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Shaken and stirred waters of the Indo-Pacific

What is happening?

On August 24, Japan started to release the first portion of over one million metric tons of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea. The Japanese government considers this a crucial step to the decommissioning of the plant which was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and the following meltdowns. According to Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) which operates the facility, the water will be released in smaller portions and with careful checks. The first discharge should take 17 days, and the whole process at least thirty years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the plan met international standards and that the impact it would have on people and the environment was “negligible.” Despite that, China, Hong Kong, and Macau oppose the release, while South Korea and Taiwan are not particularly excited either.


What is the broader picture?

The Fukushima nuclear disaster took place 12 years ago. An earthquake and a subsequent tsunami caused it. The following damage resulted in a triple nuclear meltdown, hydrogen explosions, and radioactive contamination. From that moment on, water used to cool molten fuel at the plant has mixed with rain and groundwater that seep into the damaged reactor buildings. Its volume has continued to accumulate. This is why Tokyo approved a plan to decommission the plant, which is now set in motion. Before the release, most of the radioactive substances are removed from the water, but it still contains tritium, a hydrogen isotope that is difficult to filter. Therefore, the treated water is also diluted to reduce the amount of tritium to approximately one-seventh of the World Health Organization’s requirements for drinking water. The water is then released about one kilometer from the coast through a tunnel under the seabed.

Just one day after the discharge of the diluted water started, the Environment Ministry tested for tritium seawater samples from 11 locations in the vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and found that they contained less than ten becquerels (a unit of radioactivity) per liter, which means below the level set as detectable. The same applied for tritium levels of tested fish caught in the area.

Why it matters?

Despite the promising results, the whole case has been hugely medialized given the symbolic importance of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, after which Germany, among others, decided to close all its nuclear power plants. The Japanese government had to convince the local fishing industry that feared that releasing the “tritium water” would cause reputational damage and threaten its livelihood, but that was not the only challenge. The release also put the slightly improving yet still fragile relations between Japan and South Korea at risk. After several tensions, South Korea stated that “it sees no problem with the scientific or technical aspects of the plan, but did not necessarily agree with or support it.”

In the case of Taiwan, environmental protection groups like No Nukes Taiwan or Greenpeace Taiwan strongly opposed Japan’s decision. Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council (AEC) said it will carefully monitor the waters around Taiwan and work with relevant ministries to step up checks of Japanese seafood products.

However, the most vigorous opposition came from China, which called the plan “extremely selfish” and decided to suspend imports of Japanese seafood, to which Japan’s industry minister Nishimura Yasutoshi replied: We urge China to restart imports and act based on scientific evidence.” Similarly to China, Hong Kong described the discharge of water as “irresponsible” and decided to respond with import controls on Japanese seafood from selected regions. Meanwhile, Macau decided to ban live, frozen, refrigerated, and dried seafood, as well as sea salt and seaweed.

So even though the initial data look promising and everything has been running smoothly so far, the sole decision to release the water has brought the Japanese government on very thin ice.