29.12.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Dumping Radioactive Water into the Pacific Ocean — a Hypothetical Scenario for Tokyo?


It was not so long ago that we wrote about how radiophobia is being stoked up as part of the trade war between Japan and South Korea. Having brought this topic to the public’s attention, I would like to go into more detail and highlight people’s fears that “Japanese authorities are about to flood the world with millions of tons of contaminated water”

On March 11, 2011, earthquake tremors generated a tsunami wave which flooded the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant with 4-5 meters of water. This led to a power outage, a resultant loss-of-coolant accident, which caused the nuclear meltdown, and radioactive substances leaked out. Water was pumped into the reactor core for cooling, including seawater. The amount of contaminated water stored at the plant is increasing by 170 tons on a daily basis, and by the end of July, it had reached a total volume of 1 million 150 thousand tons. All of the treated water is stored in 977 sealed tanks, which are part of what has been an extremely costly and complex process to dispose of the contaminated water.

It is estimated that the storage space will run out by August 2020, and something will have to be done with all the water.

Thus, in August 2019, Senior Nuclear Specialist Shaun Burnie with Greenpeace Germany based in Berlin reported that Japan is considering the possibility of dumping the radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. According to Shaun Burnie, this water will be carried to other parts of the world by sea currents, and a number of countries will suffer, including South Korea. In an interview with the Korea Times, Burnie explained that Japan’s desired solution had to do with greed: “They do not want to pay the full costs of storing and processing the contaminated water, including removal of radioactive tritium.” Most controversially, according to Burnie, this was the reason why the Ministry of Economy Task Force on water turned down the options offered by various companies to develop tritium removal technology back in 2016. This is an important point, as Japanese government officials say that tritium is the only radioactive element in the water, and that it is actually relatively non-toxic. Although according to the experts quoted in the Korea Times, it can cause cancer and fetal deformities.

According to a Greenpeace report published in early 2019, the Japanese government allegedly considered five options of how to deal with its increasing volume of radioactive waste, and dumping it into the Pacific Ocean was deemed to be the most reasonable option, as it would only cost 37.7 billion yen based on calculations from 2016 supplied by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

However, the sources where all of this information has come from remain unknown. The South Korean media cite a news briefing with former Japanese Minister of the Environment Yoshiaki Harada, who said that “The only option will be to drain it into the sea and dilute it.” However, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga commented that Harada’s remarks were just his own personal opinion, and that the government had not made any decision.

Other experts also believe that the waste may be dumped. Kim Ik-jung, a former medical professor at Dongguk University who served as a member of South Korea’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, points out that discharging contaminated water into the sea would be the cheapest and fastest way to get rid of it, but that it would also be the most dangerous option. According to Kim, we would have to wait about another 300 years before the water would be naturally purified and safe to discharge. However, this takes time and money.

Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University in Japan, believes the Japanese government will go ahead and discharge the water contaminated with radiation into the sea in the near future, and that this should be stopped at all costs, even if it means boycotting the Tokyo Olympics — after the Games are held, the water is likely to be discharged. However, this is only an expert opinion, and it is unclear what it is based on. Back in 2018 however, the retired nuclear physicist submitted a document to the members of the Olympic Committee, questioning Japan’s suitability as the host country for the Olympics, and he also questioned the country’s ability to take the strict safety measures necessary to protect athletes and visitors at the event. According to Hiroaki Koide, athletes participating in the Games may be exposed to radiation, as it turns out that the radioactive materials that leaked out after the explosion at the Fukushima plant in 2011 are still affecting “an area whose vastness has not been precisely determined yet”, and by saying that there is no danger of radiation exposure, “the Japanese government was being dishonest.”

Shaun Burnie, as one would expect to hear from a specialist working for Greenpeace, supports this alarmist view: “[…] many citizens [are] living in areas with low radiation risks ― at the same time there are areas in Fukushima […] where radiation risks are high, and tens of thousands of citizens remain displaced as evacuees.”

Thus, Burnie is constantly raising this issue, essentially lobbying for South Korea’s position. For instance, on September 14, 2019, Burnie stressed that South Korea should raise this issue on an international platform.

There are mechanisms in place in international law to prevent the possible contaminated water from being released into the sea. There is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, which requires that member states take measures to prevent, reduce or control pollution of the marine environment. Then there is also the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, which is still in force.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fights for safe nuclear energy, which should be notified when these kinds of actions are taken.  However, each country determines its own permissible level of radioactive pollution that can be released into the sea independently: while South Korea sets its limit at 40 thousand becquerels per liter of water, Japan’s limit is 60 thousand. The value recorded at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is 120 thousand becquerels.

Then, there is the general principle that we should prevent marine pollution, but no specific rules. For example, Japan could argue that discharging the water will not harm other countries. Tokyo can also justify its actions by claiming the event was a force majeure, given the huge volumes of radioactive water, which would make it difficult to prove these actions and their consequences are illegal.

That is why the government in Seoul is trying as hard as it can to make the international community sit up and take notice of this problem, and also wants to begin gathering evidence and data on the consequences we could be faced with if the contaminated water is discharged, all in the hope that the whole world will take a stand against it, making it harder for Japan to take this step.

In mid-August, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs appealed to the Japanese government to state its official position. Environment Minister Cho Myung-Rae also wrote on social media: “We’ve asked the Japanese government to share material about how it is coping with the contaminated water from Fukushima, but it has avoided giving answers.”

