For 12 years, ever since an earthquake and tsunami caused a triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, contaminated water has been stored in 30-metre-high tanks. Today, there are more than a thousand, and the disaster site is the size of a small town.
On Thursday, after years of preparation and treatment, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), began releasing some of that water into the Pacific Ocean. Both the company and the Japanese government insist the plan is safe. Opponents of the plan – environmental groups, fishermen, Beijing – disagree.
Just hours after the discharge process began, China issued a blanket ban on imports of Japanese seafood products, saying it was “highly concerned about the risk of radioactive contamination.” Earlier, the country’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment accused Japan of “putting its own self-interest above the long-term well-being of all mankind” and urged Tokyo to listen to “the voice of the international community and dispose of nuclear-contaminated water in a scientific, safe and transparent manner.”
Japan, however, insists this is exactly what it is doing. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear regulatory body, has signed off on the plan, saying it meets international standards and will have “negligible” effects on the environment. The United States has also supported the discharge, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s neighbours South Korea and Taiwan.
Speaking to CNN last month, IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi said it was understandable that people have concerns, given the scale of the plan.
“When one visits Fukushima, it is quite impressive – I will even say ominous – to look at all these tanks, more than a million tons of water that contains radionuclides, imagining that this is going to be discharged into the ocean,” he told the broadcaster. “So all sorts of fears kick in, and one has to take them seriously, to address and to explain.”
But he defended the discharge as safe and better than other options, such as burying the water or boiling it and releasing the vapour into the atmosphere.
Greenpeace has strongly criticized the plan, however, saying it underestimates the risk to health, “disregards scientific evidence, violates the human rights of communities in Japan and the Pacific region, and is non-compliant with international maritime law.”
The environmental group argues that long-term storage is a viable option but has been dismissed by Tokyo, as it would expose flaws in the government’s decommissioning of the Fukushima plant, where radioactive water continues to accumulate more than a decade after the disaster. Large amounts of contaminated soil and nuclear fuel debris also remain to be handled.
According to TEPCO, most radioactive elements have been removed from the water to be discharged, except for tritium, a hydrogen isotope that cannot be filtered out and must be diluted. Tritium levels in the water released Thursday were about 63 becquerels a litre, the company said, far below the World Health Organization drinking water limit of 10,000 becquerels a litre. A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity.
Many nuclear plants around the world routinely discharge water contaminated with higher levels of tritium, including in China – something Tokyo has been keen to point out. But accusations of hypocrisy did not stop China and Hong Kong – Japan’s largest and second-largest markets for agricultural and fisheries exports – from threatening to ban seafood imports if the discharge went ahead.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong restricted aquatic imports from 10 areas of Japan, four of which are landlocked and would not be affected by the discharge into the Pacific. Last month, Japanese deputy consul-general Naoto Nakahara accused the Hong Kong government of “trying to win brownie points from Beijing” with its tough response, which could devastate a food and beverage sector still recovering from the pandemic.
There are about 2,000 restaurants serving Japanese food in Hong Kong, up to a third of which could be forced to close as a result of the ban, according to the city’s Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades.
Japanese fishing groups fear the damage to their livelihoods could go beyond formal measures. Seafood sales were down about 30 per cent in Hong Kong even before this week, and there have been protests in South Korea and Taiwan, sparking fears of a consumer boycott. On Thursday, police in Seoul arrested more than a dozen people who had attempted to enter the Japanese embassy during a demonstration there.
“Being told something is scientifically safe and feeling reassured are two different things,” said Masanobu Sakamoto, head of the Japanese National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations. “Proof that the water release is scientifically safe may not remove reputational damage.”
Many Japanese consumers have also expressed concern. On Thursday, protesters in Tokyo rallied against the discharge. The Fukushima disaster renewed long-standing worries in Japan about nuclear energy, resulting in a decade-long moratorium that was only lifted last year.
With files from Reuters.