Despite being endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and the South Korean Government, protests are continuing against Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco’s) plans to release treated contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP to the sea.

During his visit to Japan from 4-7 July, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi presented the IAEA’s final report approving the plan to the Japanese government. The Agency also established a permanent IAEA office at the Fukushima site. On 7 July NRA issued a certificate to Tepco showing that the facilities put in place for discharge of the water had passed final checks following detailed inspections.

The same day, South Korea’s government said Japan's plan met global safety standards and it respected IAEA’s approval for the release. "Based on a review of the treatment plan of contaminated water presented by Japan, we have confirmed concentration of radioactive material meets standards for ocean discharge," said Bang Moon-kyu, South Korea's minister in the Office for Government Policy Coordination. He told a press briefing that South Korea's assessment by two of its nuclear regulatory agencies was based on independent reviews of Japan's plan, site visits by its experts and a review of the IAEA report.

The water, used to cool the melted reactor cores in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima, is stored in around 1,000 huge tanks at the plant containing more than 1.3m tonnes and total storage capacity has been reached. The contaminated cooling water and groundwater is treated by the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which removes most of the radioactive contamination, with the exception of tritium. The government therefore plans to dilute the treated water so that tritium levels fall below national regulations before releasing it. Following multiple checks, the water will be released through an undersea tunnel one kilometre offshore. The release will take place over several decades.

However, Japan has long faced opposition to its plan, both at home and abroad. Especially from fishing communities, from South Korea and from China. After his visit to Fukushima, Grossi went on to South Korea for talks on the discharge plan to try to reduce public concerns about food safety. In South Korea members of the parliamentary opposition, who were critical of the plan.

Meeting with members of the liberal Democratic Party, which controls a majority in parliament, Grossi said the IAEA's review of the Japanese plans was based on "transparent" and "scientific" research but acknowledged concerns about how the plans would work in practice. He said IAEA would establish a permanent office in Fukushima to closely monitor implementation of the discharge over the next three decades.

The parliamentarians said the IAEA's review had neglected long-term environmental and health impacts and set a bad precedent that other countries may follow. They urged Japan to withdraw the plans and work with neighbouring countries to find safer ways to handle the wastewater, including possible long-term storage on land. They also criticised the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for putting people's health at risk in the interests of improving relations with Japan.

Woo Won-shik, who had been on a hunger strike for the past 14 days in protest, told Grossi: "I wonder whether you would be willing to suggest the Japanese government use that water for drinking or for industrial and agricultural purposes, rather than dumping it in the sea." During the discussions, protesters shouted near the lobby of the National Assembly's main hall where the meeting was taking place, holding signs denouncing the IAEA and Japan.

China’s opposition to the plan has continued with China's customs authority saying it would ban food imports from 10 Japanese prefectures over the release, and require stringent radiation tests on food from the rest of the country. "China Customs will maintain a high level of vigilance," the authority said.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan will explain to China the planned water discharge "based on scientific perspectives". He said Japan's standard for the release of tritium, at below 22 trillion becquerels a year, is far stricter than that of other nations including China and South Korea. Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing Japan's Ministry of Economics, Trade & Industry, noted that, in 2021, the China’s Yangjiang NPP discharged around 112 trillion becquerels of tritium, while the Kori NPP in South Korea had released about 49 trillion becquerels.

In response, China’s Xinhua news agency said Japan's attempt to "whitewash" its discharge decision was “misleading the international community under the disguise of science”. Referring to Matsuno’s remarks, Wang Wenbing, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a press briefing that comparing the released of Fukushima nuclear-contaminated water with water released by NPPs during normal operation was a “disguised replacement of concept… seeking to mislead public opinion”. He said water released by NPPs in normal operation were "fundamentally different," as it had never had direct contact with reactor cores.

He added that IAEA had not assessed the efficacy and long-term reliability of Japan's treatment facilities and therefore could not guarantee that all nuclear-contaminated water will be up to standard after treatment in the next 30 years. He also criticised Japan's "other tricks" to sell the nuclear-contaminated water as something safe by launching a cute mascot representing radioactive tritium and coining the pseudo-scientific term "treated water”.

"We urge Japan to stop shifting responsibility, earnestly respond to the international community's legitimate concerns, stop pushing forward the ocean discharge plan, and handle the nuclear-contaminated water in a truly science-based, safe and transparent manner after conducting thorough consultation," he said.

China's state-run Global Times said Liu Senlin, a Chinese expert in the IAEA's technical working group, was disappointed with the "hasty" report alleging that the input from experts was limited and only used for reference. China's foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the IAEA's report "did not fully reflect the views of all the experts involved in the assessment" and that its conclusions were "limited and one-sided".

Grossi acknowledged there may be some concerns. "There have been some ideas to the effect that one or two experts would have been against (the report)," he told Reuters. Asked to clarify whether there was concern among any experts behind the IAEA report, he added: "I heard that being said … but again, what we have published is scientifically impeccable." He said none of the experts had raised concerns with him directly.

Grossi later told a press conference that the report was not formed by consensus and that the group of scientific experts and advisers consulted "may or may not have individual opinions". Asked whether the experts were satisfied with the content of the report, Grossi said: "Absolutely, yes. If there's someone that's not, they should say it."

Grossi said the IAEA's report did not amount to an endorsement of the plan and that Tokyo must take the final decision to release the water due to start later this summer. "We do not endorse the plan or recommend this to be done. We say this plan is consistent with the standards," Grossi said. "We do not take sides. I'm not on the side of Japan or on the side of China or on the side of Korea. The standards apply to all the same way," he added.

Image: Aerial view of Fukushima Daiichi NPP with tanks for storing treated water (courtesy of Japan Times)