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Fierce debate over Japan's plan to dump 1.3 million tonnes of water from nuclear site

While environmentalists call the idea "outrageous" one scientist has told Yahoo News Australia why he believes the plan is justified.

A heated debate is escalating over Japan’s plan to release 1.3 million tonnes of treated wastewater into the sea from its failed Fukushima nuclear plant.

On Thursday, Greenpeace has labelled the move as “outrageous” and the Pacific Islands Forum has also voiced concerns about the discharge contaminating their waters. But a leading scientist has told Yahoo News Australia while the plan "sounds bad" it is actually safe and it wouldn't impact his decision to eat fish from the area.

The problem began after a tsunami hit the prefecture’s Daiichi plant in 2011, knocking out its cooling system, and forcing engineers to use water to cool its towers to prevent them overheating. Over time, tens of thousands of tonnes of water has continued to build up and the country is running out of storage space, according to Vice.

Rows of water tanks at Fukushima holding waste water from the site.
Close to 1.3 million tonnes of wastewater from Fukushima will be dumped into the ocean. Source: Getty

The plan is contentious because nearby Pacific Islanders have shouldered a disproportionate amount of nuclear fallout from testing by nations including the United States, France and United Kingdom. "If it is safe, dump it in Tokyo, test it in Paris, and store it in Washington, but keep our Pacific nuclear-free," Vanuatu stateswoman Motarilavoa Hilda Lini told The Guardian when the plan was first announced in 2021.

Nuclear expert explains why nuclear plan is safe

While concerns have been raised about the transparency during the Japanese government’s cleanup, Associate Professor Nigel Marks, a nuclear materials scientist at Curtin University, has been impressed with its response.

He told Yahoo News Australia that while he appreciates the plan to discharge water from the site “sounds bad”, it will have “zero physical effect”. “The effect it will have is entirely psychological on people,” he said.

Concern has been raised about tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, entering the ocean, but Dr Marks argues the amount released by Japan over 30 years will be “trivial” and well below the standards set by the World Health Organisation. “The Pacific Ocean already has about 8400 grams of tritium in it, and the total amount that will be released from Fukushima is 2.8 grams,” he said. “It’s a literal drop in the ocean and it would be quite difficult to measure it.”

Moruroa atoll covered in concrete.
The French carried out 138 nuclear tests at Moruroa atoll until 1996. Source: Getty

He believes strontium and caesium 137, the isotope that was lost in the Pilbara desert last month, are easy to detect because they emit clearly. Therefore he argues the “lion’s share” has been removed by Japan’s filtration system and that the Japanese are being incredibly cautious in their response.

The water will be mixed with seawater in a kilometre-long pipeline that will pump the water out to sea. “What people seem to forget is that the people who could be affected most by this are the Japanese,” Dr Marks said. “They don’t want to destroy their own backyard — they’re an ocean people.”

Dr Marks said increased monitoring of radiation around Fukushima, and stricter limits, means seafood from the area is safer than it is elsewhere in the world and he'd have no problem eating it.

Greenpeace slams Japan's water discharge plan

Greenpeace East Asia’s nuclear specialist Shaun Burnie speaking ABC Radio National on Thursday slammed Japan’s plan, saying the science doesn’t “stack up”. He fears discharges of contaminated water will continue longer than 30 years, possibly beyond the end of the century.

“In 2023, when the world’s oceans are facing such catastrophic threats from climate change, resource extraction, fisheries, we’re talking about a government making a deliberate decision to dump, discharge, nuclear waste, into the marine environment. It’s really quite outrageous,” he said.

His concerns are backed by some scientists who believe the impact of increased tritium is unknown and the plan should be delayed until more testing has been completed, AP reported.

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