IAEA chief: Concerns over water release understandable, but plan is safe

Following a visit to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi sat down with NHK to discuss a plan by the plant operator TEPCO to release treated and diluted water into the sea. In this interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, Grossi explains an IAEA report that vouches for the safety of the plan, and addresses the concerns of some Fukushima residents and countries in the region.

Takasu Eri: How do you respond to the concerns raised by Japan's neighboring countries such as South Korea and China? For example, China has stated the report hasn't reflected the opinions of all experts. How do you respond to that?

Rafael Grossi: The first thing is, I think, I've always said that I take all the observations, concerns, and even criticism expressed first of all here in Japan and elsewhere very, very seriously. I think this is an issue of importance and as the IAEA, we must listen and we must take them very seriously.

And we have, because the observations and the question marks that have been put on the issue are, as I said, adequately addressed by my comprehensive report. Regarding these affirmations or statements that the report does not reflect this or that let me clarify one thing.

This is an IAEA report. This is not a report which is approved by vote or by consensus. This is a report, this is a scientific technical report, and I fully stand by all its functions. The task force that was charged with preparing it is composed of experts from the agency's independent, international civil servants, and I decided to ask a group of international experts to also advise to reinforce the scientific strength and the credibility of the report, which has happened.

I am aware that in one case, there has been an opinion or an idea expressed — it was never expressed to me I must say — it has been said that their report does not express the opinion of one expert. I should say that apart from the veracity or not of this, this report is scientifically correct. And I fully stand by it.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi delivered a report to Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on July 4, 2023.

Takasu: Well, how about the local fishermen's concern? They've been battling harmful rumors for 12 years.

Grossi: I met with them. I met 11 mayors, which was a very, for me, it was a very moving, important, significant because they are the ones that are in the first line. They were the ones that suffered the most. The whole entire Japanese nation suffered from it. But they were there.

And so I talked to them with enormous respect. And in the case of ... there was the Chamber of Commerce was represented. The fishermen's association was there. And of course, it is my duty to listen to them because it's their lives and livelihoods that depend on this industry.

And of course, the reputational damage can be very bad. What I believe is that on the contrary, this work that we have carried out is ... of course it will not be magical — I used this expression when I met with them — [but it] will help the reputation and the prestige of this industry, which is an excellent industry by the way, to regain its place.

Why? Because the remaining — and there are not many — but the remaining barriers that may exist — import bans, etc, — will not have any scientific basis. Why don't we take this in this way?

If you have a ban on import of fish from Fukushima, and you have the IAEA saying that this is being done in a way that does not harmfully affect the environment, the fish, the water, the sediment, well it is obvious that this is done for reasons that are other than scientific or commercial.

So, I would say and my invitation, my humble invitation to them is to see this comprehensive assessment and the continued presence of the IAEA, which is another very important factor, as a facilitator, as a factor, that it is playing in on their side, to reconstruct on a sound basis with the blessing — if I can use the word — with the blessing of the nuclear watchdog of these activities. Of course, one can express this wish or this desire, and then public opinion, the market, and consumers' opinions will be different. I don't know. It's not my area of expertise. But in my consideration, I think this is a very interesting factor. And I have said to the associations, the chambers, that I am at their disposal, and I think we will continue this dialogue. We will continue this conversation. I will be returning to Fukushima.

My idea is we are here to stay. We are here to stay. We didn't just simply assess the plan, then I wash my hands and I say goodbye. We are here to make sure that this goes according to plan.

The IAEA chief Rafael Grossi was in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture to meet local governments and other organizations on July 5, 2023

Takasu: You said IAEA will stay in Fukushima until the end of the treated water release. But what is the reason for continually involving in Fukushima as IAEA?

Grossi: Well, in Fukushima we have been there from March 2011. There is a huge decommissioning work which is not part of what we are talking about now. But the reason to continue is precisely, you know, my philosophy ... when I had my first conversations with Abe Shinzo and then with the Prime Minister Kishida was "before, during, and after." The first invitation was: Please assess my basic policy, which was okay. And I doubled down and I said how about something different?

How about me assessing your basic policy, as you say, but how about me staying and reviewing the implementation of this plan, which is going to take 40 years? I will not be around when this finishes. You will, but I won't. And this is a long-term operation. And by doing this — we are going back to your previous question — we are giving this confidence that the international community will continue to have a view of what is happening. We are going to be introducing revolutionary I would say features like the real-time monitoring, like the continued review, like our permanent presence there, which is not happening anywhere else.

