3.11 EXPLORING FUKUSHIMA: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that documented the 13th anniversary of the "Great East Japan Earthquake," tsunami, and nuclear accident, including the conditions of both the people and places that remain affected by the disaster across the Tōhoku region. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima

The head of the U.N. atomic agency observed firsthand the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s ongoing radioactive wastewater discharges for the first time since the contentious program began months ago and called it an “encouraging start.”

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi watched treated radioactive water being mixed with massive amounts of seawater and examined a water sampling station. He was escorted by utility Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings president Tomoaki Kobayakawa.

The discharges have been opposed by fishing groups and neighboring countries including China, which banned all imports of Japanese seafood immediately after the release began.

An earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant’s power supply and reactor cooling functions in 2011, triggering meltdowns of three reactors and causing large amounts of radioactive wastewater to accumulate. After more than a decade of cleanup work, the plant began discharging the water after treating it and diluting it with seawater on August 24, starting a process that’s expected to take decades.

Grossi last visited the plant in July after issuing an IAEA review predicting only negligible impact from the discharges. An IAEA comprehensive report later concluded that the discharges meet international safety standards.

Grossi said an IAEA office and a laboratory at the plant have been carrying out their own, independent evaluations of the discharges, and results had been in line with what they expected.

“We never say ‘this is done’ or ‘this is okay’ because there is a long way to go,” he said. “I would say it’s a very positive and encouraging start.”

Grossi also met with local officials and representatives from fishing and business groups and reassured them that the discharges are being carried out “with no impact to the environment, water, fish, and sediment.”

“There is no scientific reason to impose any restriction on products coming from us,” Grossi said.

He later stated that he was aware of “observations made by China” and noted that “I have an ongoing and very constructive dialogue with China regarding the operation here.”

He asserted that “the authority and the impartiality of what the IAEA does cannot be put into question,” adding that he was “very confident that the dialogue with China and with other countries will be constructive and we will be able to provide all the assurances as required.”

China’s ban on Japanese seafood mostly hit scallop exporters in Hokkaido. Tokyo has earmarked a fund of more than $680 million that includes compensation and other support, including measures to help find other export destinations.

Despite earlier fears that the water discharge would further hurt Fukushima’s hard-hit fishing industry, it has not damaged its reputation domestically.

Grossi stressed the importance of “transparency, technical accuracy, and wide open, honest dialogue and consultation.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government has reversed earlier plans for a nuclear phaseout and is accelerating the use of nuclear power in response to rising fuel costs related to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and pressure to meet decarbonization goals.

Grossi held talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa to discuss further cooperation between the IAEA and Japan in non-proliferation, use of nuclear energy, and support to protect Ukraine’s nuclear power plant seized by the Russian military.

3.11 Exploring Fukushima

Mari Yamaguchi and MI Staff (Japan)

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Eugene Hoshiko (AP), Hiro Komae (AP), and Kyodo News (via AP)

3.11 Exploring Fukushima: The Tōhoku region of Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded when a powerful earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami, and triggered an unprecedented nuclear crisis in 2011. With a personal connection to the tragedies, Milwaukee Independent returned for the first time in 13 years to attend events commemorating the March 11 anniversary. The purpose of the journalism project included interviews with survivors about their challenges over the past decade, reviews of rebuilt cities that had been washed away by the ocean, and visits to newly opened areas that had been left barren by radiation. This special editorial series offers a detailed look at a situation that will continue to have a daily global impact for generations. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima