releasing it right off their shores — one mile off their shores," MrWhipps Jrtold ABC's The Pacific program.
The Pacific region has suffered ongoing consequences of nuclear testing by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in the mid-to-late 1900s.
However, Prime Minister Brown has previously stated that the Fukushima discharge would not violate regional anti-nuclear treaties, because it will be a controlled release.
There have also been calls to store the water underground, something Japan said would be far too expensive.
Dame Meg Taylor, the former secretary general to the Pacific Islands Forum and member of Pacific Elders Voice, has questioned why the water can't be released into Japan's lakes rather than the Pacific Ocean, if it's safe.
She said assurances from the IAEA did not change her mind.
"And I don't think it changes the minds of many, many Pacific Islanders, particularly young people, because it's about their future," she said.
Additional reporting by Mackenzie Smith