So, I think with all these additional measures, we are putting together a structure, a set of measures that is unique as the operation. It's commensurate with the uniqueness of what is happening here.

Takasu: The IAEA report is neither a recommendation nor an endorsement of the release of the treated water. But can you explain further about this part?

Grossi: A recommendation it is not because they didn't come to us. The government didn't come to us asking: What should we do? They have this policy, which was the result of previous exercise. And then they said to us: Please assess it. Which we did. And then it is not an endorsement because we are not in the in game of politically putting good or bad marks to something. We simply have an assessment based on the application of the safety standards, and how they apply to this. From different perspectives.

We have been looking into the operation itself. We have been looking into ... we have been regulating the regulator, because we looked at the NRA, your National Nuclear Regulatory Agency, which was created in the wake of the accident to replace NISA (National and Industrial Safety Agency), which was the previous regulator. We have looked into how they are checking. So, my impression is that this is very conservative. It's a very stringent review of what has been done.

Takasu: So let's talk about what if the government and TEPCO decide to release the water into the ocean. There's no guarantee that TEPCO is going to carry out the plan as planned. Maybe some problems or human error can occur in some way. But what will the IAEA do when an urgent situation occurs? Do you maybe say to stop releasing the water?

Grossi: If such a situation was required, yes. Yes, of course.

Takasu: Are there any suggestions you will give to them when an urgent situation happens?

Grossi: Well, this is the sense ... if you look at the comprehensive report, you will see there is a whole section on this, where we describe how we are going to be implementing this continued operation. So, the idea is that we will come regularly, we will have a very sophisticated interlaboratory system, where we are going to be sampling in our own laboratories, but also sending samples to our network of well recognized laboratories all over the world. So if there is a deviation, we will immediately draw it to the attention of the government, and if need be, recommend actions.

Takasu: So what kind of attitude do you think is required from the government and TEPCO if they are going to release the water?

Grossi: I think, well, my impression is that they are conscious of the seriousness of this situation. From my position as IAEA, what we would like is to see more of the same — that they remain in the listening mode with us, that they continue to engage with us, and that they allow us to work in the way which is needed. I don't have any indication to the contrary, I should say. I met, of course, the prime minister. He assured me of the full commitment of the government, the foreign minister, the health and national regulation, the president of TEPCO, so I think I cannot go higher than that. So we have, well I have, I believe, I have an open channel of communication with everybody here in Japan, should anything go wrong. And I hope this will not be the case, but we have to be prepared.

Takasu: So about the next visit after Japan. The South Korean government said that you're going to visit there next and also the Cook Islands and New Zealand as well. But what kind of explanation will you give them about the treated water?

Grossi: The same I gave to you. I think it's very important that everybody understands how we've done this. What is our attitude? What is our disposition? And of course, the Republic of Korea has a different vantage point, but even here in Japan, there are critical voices. In their case, it is another country. So the tones, the emotions, perhaps the approaches have different characteristics. But I believe this is why I'm here.

I'm not doing this on behalf of Japan. I'm doing this on behalf of the nuclear safety standards, which I am the guardian of. So I think it's my duty. I could have left the report, let your experts ... . I think it's important to exercise responsibility and to face the voices, the critical voices that may exist, hopefully to dispel, and I know it's not easy. I'm going to be seeing the government, perhaps the opposition even in the Republic of Korea, which is even more critical. But I believe that the only way in life — I'm a diplomat — the only way in life is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Explain, explain. explain.

Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi

Takasu: How do you see the progress of the decommissioning during the past couple of years?

Grossi: You mean the general work if the decommissioning? It's moving along very well. It's moving along very well. We've had a number of missions there. The work on the reactors itself is moving quite rapidly. So I believe that the work that TEPCO has been doing with our support and the support of the regulator is moving quite, quite fast. I'm very satisfied.

Takasu: But there are diverse opinions in Japan about discharging the treated water. Although it's not the scope of the IAEA mission, I know, but what do you think about the justification of the process?

Grossi: I think it's logical that you will have voices. Again, I think we have to have the tolerance, the patience, and the ... I would say the disposition to listen. We were talking about reputation at the beginning of the conversation, we were talking about the living conditions of the people around it. So the fact that there are critical voices, I don't see as something which is unexpected or surprising. But as I said, I believe that the IAEA can play a facilitating role in providing this neutral voice of someone who does not have a commercial interest, or a political interest in the matter, but only a mission to ensure nuclear safety. So in this sense, I understand these voices and as I said to the local actors and people there, I will continue coming back and opening to dialogue and conversation and adjustments as may be needed.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on June 17, 2023

Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

Takasu: We would like to move on to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. And regarding the situation right now, the Ukrainian defense ministry said the Russian troops are beginning to leave the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant while President Zelensky said that Russia has planted mines at the plant. And what do you see about the current situation and safety about the plant?