On September 16, 2019 at the 63rd Annual Regular Session of the IAEA General Conference held in Austria, South Korea’s First Minister of Science and ICT Mun Mi-ock noted that “In the meantime, high-level Japanese government officials recently started to state that marine discharges are inevitable as a way to deal with Fukushima contaminated water.” Mun believes there needs to be a survey carried out of the conditions at the reactor and its contaminated water, as well as an environmental and ecological impact assessment at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, and the approach developed should be scientific, with more objective measures to solve the problem. She also urged Japan to take meaningful and transparent measures and action aimed at protecting the environment.

Meanwhile, a Japanese representative stressed the importance of security, noting the need to refrain from unscientific criticism, and it is worth adding that only the Korean side has the details about the Japanese officials making these types of statements, and there are no dates or names given for these officials.

Mun Mi-ock said in her keynote speech that “Japan has failed to find an answer to the disposal of the radioactive waste since the meltdown at the Fukushima plant in March 2011.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in later added, “It is an important international issue that can affect the marine environment of the whole world, so the IAEA and its members need to take joint action.”

After failing to achieve results at the IAEA General Conference, the South Korean government decided to bring the issue before another international organization at the meeting of Contracting Parties to the London Convention and Protocol at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) headquarters in London on October 7, where it discussed the possibility of Japan dumping the radioactive water. So far, the London Convention and London Protocol have only focused on the dumping of waste and pollutants by ships, but South Korea submitted a request to have the problem of pollution caused by discharging contaminated water included on the official agenda. The South Korean representative in attendance, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries’ Policy Director Song Myeong-dal, pointed out that Japan needs to discuss this issue with neighboring countries and the international community, providing the necessary information. However, Japan and the leaders of the IMO maintained their position that the issue should be resolved in the IAEA and only expressed a willingness to provide relevant data.

Nevertheless, South Korea considers this result a victory. First of all, the issue has been put on the agenda for a lengthy multilateral discussion. Secondly, Japan has made a commitment to make all the related data available to the public. Consequently, the international community will now be able to impose restrictive measures if contaminated water is released into the World Ocean.

South Korea has continued to express serious concern over Japan’s plan to dispose of its radioactive water. As a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in October 2019, “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other relevant government bodies are still considering measures to prevent Tokyo from carrying out such an environmentally unfriendly action.” On top of this, the “increased concern in the public about the flow of hundreds of tons of contaminated water into the ocean” is being addressed, as special inspections are beginning to be carried out on ships that have taken on ballast water near Fukushima with the malicious intention of dumping it in Korean waters.

Along with all the hullabaloo over water pollution, South Korea is stoking up radiophobia in other areas. Between 2014 and 2019, South Korean regulatory bodies detected radiation 35 times in 17 different types of food products imported to the Republic of Korea from Japan. That is 16.800 kg worth of contaminated food. This was reported on August 29 by a member of South Korea’s parliamentary Health and Welfare Committee, Chang Jung-sook, who cited data from the South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. The food products found to be contaminated included chocolate, nuts and processed food products containing nuts, roasted coffee products, bilberry extract, seafood and other food categories. KBS has learned that some of these products were well-known brands being sold at Japanese food supply stores in South Korea. Some of the products were found to have been manufactured in eight Japanese prefectures where Seoul has imposed a seafood import ban. The ban was imposed due to the close proximity of these prefectures to the site of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has assured the public that Japanese food products sold in South Korea have passed all the radiation detection tests and are perfectly safe.

The South Korean government has responded by carrying out a large-scale inspection of imported seafood to clarify where it has been produced, in order to allay public concerns over whether the food is safe for human consumption. During the inspection, the government is expected to clamp down on over 3 thousand restaurants, large department stores, markets and food processing companies. Eight food products will be the primary focus of the inspection, including Pacific saury, conger eel, octopus and pollock. If seafood is sold without the place of production on the labelling, the seller will be fined up to 9 thousand dollars, and if a false place of production is indicated, the offender can expect to pay a fine of up to 130 thousand dollars, and may face up to 10 years behind bars.

As the Tokyo 2020 Olympics draw closer, the Japanese Embassy in South Korea responded to concerns being expressed over whether the Fukushima region is a safe environment by presenting data on its website, comparing the level of radiation in Seoul and in the city of Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima plant a few years back.

Reports in the Russian media have also noted that natural radiation levels were already recorded by 2017, which is unsurprising. For the time being, Tokyo is planning to hold baseball and softball games “on contaminated land”, and also cater for the event with food products made from ingredients grown in the region.

In conclusion, here is our summary with the key points.

  • There is reason to be concerned about the possibility of marine pollution, but one question still needs to be answered: How do we know that Japan is seriously going to dump the contaminated water? Even the statements made about the possibility of Japan taking this decision do not equate to a confirmed course of action.
  • Moreover, everything we know about what Japan intends to do comes from Korean sources, which typically only reference “one newspaper” without specifying the name of the person quoted or the date. What we do know, however, is that the Japanese government has announced it is going to build more storage facilities by 2020, which will increase their total storage volume to 1.37 million tons.
  • Tokyo is not giving the international community any concrete answers. However, this does not necessarily mean Japan has an insidious plan to keep quiet and secretly dump the radioactive water, but that there is no concrete answer. It could be argued that Seoul’s “concern” is not based on facts or scientific evidence.
  • We should be aware that public consciousness is being manipulated, turning “the possibility is being discussed” into “there is a plan that will definitely be implemented.”
  • However, South Korea will continue to stoke up the issue. To quote Mun Mi-ock, “In the meantime, high-level Japanese government officials recently started to state that marine discharges are inevitable as a way to deal with Fukushima contaminated water. In case when it is discharged into ocean, management of Fukushima contaminated water is no longer Japan’s domestic problem but a grave international issue that can affect the whole global marine environment.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.


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