For several years, the Japanese government has delayed making a decision on the disposal issue. But it will have to decide very soon since all of the tanks storing Fukushima wastewater will be full by next year.
A panel of experts summoned last year recommended dumping into the ocean, which fishermen and environmental groups staunchly opposed.
In 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami caused core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Though the power plant has been closed for good, it continues to generate massive amounts of radioactive water, which comes partly from the water it used to cool melted fuel.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO), the power plant's operator, treats Fukushima wastewater using an advanced liquid processing system that strips the water of charged particles. But the process cannot remove tritium, the radioactive form of hydrogen, which is hazardous when ingested or absorbed through the skin.
A decade after the disaster, more than a million tons of radioactive wastewater has been collected and stored in tanks at the plant. But the site will run out of room for new tanks by next year, according to TEPCO. This is pressuring the government to act very soon.
"What to do with the water is a task that the government can no longer put off without setting a policy," Hiroshi Kajiyama, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, told the press on April 7.
In February last year, the government summoned a panel of experts to make a recommendation. The panel recommended either evaporating the wastewater or release it into the ocean, though it said the latter was preferable.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations organization that monitors the use of nuclear energy, agreed that ocean dumping was feasible. Agency officials said that nuclear power plants commonly get rid of radioactive wastewater this way, even when they are not in an emergency situation.
TEPCO said that if it receives approval, it would release radioactive water into the sea off the coast of Fukushima over several decades. A month after the panel advised, the operator drafted a plan to reduce tritium levels to 2.5 percent of the legal limit for radioactive materials before discharging the water.
Fishermen strongly opposed the proposal to dump Fukushima wastewater into the ocean because consumers would refuse to buy seafood from the region. Suga met on April 7 with Hiroshi Kishi, head of the national federation of fisheries cooperatives known as JF Zengyoren, to discuss the disposal issue amid protests from fishermen.
According to Kishi, Suga told him that the government would make a decision based on experts' proposal that ocean dumping is the best option. The federation head said during the meeting that "there is no change in the least" in his organization's stance.
"It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air," Kishi told reporters. "I want the government to clarify how it intends to respond to such reputational damage." (Related: Fish off the coast of Fukushima show high concentrations of radioactive cesium.)
International nonprofit Greenpeace also vehemently opposed the recommendation. In a report released last October, the nonprofit warned that Fukushima water contained dangerous levels of carbon-14, which it noted has the potential to damage human DNA. Japan's assurance that the water would be treated before being disposed of gave the impression that it only contained tritium, the organization said.
Fukushima.news has more on the 2011 nuclear disaster and its impact on the environment and health.