Written by: Layne Gebert
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off Japan’s eastern coast. Though the quake was not heavily felt on land, the tectonic shift generated a massive tsunami with a 15-meter-high wave, leaving carnage in its wake throughout the Tohoku region. In addition to the human and economic cost of the disaster, the wave critically damaged the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 all began to melt down, releasing vast amounts of radiation into the surrounding area. This threefold event of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown became infamously known as the 3/11 disaster in Japan. Approximately 22,000 people died, and 3,700 deaths were directly attributed to the nuclear incident despite a mass evacuation. This toll marks the Fukushima meltdown as the worst nuclear accident since Chornobyl.
Although this disastrous event occurred more than 12 years ago, it still remains relevant in Japanese and international discourse. On this year’s anniversary of the 3/11 disaster, Japan announced its plans to release 1 million tons of formerly contaminated water into the sea. Following the meltdown, the Fukushima plant began using water to cool down the reactors. This method of cooling continues to create 130 tons of contaminated water daily. Water is collected, treated and stored throughout the facility’s 1000 tanks. However, the water tanks are at 96 percent capacity, and the treated water must be addressed in order to continue purifying the contaminated samples. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima plant, has recently announced that it plans to release this treated water by late spring of 2023, and the plant will do this via a 1-kilometer undersea tunnel.
TEPCO has maintained that the treated water is reduced to harmless radioactive levels. Tests on the water prove that it contains safe, diluted levels of radioactive isotopes. However, the samples retain large concentrations of tritium, a radionuclide that is hard to remove from water. Nevertheless, tritium is only harmful to humans and wildlife if exposed in large quantities, and experts attest that the levels are benign. Moreover, the plan has been approved by the Japanese government, since the wastewater is filtered to meet the legally required radioactivity limits and standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. TEPCO has repeatedly assured that their plan will not contaminate the local human population or the natural ecosystem.
In reaction to the announcement, numerous groups have met the plan with resistance. Most notably, the Fukushima fishing industry has mounted considerable resistance to the plan. After the 3/11 disaster, fish prices plummeted in the international market due to fear of nuclear contamination. A decade later, fish prices have finally risen to pre-disaster levels. Now, they are being threatened by the release of treated water. Although there would be little to no measurable effect on the fish, the legitimacy of Japanese fish harvests– a large portion of the country’s GDP– would likely be hurt. Additionally, the international community has raised concerns about the plan. South Korea and China have publicly voiced their resistance and cite concerns about oceanic safety. A myriad of environmental activists such as Friends of the Earth are also challenging TEPCO’s plan since they protest the claim that there will be no adverse health effects on wildlife. Despite the reactions, the Japanese government and TEPCO still plan to drain the water.
Although the mainstream discourse about the water release is certainly important, it perhaps obscures another underlying issue: the policies and protocols that led to the disaster in the first place. In the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster, Japan announced a phase-out policy to transition away from nuclear power. However, the energy crisis exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war has led Japan to push for a greater reliance on nuclear energy. Public activism over the use of nuclear energy could potentially have greater effects than contesting the mitigation methods of a nuclear disaster. While post-disaster wastewater advocacy has merit, tackling the problem at its source and preventing its repetition would also prove advantageous. Japanese disaster preparedness is another issue that would benefit from public critique. Disaster preparedness policy proved substantially ineffective during the 3/11 disaster. TEPCO officials considered reactor-core damage improbable, and so there were few preparations and training measures in place to deal with the emergency. Governmental authorities also failed to enforce appropriate scenario planning. The matters of both disaster preparedness and nuclear energy would be constructive to incorporate into the discussion of TEPCO’s treated water plan. While humans cannot prevent the natural side of disaster, policy can mitigate its effects. Utilizing the public momentum around 3/11’s lingering ramifications may just curb the unnecessary consequences of another disaster.