TOKYO - Japan is making final arrangements to begin discharging treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant as early as Thursday, a government source said Monday, despite persisting objections from local residents.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said his government will hold a ministerial meeting on Tuesday morning to formally decide on the start date for the water release that has also raised concerns about human health and the environment in some neighboring countries.
Kishida's announcement came after he talked with the head of Japan's national fisheries federation on Monday, hoping to gain his understanding of the government's plan to discharge the water from the crippled nuclear complex into the sea.
The treated water release from the Fukushima plant into the Pacific Ocean is an "issue that absolutely cannot be postponed" as the regions hit hard by the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami must be allowed to fully recover, Kishida told reporters.
The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, under its head Masanobu Sakamoto, has continued to oppose the water release, saying it would erode the reputation of seafood from Fukushima and nearby areas.
But Kishida said he will keep trying to communicate with local fishermen to win their group's backing for his administration's efforts to ensure the safety of the water and for its measures to respond to potential reputational damage.
At the outset of their talks at the prime minister's office, Kishida told Sakamoto, "We promise to take full responsibility for implementing necessary steps so that fishermen can pursue their livelihood with peace of mind for the next several decades."
The government has set up funds worth 30 billion yen ($206 million) to overcome any reputational damage and 50 billion yen to ease potential economic damage and support local fishermen in sustaining their businesses.
During his visit to the Fukushima nuclear plant on Sunday, Kishida urged the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., to secure the safety of the water release.
Acquiring approval from the fishery industry is a crucial factor for the government and the operator, widely known as TEPCO, as they have pledged not to go ahead with the discharge without fishermen's consent.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. nuclear watchdog, said last month that the planned release would comply with global safety standards.
Referring to the IAEA report, Sakamoto told Kishida on Monday, "Our understanding of scientific safety has deepened," but he reiterated his continued opposition to the government's water discharge project.
In April 2021, Kishida's predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, gave a green light for the release of the water into the sea "in around two years." The current government said in January that it would carry out the plan sometime from "spring to around summer."
For years, China has voiced objections to the discharge plan, calling for the avoidance of the pseudo-scientific term "treated" to downplay the risks of the "nuclear-contaminated water." Beijing has introduced blanket radiation testing on Japanese seafood imports.
South Korea, meanwhile, has said it respects the outcome of the IAEA's review as a result of its own analysis of Japan's plan, while opposition parties at home have still expressed worries about the negative effects of the water release from the Fukushima complex.
Massive amounts of contaminated water have been generated in the process of cooling melted reactor fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the facility was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
The water has been kept in tanks after going through an advanced liquid processing system that removes most radionuclides except tritium, but the storage vessels are nearing maximum capacity.
Tritium is known to be less harmful than other radioactive materials, such as cesium and strontium.
In early August, about 1.34 million tons of treated water was stored in tanks at the Fukushima nuclear complex, reaching 98 percent of storage capacity, TEPCO said.
The treated water, which contains small quantities of tritium, will be diluted to one-40th of the concentration permitted based on Japanese safety standards before being discharged via an underwater tunnel 1 kilometer from the power plant.