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Economy & Tech

China and South Korea, Too, Release Nuclear Plant Wastewater Into the Oceans

China’s Fuqing plant released 52 trillion Bq of tritium in 2020, and South Korea’s Kori facility near its second largest city released 50 trillion Bq in 2018ーmore than double Japan’s plan.

Seita Arafune

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The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility along Japan's east coast facing the Pacific Ocean

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Ever since April, when the Japanese government announced plans to release treated wastewater from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean, China and South Korea have been vehemently criticizing the move.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Euiyong took advantage of a May 5 meeting with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi to protest the move, saying: “We are concerned about the latent threat it (wastewater release) poses to the health and safety of South Korean people, as well as the marine environment.”

The fact is, however, it has been common practice since before the Fukushima disaster for nuclear power facilities worldwide to do exactly the same thing that the plan calls for—namely the release of wastewater containing the radioactive element tritium into the ocean.

In South Korea, one of the world’s most prominent nuclear energy countries, the nuclear power facilities have been regularly releasing tritium-infused wastewater into the sea near the city of Pusan (Busan), which is famed for its seafood products.  Noting that fact, nuclear power experts find Seoul’s opposition “lacks any scientific basis.”

Instead, while emphasizing the need for transparency and compensation for parties adversely impacted by the wastewater, experts say “The Pusan example shows what is feasible for Fukushima.” 

In fact, it provides a model for Fukushima’s recovery. 

The treated wastewater from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi power plant, currently stored in tanks, contains approximately 860 trillion becquerels of tritium. (The becquerel (Bq) is an internationally-accepted unit for measuring the strength and volume of radioactivity.)

The Japanese government plan calls for this wastewater to be first highly diluted and then released slowly into the ocean at a maximum rate of 22 trillion Bq per year, over a span of several decades. There are some countries releasing more than ten times this stored amount annually.

According to data compiled by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and made publicly available on April 13, during 2018 the La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in France released roughly 11,400 trillion Bq into the ocean and about 60 trillion Bq into the atmosphere. 

Likewise, the Sellafield reprocessing facility in the United Kingdom released around 423 trillion Bq of total tritium in liquid and about 56 trillion Bq in vapor form into the sea and atmosphere in 2019. China’s Fuqing Nuclear Power Plant in Fujian Province released about 52 trillion Bq in liquid form in 2020.

Especially notable is the situation in neighboring South Korea. The huge Kori nuclear power plant complex, located only about 30 kilometers from Pusan harbor, released 50 trillion Bq of tritium into the sea in 2018, and the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant roughly 80 kilometers away has been releasing another 25 trillion Bq into the sea and 110 trillion Bq into the atmosphere. 

Pusan is South Korea’s second largest city, and in addition to being an industrial center is a top tourist destination renowned for its seafood market—the nation’s largest. The local cuisine, including locally caught sea bream, flounder and octopus served as sashimi or other methods, is a big tourist draw. 

Koji Okamoto, a professor of nuclear engineering in the University of Tokyo Graduate School who has been involved with the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, says, “There’s no reason why what is allowed at Pusan should not be allowed at Fukushima.”

Okamoto adds that since China and South Korea are both regularly releasing tritium, they should react to Japan’s plan in a cool-headed, scientific fashion. Moreover, as he points out, release of the stored treated wastewater would help facilitate the decommissioning process by managing the removal of remaining debris, including melted nuclear fuel, from the reactor.

Nevertheless, up until now there has been strong backlash to the wastewater release plan. Professor Okamoto says that the government needs to use easy-to-understand language to explain to the public what the actual situation is. 

“We also need to establish a framework for ensuring compensation is paid in the event the rumors cause reputational damage,” Okamoto adds.

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(Find access to The Sankei Shimbun article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Seita Arafune