February 3, 2020 at 12:20 JST
Storage tanks on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant hold radiation-contaminated water. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The ministry of trade and industry's expert panel has made its recommendations on how to tackle the formidable challenge of disposing of radiation-contaminated water being generated by the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
After three years of debate on options, the subcommittee on Jan. 31 effectively endorsed as the best approach diluting the water to safe levels and releasing it into the ocean. The water will still contain tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, even after being treated with a filtering system.
Final decisions on the method and time frame for disposal of the polluted water will be left to the government. Releasing the water into the environment could deal an additional blow to the reputation of the local fishing and other industries, which have already been badly damaged by rumors and other effects.
The government should not make a rash decision on this delicate matter.
Since 2016, the expert panel has been examining five options presented by the ministry's working group, not just delving into technical issues but also assessing possible social effects of each option including reputational damage from harmful rumors.
The panel has chosen two of the five options--releasing the water into the ocean after dilution and vaporizing the tritium-laced water and releasing the steam into the atmosphere--as realistic approaches because they have been used before. Then, the panel pointed out the advantages and disadvantages of these two methods.
The experts have decided that release in the ocean will be the less troublesome of the two options for several technical advantages. For one, this approach has been used by ordinary nuclear power plants. The facilities are simpler and there is a pool of expertise to operate them.
It would be easier to predict and monitor how the water will spread after being dumped into the sea. Unexpected situations are unlikely to occur.
From the social viewpoint, the panel says, it is difficult to compare the magnitudes of the effects of the two methods. But it nevertheless points out that boiling the water and releasing the steam into the atmosphere could cause reputational damage to a wider range of industries than releasing the water into the sea.
While the panel did not say clearly which of the two options should be adopted, it suggested that dumping the water into the ocean is more preferable.
But the government should not take this simply as a cue to go for the ocean dumping option.
The subcommittee has called on the government to "listen to the opinions of a wide range of parties concerned including local governments and people working in the agricultural, forestry and fisheries industries" as it makes the decision.
This call should be taken seriously.
If the government starts talks with local communities over the issue with the position that the decision to discharge treated radioactive water into the sea has already been made, there will be a fierce backlash from the communities.
It should listen sincerely and carefully to the voices of local governments, businesses and residents.
It should be noted that the subcommittee has stressed the importance of ensuring a fully transparent process for making the decisions. If the issue is discussed behind closed doors, the final decisions, whatever they may be, will not win broad public support. Information disclosure is crucial for the entire process.
The treated water has been 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 electric utility wants the government to make the decision as soon as possible.
But the subcommittee did not refer to the timing of the government's decision or the beginning of the process of disposing of the water.
The government should not set any fixed time frame for making the decisions.
Even if the method of disposal is chosen early, it will take years to make the necessary preparations. It will take many additional years to complete the task.
The government needs to realize that it is facing a long and bumpy road ahead in its efforts to deal with this colossal challenge.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 1
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