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IAEA: Decision on wastewater discharge from Fukushima to Japan

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TOKYO — The head of an International Atomic Energy Agency task force said Friday it is investigating whether Japan’s planned discharge of treated radioactive water from Japan’s destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea meets international standards, but the decision to go ahead with the plan belongs to the Japanese government.

Gustavo Caruso, director of the IAEA nuclear safety and security department, said his team does not have the power to decide whether Japan should suspend the release, even if it does not fully follow international safety standards.

The government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, announced last year a plan to begin discharging the treated wastewater into the sea next spring. They said more than 1 million tons of water stored in about 1,000 tanks at the plant hinders its decommissioning and poses the risk of leakage in the event of a major earthquake or tsunami.

IAEA is working with the Japanese government to increase the safety and transparency of water discharge.

Caruso said the independent review of the plan by the IAEA “will instill confidence in society, Japanese society, neighbors and other member states.”

His 16-person team, which includes experts from nine countries including China and South Korea, was in Japan this week to study the water drainage plan. During their visit, the second this year, they met government and utility officials and visited the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Wednesday.

A massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed the cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, melting three reactors and releasing large amounts of radiation. Water used to cool the damaged reactor cores, which remain highly radioactive, has since leaked into the basements of the reactor buildings and has been collected and stored in tanks.

The release plan was met with fierce opposition from fishermen, local residents and countries neighboring Japan, including China and South Korea. Fukushima residents are concerned that the reputation of their agricultural and fisheries products will be further damaged.

Most of the radioactivity is removed from the water during treatment, but tritium cannot be removed and low levels of some other radionuclides also remain. The government and TEPCO say the environmental and health impacts will be negligible if the water is slowly released after further treatment and dilution by large amounts of seawater.

Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to tritium and other radionuclides on the environment and humans is still unknown and the release plan should be delayed. They say tritium affects people more when consumed in fish.

TEPCO plans to pipe the treated water from the tanks to a shore facility, where it will be diluted with seawater and sent through an undersea tunnel, currently under construction, to an offshore outlet.

Caruso said his task force plans to visit again in January to meet with nuclear regulators, and will issue a final report before the scheduled release begins. A report on this week’s mission is expected in three months.

Associated Press video journalist Haruka Nuga contributed to this report.

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