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Fear in East Asia as Japan Began Releasing Filtered Nuclear Wastewater

By Kristi Greenwood, BA Japanese

Chinese customs stated all imports of Japanese seafood would be banned ‘to protect the health of consumers’

Japan’s decades-long plan of releasing nuclear wastewater into the ocean, equal to 500 Olympic swimming pools, has finally begun. The wastewater has resulted from the cleanup project of the 2011 tragic Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, led by the Japanese government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power). 

The 9.1 magnitude earthquake that caused the seawater contamination hit eastern Japan in 2011, killing over 18,000 people and triggering a tsunami that struck a nuclear power plant, causing the largest nuclear disaster in Japan. 

NATO and The International Nuclear Agency have approved the nuclear wastewater release plan and reviewed the science. Yet neighbouring countries are responding with strong reactions, including a Chinese ban on all Japanese seafood.

So is the Water Safe?

TEPCO stated that the water has been filtered of 62 radioactive elements via their Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to meet global standards. The ALPS water is further diluted before it is finally released. However, the water will not be entirely radiation-free due to the residue of tritium that no present-day technology can remove. Tritium is not harmful in small doses. Mr. Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth stated, ‘Tritium is a very weak radiation emitter making it much less dangerous than other radioactive elements.’

That said, tritium is highly fatal when ingested in large doses. The Japanese government reported that the predicted radiation people would be exposed to due to the release of nuclear wastewater is less than 0.00003 millisieverts per year. This is a small fraction of the average radiation dose sustained by a typical individual living in Japan, which is 2.1 millisieverts per year. 

There has been widespread national and international criticism of the wastewater release plan since the document was released by TEPCO. Only 53% of the Japanese population supported the plans, according to a survey conducted in August 2023 by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Local fishers in the Fukushima area are concerned that their reputation will be tarnished and the Japanese fishing industry affected negatively as a result. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters, ‘I promise we will take on the entire responsibility of ensuring the fishing industry can continue to make a living, even if it will take decades.’

In Korea, climate activists and environmentalists vocally opposed the plan, with 16 students being arrested outside the Japanese embassy after protesting the release of the wastewater in late August. Fishmongers in Korea reported a rush of customers and panic buying of sea salt the day before the wastewater release as fears of sea salt being affected by the nuclear wastewater grew. The Korean government responded; ‘We have assessed that there are no scientific or technical problems with the plan to release the contaminated water.’ This stance could be seen as a sign of attempts at strengthening Korea-Japan relations.

China issued a statement from the General Administration of Customs stating all imports of Japanese seafood would be banned ‘to protect the health of consumers.’ China is the biggest buyer of Japanese seafood, accounting for 40% of all sales. The ban will thus take a substantial toll on the Japanese economy.

Experts have noted that the ban is perhaps politically fueled rather than one of genuine concern. Fears and disapproval of the plan have caused tensions in Japanese-Chinese relationships, culminating with a brick being thrown into the Japanese embassy in Beijing in late August. 

Yoshimasa Hayashi, a member of Japan’s House of Representatives and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Tokyo; ‘We would like to urge the Chinese government again to take appropriate measures immediately.’ This comes during an increase in the number of racist prank calls being reported by Japanese businesses from Chinese numbers. 

Prime Minister Kishisida along with 3 other Ministers were seen eating a variety of sashimi, sea bass and octopus caught in Fukushima’s waters to prove the safety and quality of Japanese seafood. Japan’s Minister of Agriculture, Ichiro Miyashita, has been promoting the consumption of Japanese seafood. Miyashita was pictured in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia eating scallops with celebrity Amber Chia, signalling the safety of their products to a wider market.

Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirming that the wastewater release would have a negligible impact on the environment, marine life, and human health, critics and the general public are not convinced and this will likely remain a contentious issue for years to come. 

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