Japan discharges treated radioactive water into the ocean, sparking global debate and concerns over seafood safety, political tensions, and media bias.
The Fukushima nuclear power plant was destroyed in 2011 by an earthquake and tsunami that also destroyed its cooling system, overheated the reactor cores, and contaminated the water inside the facility with extremely radioactive material.
Tepco, the operator of the power plant, has been pumping water into the reactors ever since the accident to cool the fuel rods. On a daily basis, the factory generates enough contaminated water to fill more than 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools, which are then held in more than 1,000 tanks.
Japan claims it needs the space taken up by the tanks in order to construct new structures for the plant’s safe decommissioning. Concerns have also been expressed regarding what may happen if the tanks were to burst during a natural disaster.
With approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Japan is progressively discharging wastewater into the ocean. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so contentious if Japan had been able to completely remove all radioactive components from the wastewater before pumping it into the ocean. Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is what’s causing the issue, and there is no technique to remove it from the contaminated water. The water is instead diluted.
As a result of the wastewater spill, Japan’s seafood has been prohibited in China.
Experts claim that the radiation released is low and that there is no scientific support for concerns about seafood, leading some media pundits to speculate that this could be a political act. According to experts, ocean currents, particularly the cross-Pacific Kuroshio current, may be responsible for transporting the wastewater.
Additionally, fisherman have expressed concern for their jobs and fear that their reputation has been irreparably tarnished. Like the IAEA, Mark Brown, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, claims that he thinks it “meets international safety standards” even as he acknowledges that other Pacific islands are divided over the nuclear water release.
He went on to say that although all of the countries in the area might not agree on the “complex” subject, he asked them to “assess the science”.
Kyodo News reports that the Japanese fisheries agency also emphasized that tritium levels in fish from the area of the plant were not traceable. Despite the fact that South Korea claimed there were no scientific issues with the water discharge, environmental campaigners contend that not all potential effects have been considered. Tritium is thought to be reasonably safe because its radiation is insufficiently energetic to penetrate human skin, but when consumed at amounts above that found in discharged water, it can increase the risk of cancer.
China has criticized the IAEA for being “one-sided” and accused Japan of treating the ocean like its “private sewer”. Although the South Korean government claims to have no issues with the idea, many of its residents are against it.
According to the Japanese government, the final tritium concentration, which is around 1,500 becquerels per liter, is significantly safer than the levels demanded by authorities for the disposal of nuclear waste or by the WHO for drinking water. According to Tepco, the carbon-14 level complies with requirements. Studies carried out by Tepco and the Japanese government demonstrate that there is no harm to marine life and humans from the released water. The plan has also received support from many scientists.
Nevertheless, some scientists are uneasy about the strategy. More research is needed, according to some, to determine how it would impact marine life and the ocean floor.
“We’ve seen an inadequate radiological, ecological impact assessment that makes us very concerned that Japan would not only be unable to detect what’s getting into the water, sediment, and organisms but that if it does, there is no recourse to remove it… there’s no way to get the genie back in the bottle,” marine biologist Robert Richmond, a professor at the University of Hawaii, said on the BBC’s Newsday program.
Professor of nuclear engineering Tatsujiro Suzuki from Nagasaki University’s Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition told the BBC that if all goes well, the proposal “won’t necessarily result in serious pollution or readily harm the public.”
China has been the most outspoken, charging Japan with transgressing “international moral and legal obligations” and “putting its selfish interests above the long-term wellbeing of the entire humanity”.
Beijing expanded a previous ban on seafood from Fukushima and several prefectures to span the entirety of Japan shortly after Japan began discharging the water. The largest consumer of Japanese seafood is China.
It is important to note that the two nations already have a tense relationship as a result of China’s provocative actions surrounding Taiwan, Japan’s recent military buildup, and its tighter ties to the US.
Seoul, which has been eager to forge relationships with Japan, has toned down its worries in contrast to China. It declares that it has approved the proposal and “respects” the IAEA’s conclusions. However, this tactic has infuriated the South Korean populace, who, according to a recent poll, are highly concerned about the water leak. More than two-thirds of South Koreans oppose Japan’s release of treated water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, according to a poll released on October 12.
The Pacific Islands, some of which are still dealing with the fallout from the nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom between the 1940s and the late 20th century, are likewise opposed to any nuclear activities in the area out of concern for further contamination. While this is going on, Japanese fishing communities are concerned that the livelihoods they have fought so hard to restore following the crisis in 2011 may once again be lost.
