Recently, the Japanese government made the decision to release contaminated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean. This comes after the UN Nuclear Watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave the approval to the Japanese government to release the water. This decision has generated controversy, as TEPCO, the Japanese company responsible for treating the radioactive water, was unable to filter tritium from the radioactive water. Katharina Sharma explains in this article, whether the Japanese government’s decision was legitimate and unacceptable or not, and the reasons surrounding the controversy behind it.
Amidst protests from China, the South Korean public, and environmental groups, Japan began releasing over 1.3 million cubic meters of contaminated water stored at the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident site into the Pacific Ocean. Since the disaster, the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been storing the contaminated water in 1000 tanks, which are now close to capacity, leading to the decision to release the water into the Ocean. The water has been filtered through an Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove most radioactive elements. However, tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, remains in the water even after filtration.
The planned release of Fukushima water is surprisingly uncontroversial among experts, despite some suggestions that the long-term impact of exposure to tritium has not yet been sufficiently explored. As Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth, Jim Smith explains, the release of water containing tritium is commonplace for nuclear plants globally, ironically including in China and South Korea, where opposition to Japan’s plans is fiercest. Even in the UK, the Sellafield nuclear facility annually releases 50 times more tritium into the ocean than the Fukushima plant. Smith states the practice has gone on ‘for decades without significant impacts’ on the environment and human health.
While there have been large concerns over the release of water from Fukushima, some experts have argued that there was no need for panic, and that it would have little impact on the environment and on human health.
Further indicating the safety of the release, the UN‘s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has conducted a two-year review of the planned release at the Fukushima facility by internationally recognised nuclear safety experts. It concludes the release is ‘consistent with relevant international safety standards‘, explaining that ‘discharges of the treated water would have a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment‘.
Environmental and activist groups’ responses to the release have been mixed. Greenpeace Japan opposes the plans, stating the decision ‘ignores people’s concerns’, and that an alternative solution should be sought. Contrastingly, experts in National Geographic indicate that while the release should be monitored closely and some of the possible impacts remain unknown and are therefore cause for some concern, there is no concrete basis for panic over the health of the Pacific Ocean and human wellbeing.
Nonetheless, scientific evidence has done little to calm the backlash against Japan’s plans. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the plan ‘extremely selfish and irresponsible’. In Seoul, thousands took to the streets to demand the Yoon administration block the release, with local fishing communities fear for their livelihoods as they face boycotts of their products over safety concerns from Asian nations.
So, where does this seemingly disproportionate uproar against Japan’s plans originate from?
A diplomatic standoff has ensued within the Asia-Pacific regarding the Fukushima water controversy between the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Japan
Many experts point to a diplomatic and political power struggle in the Asia Pacific. Confronted with an increasingly assertive Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo have heightened their bilateral cooperation, threatening China’s dominance in the region. Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945 is responsible for historically icy relations, with previous attempts at reconciliation failing due to differences in opinions over appropriate reparations. However, this year the two have held their first bilateral talks for over a decade.
The Fukushima water controversy further highlights the impact of disinformation in political rivalries in order to influence the definition of what is correct and what is not
Nevertheless, the South Korean government faces difficulties convincing the public of the relationship’s benefits. Reuters suggests China may use the Fukushima Waters to enhance public dissent in South Korea to further complicate cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo. There is substantial evidence to support a widespread propaganda effort by Beijing to undermine Japan’s plans. Chinese state news sources publish fear-mongering articles, such as a recent Global Times article portraying the plans as entirely unsafe and a risk to human rights, metaphorically referring to ‘Real life “Godzilla fears”’, featuring an image of Godzilla in the ocean.
Chinese propaganda against Japan’s plans is especially widespread on social media. A study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that Chinese diplomats tweeted against the issue over 300 times in the first five months of 2023 in many languages. Moreover, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), whose investigation found that such accounts were sharing videos originally produced by the German GEOMAR institute, depicting the spread of radioactive material through the ocean directly after the 2011 nuclear disaster. The video has since been altered, claiming to show projections for the spread of harmful nuclear water through Japan’s plans, and has been shared by Chinese officials and ambassadors. The ISD states this illustrates how ‘legitimate, pre-existing research can be manipulated and repackaged in furtherance of geopolitical goals’.
This does not imply that there is no legitimate reason for concern over releasing nuclear waters, especially when many of the long-term consequences are still unknown. However, the uproar specifically regarding the Fukushima waters seems disproportionate and politically motivated and serves as a stark warning against the effectiveness of false information spread online
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