Photo/IllutrationA large number of storage tanks on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant hold water processed to remove most radioactive substances. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The ministry of trade and industry’s expert panel is in the final stage of crafting a plan to tackle the colossal challenge of disposing of radiation-contaminated water being generated by the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

After three years of debate, the subcommittee recently proposed three options--gradually releasing tons of polluted water into the sea, allowing the polluted water to evaporate into the atmosphere or a combination of both.

As some members of the panel called for clearly referring to “extremely serious social effects” of either step, the ministry, which administers the panel’s mission, will rewrite the proposal.

A solution to this nasty, complicated problem should be considered carefully from various angles. A proposal should be assessed not just from the scientific and technological viewpoints. Sufficient attention should also be given to possible social effects.

Any rash attempt to reach a conclusion quickly could end up as a big, costly mistake. Debate on various options should continue until no stone is left unturned.

The No. 1 to No. 3 reactors at the plant are still generating 150 tons of polluted water per day as these reactors are being flooded to cool melted nuclear fuel and underground water keeps pouring in.

Even after being treated with a filtering system, the water, a graphic reminder of the nation’s worst nuclear accident, still contains tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.

The treated water is stored in an increasing number of on-site tanks, but Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the ruined nuclear plant, has warned that storage tanks holding processed water on the grounds of the plant will become completely full by the summer of 2022.

The expert panel has been examining five possible options including diluting the water to safe levels and releasing it into the ocean and vaporizing the tritium-laced water and releasing the steam into the atmosphere.

Nuclear plants in Japan and overseas regularly release water containing tritium into the sea. The evaporation method was used following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.

These facts are behind the decision to narrow the options down to release into the sea and evaporation into the air.

Another option that was considered after public hearings last summer in Fukushima Prefecture and Tokyo--long-term, on-site storage of the water in holding tanks--has been dropped because it would hamper efforts to secure land for decommissioning the reactors.

The subcommittee did not voice any objection to the decision.

But there is strong opposition within local communities to any plan involving release of the water into the environment.

In particular, local fishermen are dead set against the idea of releasing the water into the sea fearing that such a step would deliver an additional blow to their businesses, which have already been badly damaged by the accident. Their concerns are well-founded given that their catches remain at only about 15 percent of their levels before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the reactor core meltdowns at the plant.

That is why the expert subcommittee has spent a lot of time on the risks of damage due to rumors and other possible effects.

Unless the disposal plan reflects these viewpoints discussed by the panel, local communities could suspect that the government chose the release options even before the panel began the thorny task of considering how to get rid of the water safely.

The panel’s proposal calls on the government to make the final decisions on the disposal method and the time frame for the task on its own responsibility.

No matter what decisions the government may make, it is vital to ensure that the social impacts will be as minimum as possible.

The government is responsible for making every effort to achieve this goal.

It cannot hope to win local support for its plan unless it is developed through sincere dialogue with the local communities while disclosing all relevant information.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 27