GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 711, 20 July 2023

Japan and the Fukushima Power Plant: The controversy over releasing the wastewater
Sneha Surendran

In the news
On 14 July, along the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yoshimasa Hayashi held a discussion with Chinese diplomat Wang Yi on Japan releasing the Fukushima wastewater. Hayashi suggested China to analyse the situation in a "scientific manner," which was dismissed by the Chinese diplomat. Yi reiterated China's position, terming the decision "irresponsible, unpopular and unilateral," raising concerns on the impact of radiation on the environment and people. He called on Japan to focus on the concerns expressed by others, and to clearly communicate with its neighbours before proceeding with the decision. Yi remarked: "This is as much an issue about attitude as it is about science."  

Issues at large
First, the opposition from neighbouring countries. China has been at the forefront opposing Japan's plan of releasing the stored water at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. South Korea, despite initial apprehension, have endorsed it after having its team conducting tests at Fukushima. However, South Korea’s opposition - the Democratic Party, have called for the issue to be taken to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, siding with the people who have held demonstrations against the decision. Meanwhile, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a regional grouping of islands in the Pacific, said that the plan was a "major nuclear contamination disaster," stressing the need for more adequate testing, data collection and analysis before proceeding. PIF also reiterated their concerns on using the Pacific as the dumping site for the nuclear waste, given that the people of the islands are dependent on the ocean for food and livelihood. 

Second, the distrust with the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA). The plan has IAEA’s consent, which conducted a two-year-long review at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They concluded that the contamination remaining in the treated water was in line with the IAEA safety standards and the release would have "negligible radiological impact to people and the environment." The IAEA head also travelled to Japan, South Korea, and the Pacific Islands to reassure governments and people about the decision. Although the IAEA report was accepted by Japan, it has been criticized by other governments, environmental groups, and scientists. China called the report "one-sided." South Korea's opposition parties also doubt the scientific stance of the IAEA on the issue, saying their report seemed more political and "tailored to Japan."

Third, a mixed response from the Japanese public. In a poll by Kyodo News in June, 45 per cent of the population agreed to the decision, while 40 per cent were not in favour. People living in and around the city of Fukushima have been the largest critics; they are concerned that releasing the wastewater will undo the progress over the years, raising concerns of the radiation levels increasing again. Fishing communities have voiced out how consumers lost confidence in the fish and food exports from Fukushima following the disaster. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida who is aware of these concerns, had stated: "Japan will continue to provide explanations to the Japanese people and to the international community in a sincere manner based on scientific evidence and with a high level of transparency."  

In perspective 
First, the economic fallouts. Following fears of radiation contamination in sea-based products, there have been cases of panic-buying of large amounts of salt in South Korea. Seoul, despite supporting the decision to release the wastewater, have continued the ban on products from Fukushima. To allay the public fears, authorities are conducting random radiation screening tests in the markets. The Hong Kong government stated that they would impose a ban on food and seafood products from ten Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima and Tokyo. Restaurant-owners in Hong Kong have begun looking at substitutes for Japanese-based cuisine and alternate suppliers of seafood. Meanwhile, China has banned imports from ten Japanese prefectures, including the long-time ban on food products from Fukushima. China and Hong Kong are Japan's largest markets for exporting fisheries. Restrictions from these countries will have a significant impact on the Japanese fisheries' industry. 

Second, call for more studies. The IAEA's analysis on the safety of releasing Fukushima wastewater has failed to gain the trust of all countries in the region. More comprehensive and accountable studies and transparency from the Japanese side regarding the health impact of radiation is essential to carry out a successful and peaceful release of the waste water.  

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