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Japan to empty more than a million tons of wastewater from Fukushima into the ocean

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Japan's government says tomorrow it will begin releasing more than a million tons of wastewater into the Pacific Ocean from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. Even though the water has been treated, it still has radioactive material in it. And despite the government's insistence that it's safe, many people in Japan and across East Asia are concerned. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Fukushima to help us understand how people there are reacting to this news. Hi there.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why is Japan releasing this water only now?

KUHN: This nuclear plant at Fukushima was damaged in a massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that sparked a meltdown at the plant. And the water has been used to cool the reactors there. And it's been stored in tanks, and they're running out of room to put it in. The Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency say it's safe. The radioactive material in there is called tritium, and it's been diluted to a small fraction of what's considered safe. And the government argues that it's no more risky than what other countries' nuclear plants are discharging into their waters. So Japan is going to start releasing this water through a tunnel, an underground tunnel, into the Pacific tomorrow. And the release and the whole decommissioning of this nuclear plant are going to take decades.

SHAPIRO: And I take it you're hearing some concern from people in Fukushima. What are they telling you?

KUHN: Well, it's one thing to believe the science that the government tells them, but it's another to drink the water and eat the seafood there. So at a supermarket this afternoon, I spoke to a housewife named Mieko Orikasa as she was shopping, and I asked her whether she felt safe about the local seafood. Here's what she said.

MIEKO ORIKASA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I have no way to find out myself," she said. "I have a 3-year-old grandchild living in Tokyo and a second grandchild due to be born in December. And when they come to visit, I have to reconsider whether I can let them eat fish or not." Now, local fishermen in Fukushima are some of the most concerned because they're worried that nobody's going to buy their catch. And some of them said they are going to sue the government to stop this release. They announced that today.

SHAPIRO: Is this backlash going to have any real impact on Japan's government?

KUHN: Well, it has had a big impact. After the quake, there was a big debate about the safety of nuclear power, and a lot of the country's nuclear plants were shut down. But this turned into an energy crunch. People have not had enough electricity to run their air conditioners in summer. They've had to reopen the plants. And now people seem sort of resigned to living with nuclear power. But it's really difficult because they've got to work with localities to get energy without sacrificing their needs. And they also have to balance Japan's interests with those of its neighbors, including China and South Korea, where many people are very concerned about this water release.

SHAPIRO: This is the latest of several trips that you've made to Fukushima since the 2011 quake. So how has the place changed?

KUHN: Yeah, I'm looking out at the Pacific from my window right now, and a lot has changed physically. Seawalls have been built - houses moved back from the shore in case of future tsunamis. You know, a lot of towns that were closed off have reopened, and some people have come back but not many. But what's really interesting is the criticism I've heard since the quake that Tokyoites look at Fukushima as a place where they get migrant labor, seafood and electricity from nuclear plants while Fukushima residents see Tokyo as a place where they get money, including government subsidies, for hosting these nuclear plants. So as one of my interviewees said today, it's going to be really interesting to see how the place changes not just physically but how Fukushima and Tokyo and their residents look at each other and how that changes - how those attitudes change.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking with us from Fukushima, Japan. Thanks a lot.

KUHN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.