There has been a lot of fake news and misinformation on this topic and notably, the perceived threat of nuclear discharge. Some of the content has even been circulated by Chinese state media, including AI-generated images of a nuclear-powered Godzilla rising from the seas.
Social media posts on TikTok, Weibo, Facebook, and elsewhere shared a graphic with claims the wastewater would contaminate most of the Pacific Ocean within 57 days.
The posts, mainly from China and South Korea but also circulated within Japan, shared a graphic from the 2011 Fukushima disaster when a tsunami knocked out three reactors in one of the world’s worst atomic accidents.
A hashtag associated with the graphic on Weibo generated 700 million views, and the animation was shared thousands of times on other platforms. The graphic was also used by Chinese state media, including CCTV and CGTN.
But the animation, showing a model simulation of Caesium-137 dispersed into the Pacific following the 2011 nuclear accident, was taken from a 2012 study. Erik Behrens, the lead author of the study, conducted by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, told AFP it “only captures the initial release of 137-Cs during the first few weeks after the meltdown occurred and was not made for any long-term release scenarios”.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged “a high level of transparency” and the Japanese government and utility Tepco have also started massive public education efforts.
On a website devoted to detailing the treatment and discharge operations in various languages, Tepco has also committed to publishing online real-time data on the water’s radiation levels. On the diplomatic front, Tokyo has held discussions with its neighbors in addition to inviting foreign delegations and media organizations, such as the BBC, for tours of the processing facilities.
Double standards when it is not China?
Had this been China instead of Japan, one wonders how the Western media would have reacted. For starters, China is always an easy target for every nation in the world. In an effort to defend Japan’s conduct and minimize the risk of the plan, certain Western media outlets have deliberately omitted the negative effects of the plan frequently citing its conclusion and delving deeper into what Japan was doing rather than highlighting the possible risks attached to this water release.
Western reports also missed certain important facts such as Japan’s own water testing has been incomplete and that the wastewater also contains other hazardous radioactive materials along with tritium.
The Washington Post emphasized that Japan will release the water “after treatment,” in an apparent effort to defend Japan’s move, while The New York Times published one item on it that expressed relatively little anxiety. The article stated that although China and South Korea disagreed with Japan’s choice, the United States supported it. Many pointed out that Western environmental and human rights NGOs, which have long criticized China, have been silent regarding the Fukushima water issue. This implied how Western media has been biased and tried to cover the Japanese issue and therefore under-reported the entire Fukushima issue.
A key commentary by Tatsujiro Suzuki, the Vice director and professor at the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University, Japan, and also a former vice chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission unmasks the risks associated with this nuclear water release.
He writes about the Advanced liquid processing systems (ALPS) and how it is used to remove most radioactive substances from the water, except for tritium. However, as of March 31, 2023, only a third of the treated water met regulatory standards. He also raised doubts on TEPCO and the Japanese government as previous promises and assurances to the local fishermen and stakeholders have not been met. The article summarizes other findings involved in his study by ending with a recommendation to halt water release, involving independent oversight, being transparent in decision-making, and considering the treated water release as a “demonstration” program. This approach would allow for further studies on environmental impact and the exploration of alternative solutions. He feels this will help restore trust.
Had it been China, it would have undoubtedly led to a wide uproar among major countries in the international community. China has been claiming its territoriality in the South China Sea and East China Sea and such water release by China into this region for example would have led to major controversies and countries like Indonesia, Singapore, and even Japan would widely have condemned it.
For instance, China in 2020 exhausted its waters of seafood and carried out several fishing expeditions across international waters. Moreover, Chinese fishing vessels tend to venture out to South America and their transgressions in 2020 were seen in the waters near Ecuador. Environmental activists had warned that such a fishing fleet could perhaps pose a threat to the fragile marine ecosystem. The fleet of Chinese fishing vessels employs a technique called “bottom trawling”. It is an extremely destructive practice of fishing along the sea floor. This was condemned by many major nations including the US, wherein, The US had warned China to stop its unsustainable fishing practices, rule-breaking, and willful environmental degradation of the oceans.
In the current scenario, the US seems to be biased towards Japan, knowing that Japan is a strong US ally and also a Quad member which is vital for countering China’s moves in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia too followed suit and applauded the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) final assessment of Japan’s proposed discharge of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant treated water. The IAEA has determined that releasing the treated water would be in accordance with generally recognized safety norms that guarantee the protection of people and the environment.
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