Grossi: Well, of course, we are extremely concerned about the situation over there. I have visited Zaporizhzhia three times. And in the current context of the announced, or already ongoing counter-offensive, this nuclear power plant is sitting at the front line of the war, which means that it is in an extremely exposed, fragile position. We are aware of these narratives, these formations, these statements, sometimes at the highest levels. I have my group of inspectors, and this is an incredibly important asset for the international community that we have the IAEA there on-site permanently, they stay there, they sleep there, they work there. So, we can have a real-time reading of the situation. There were, in particular the past few days, a number of announcements, wordings, and even a date was mentioned, which has passed, as a date as a sort of a D Day when something terrible was going to happen. We are used to this.

Our experts are checking all the time. We haven't seen any mining, as it was said, but at the same time, we are not relaxing. We know that things can happen anytime. So, I would say that, unlike the Fukushima water, our review is a daily review. It is an hourly review. We are looking at what is happening there by the minute and updating on that. So again, extremely concerned.

And again, trusting that the five principles I enumerated at the United Nations Security Council — Japan was sitting around that table as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council — and we said: What should be avoided? What shouldn't happen? You should never attack a nuclear power plant, you should never militarize a nuclear power plant, etc. So we hope that by the IAEA being there, and having enunciated these principles, which in principle, no one can object to, we will play a constructive role in avoiding a nuclear accident.

Takasu: Zaporizhzhia has been through power outages several times until today. But how dangerous is it right now, would you say?

Grossi: Well, as I said, the situation is very precarious. Apart from the bombing, and attacking with artillery or whatever it is, drones or whatever it is, there are other extremely dangerous situations that may affect the security of the plant and lead to a catastrophic accident. Like for example a blackout, which was what happened in Fukushima. When you lose external power, you lose your cooling function, and we have seen the plant is operating on one, single 330-kilowatt line. It had seven blackouts and on each of these blackouts, the plant was being cooled by emergency diesel generators. So you can see how fragile ... this is again, let me use the analogy again of Fukushima.

These generators kicked in and at some point they were interrupted, you lost ... so you could have — it's not identical — but you could have ... I'm saying this to explain the logic of the chain of events that can take you to an accident. So it's an extremely precarious, extremely fragile situation, and it will continue to be so until the end of the war.

Takasu: How do you perceive the nuclear power plant has been used as a "nuclear shield" in war? Like one of the tools to negotiate.

Grossi: It's a bit of ... your question invites perhaps too much of speculation for me to get into. It's tempting, but it's too much of a speculation. One thing I can say is that as the war has continued, Zaporizhzhia has become much more than a nuclear power plant. It has become a symbol. It is something that attracts the attention and it has captured the imagination and the fears of the international community and rightly so, because nobody wants to see another nuclear accident happen, which would have a major difference with the two previous ones.

Chernobyl, we know what happened — there was a very opaque decision-making system in the Soviet Union chain of events. Amazing.

In the case of Fukushima — the earthquake, tsunami, etc. If there is an accident in Zaporizhzhia, who do we blame? We will only have ourselves to blame because this will have been a created accident. Something that happened because someone did something and the rest was not able to avoid or prevent it.

So I think, like it or not, there's a war. There's a real war, and the plant is there. And of course, it will be used by both sides, deliberately or not, wittingly or unwittingly. It is there. So and what we have to do is to put forward viable, realistic alternatives to protect it. This is why some people say: Why aren't you evacuating the platform? Yes, I wish I could. Why aren't you creating ... I was trying to create a protection zone. But the moment you have a counter-offensive, no military commander will be convinced that there are certain parts of the territory that he or she cannot go. They will never accept it.

So my limitation is the limitation of reality. But what is important is to never cease to insist and to put forward, again, measures that can be achieved with a little bit of goodwill.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine

Takasu: Do you intend to establish an international regulation as IAEA in the future for the Zaporizhzhia operation?

Grossi: You're talking about Zaporizhzhia only? Well, we'll see how the war evolves, and what kind of situation we are confronted with. The IAEA is ready to play whatever role may be required of it in order to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the situation around the plant. We are ready.