The world’s nuclear watchdog gave its backing to Japanese plans to release contaminated water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean.

Japan has around a million tonnes of contaminated water stored in tanks at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, whose reactors went into meltdown after a huge tsunami in 2011.

A government panel last month recommended the water be released into the ocean or vaporized, but no final decision has been taken, with all solutions deeply unpopular with sections of the Japanese public.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Rafael Grossi told journalists in Tokyo the panel’s recommendations both appeared suitable. The decision on what to do and when is a matter for the Japanese government.

The radioactive water comes from several different sources – including water used for cooling at the plant, and groundwater and rain that seeps into the plant daily – and is put through an extensive filtration process.

Most of the radioactive isotopes have been removed by the filtration system, but one – tritium, which has a long half-life – remains.

The issue is controversial, however, with some of Japan’s neighbors raising questions about the safety of releasing the water, and locals – including fishermen – concerned about the reputational risks of any release.

The 9.0 magnitude quake of March 2011 sparked a huge tsunami along Japan’s northeast coast that killed more than 18,000 people. The nuclear disaster it spawned is not directly blamed for any deaths, though contamination rendered swathes of the coast uninhabitable, possibly for decades.

Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.

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