Japan's government said on Tuesday it has decided to start releasing massive amounts of radioactive water stored in tanks at the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in two years after treatment.
The decision, long speculated but delayed for years due to safety concerns and protests, came Tuesday at a meeting of Cabinet ministers who endorsed the release as the best option.
The water has been accumulated and stored in tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant since its 2011 meltdown after a massive earthquake and tsunami, causing cooling water to leak from the damaged reactors.
Its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, says its storage capacity will be full in the fall of 2022.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told the ministers' meeting that the government adopted the release to sea as "most realistic" and that the disposal of the water is "unavoidable in order to achieve Fukushima's recovery."
TEPCO and government officials say tritium, which is not harmful in small amounts, cannot be removed from the water, but all other selected radionuclides can be reduced to levels allowed for release. Some scientists say the long-term impact on marine life from low-dose exposure to such large volumes of water is unknown.
The decision is certain to spark controversy, angering local fishing communities that have spent years trying to restore confidence in seafood from the region.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," Kanji Tachiya, who heads a local fisheries cooperative in Fukushima, told NHK ahead of the announcement.
"We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
The decision also prompted regional opposition even before it was official, with South Korea's foreign minister on Monday expressing "serious regret over this decision, which could have a direct or indirect impact on the safety of our people and the surrounding environment in the future".
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged Japan to "act in a responsible manner" over the discharge of the water.
Under a report of the basic plan adopted by the ministers Tuesday, TEPCO will start releasing the water in about two years after building a facility under the regulatory authority's safety requirements.