Over a million metric tonnes of water contaminated with radioactive substances from the Fukushima nuclear disaster are set to be dumped in the Pacific Ocean, it was confirmed today.

The water has been kept in around 1000 storage tanks at the disaster-struck nuclear power station for the past decade.

But with rainfall and groundwater finding their way into the site, the size of Japan’s problem has steadily increased since the power station was damaged by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

At the current rate of increase, storage space at the site will reach its limit by late 2022.

The decision has for the past year been a matter of intense debate at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the power station’s owners.

Japan's fishing industry faces disaster if the release of radioactive wastewater brings about the expected boycotts from neighbouring nations – in particular China.

While most of the waste has been treated to remove hazardous radionuclides, there are still significant amounts of tritium in the water. Tritium a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and is impossible to separate from the water molecules themselves.

Ken Buesseler at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, estimates that it would take about two years for the tritium to reach the US West Coast.

Most experts agree that tritium, in the concentrations expected to be released from the Fukushima plant, poses no serious risk to human health.

Pascal Bailly du Bois at the Cherbourg-Octeville Radioecology Laboratory in France told New Scientist: “The radiological impact on fisheries and marine life will be very small, similar to when the Fukushima reactors were operating under normal conditions.”

However, he added that the potential impact on the region’s fish – and humans who eat them – remains to be seen.

Michiaki Kai, an expert on radiation risk assessment at Japan’s Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences, agrees, telling reporters: "There is consensus among scientists that the impact on health is minuscule."

However, Japan’s fishermen are deeply unhappy with the decision.

In an interview on Japanese news station NHK Kanji Tachiya, leader of a Fukushima-based fisheries cooperative, said: "They told us that they wouldn’t release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen.

"We can’t back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."

Materials scientist Gaetan Bonhomme, vice president of strategic planning at nuclear waste specialists Kurion, says tritium "is a radionuclide and it does cause public concern".

Greenpeace’s Shaun Burnie said that TEPCO’s insistence on calling the water "treated" rather than "contaminated" to downplay the risk is dishonest.

"If it was not contaminated or radioactive they would not need approval from Japan’s nuclear regulator," he said.

"The water in the tanks is indeed treated, but it is also contaminated with radioactivity. The Japanese government has been deliberately seeking to deceive over this issue, at home and abroad."

However, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga insists that releasing the water into the Pacific Ocean is the "most realistic" option available, adding that it's "unavoidable in order to achieve Fukushima’s recovery".

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