TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he will visit the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant on Sunday before setting a release date for its treated radioactive wastewater, as his government continues working to promote understanding over the controversial plan at home and abroad.
“The government has reached the final stage where we should make a decision,” Kishida told reporters in Washington on Friday after wrapping up his summit with U.S. and South Korean leaders at the American presidential retreat of Camp David.
Since the government announced the release plan two years ago, it has faced strong opposition from Japanese fishing organizations, which worry about further damage to the reputation of their seafood as they struggle to recover from the accident. Groups in South Korea and China have also raised concerns, turning it into a political and diplomatic issue.
The government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., say the water must be removed to make room for the plant’s decommissioning and to prevent accidental leaks from the tanks because much of the water is still contaminated and needs further treatment.
The release “cannot be postponed,” Kishida said.
Japan has obtained support from the International Atomic Energy Agency to improve transparency and credibility and to ensure the plan by TEPCO meets international safety standards. The government has also stepped up a campaign promoting the plan’s safety at home and through diplomatic channels.
IAEA, in a final report in July, concluded that the TEPCO plan, if conducted strictly as designed, will cause negligible impact on the environment and human health, encouraging Japan to move ahead.
While seeking understanding from the fishing community, the government has also worked to explain the plan to South Korea to keep the issue from interfering with their relationship-building. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. are working to bolster trilateral ties in the face of growing Chinese and North Korean threats.
Kishida said the outreach efforts have made progress, but he did not mention a starting date for the water release, which is widely expected to be at the end of August. He said the decision will factor in safety preparations and measures for possible reputation damage on the fisheries. Japanese media reports say his ministers will decide the date at a meeting next week.
“Before making a final decision, I want to have a first-hand look on the ground and see if utmost safety measures are taken for the release, and if everyone involved is committed with a strong sense of responsibility for the project,” Kishida said.
He added that he wants to make sure TEPCO executives share a strong commitment to the plant’s decommissioning and Fukushima’s recovery.
A massive March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and contaminating their cooling water, which has since leaked continuously into reactor basements and mixed with groundwater. The water is collected, filtered and stored in around 1,000 tanks, which will reach their capacity in early 2024.
The water is being treated with what’s called an Advanced Liquid Processing System, which can reduce the amounts of more than 60 selected radionuclides to government-set releasable levels, except for tritium, which the government and TEPCO say is safe for humans if consumed in small amounts.
Scientists generally agree that the environmental impact of the treated wastewater would be negligible, but some call for more attention to dozens of low-dose radionuclides that remain in it, saying data on their long-term effects on the environment and marine life are insufficient and the water requires close scrutiny.