Ten years after an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan has announced plans to release contaminated water from the plant into the ocean. China, South Korea and the local fishing industry are opposed to this move.

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Workers used more than 1 million metric tons of water to cool the three reactors that melted down in 2011. They use a filtration process to remove radioactive elements from the water, but tritium and other potentially harmful elements remain. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator, has kept the water in huge tanks. But with those tanks expected to fill up by next year, the company is looking for somewhere else for the water to go.

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After treatment and dilution, the radiation levels will be below standards set for drinking water. The U.S. is backing Japan, saying the country is acting in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards. The International Atomic Energy Agency agrees. “Releasing into the ocean is done elsewhere. It’s not something new. There is no scandal here,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, as reported by BBC.

But South Korea’s foreign minister expressed “serious regret” about the decision. Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, has questioned whether Japan is acting in a responsible manner. “To safeguard international public interests and Chinese people’s health and safety, China has expressed grave concern to the Japanese side through the diplomatic channel,” Lijian said.

Whether consumers will fear three-eyed fish is another matter. According to scientists, elements like tritium are only harmful in large doses. But fishing industry groups worry that the fish will eat the tritium, and then people will eat the fish. Even if the fish are technically safe to eat, public perception of radiated fish could drive different culinary choices.


Image via TEPCO / IAEA