Photo/Illutration Storage tanks filled with radioactive water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2019 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The government recently heard the opinions of local communities in Fukushima on tackling the urgent challenge of disposing of radiation-contaminated water being generated by the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The water still contains tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, even after being treated with a filtering system.

Local residents who attended the meeting, held in the city of Fukushima, the capital of Fukushima Prefecture, were divided over the government’s proposal to dilute the tritium-laced water to safe levels and release it into the ocean or vaporize the water and release the steam into the atmosphere.

But they clearly shared deep concerns about damaging rumors such a step could generate.

Many participants also said the government has not provided the public with sufficient information about tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of slightly more than 12 years.

The government should seek a longer and more informed conversation on this issue with local communities without rushing to a conclusion.

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

Since the filtering system is unable to eliminate tritium from the water, the treated water is stored in an increasing number of on-site tanks. The number of tanks has already topped 1,000 and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the ruined plant, says there will be no space for new tanks around the summer of 2022.

In February, the ministry of trade and industry’s expert panel proposed two options--gradually releasing polluted water into the sea and allowing the polluted water to evaporate into the air--as realistic approaches. The subcommittee suggested that releases in the ocean would be the less troublesome of the two options for several technical reasons.

The meeting, held to discuss the panel’s recommendations, were attended by 10 people representing the prefectural and municipal governments and local industries.

If the water is released into the sea, it will be treated again with the filtering system and then diluted with seawater. But the Fukushima prefectural federation of fisheries cooperatives voiced opposition to this approach out of concerns about “the future of young people working in the industry.”

Given that the local fisheries catches have plunged and still remain at about 14 percent of the levels before the nuclear disaster, it is hardly surprising that the fishing industry refuses to accept this method.

But the local association of inns, hotels, restaurants and other businesses related to environmental health expressed its support for the proposal to release the water into the sea.

But the association demanded compensation for the losses the tourist industry could suffer until the end of the process, arguing that the damage will be due to a deliberate action instead of harmful rumors. 

While the local communities and industries are apparently divided and uncertain with regard to the proposed release of the polluted water into the environment and its repercussions, it should be noted that many of the event participants expressed concerns about harmful rumors.

The debate will not be really constructive unless the government and the utility show the entire picture of the plan to deal with the situation. This must include clear answers to such questions as what specific measures will be taken to prevent a fresh wave of harmful rumors that could be triggered by the release and how to compensate for any damage that might result.

During the meeting, local representatives spoke most of the time, with few exchanges with government officials taking place.

Representatives of citizens or consumers were not invited to attend the meeting.

Another similar meeting is scheduled in Fukushima Prefecture next week. But these events should not be regarded simply as part of the formalities for proceeding with the plan to release the water rather than as means for meaningful dialogue with local communities.

Some participants called for expanding the scope of the debate on the issue to involve other parts of the nation. One participant said the opinions of the fisheries industries of other prefectures should also be heard since there are no prefectural borders in the sea.

Another said if the step is really safe, its implementation in other prefectures should also be considered.

It should be kept in mind that disposal of the treated water is not a challenge facing only Fukushima.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 9