From time to time, Korean media and environmentalists associated with them raise the question of an impending global environmental catastrophe, which will happen when the Japanese authorities dump thousands of tons of radioactive water into the sea after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The excitement is fueled by periodic news that the water will soon be drained, and Seoul’s position alone is what keeps Tokyo from making a horrific decision.
Here is a quick refresher on the essence of the problem. Every day since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, due to the penetration of groundwater, which caused a radioactive matter leakage, about 170 tons of radioactively contaminated water was produced, containing the radioactive hydrogen isotope: tritium and other substances. First of all, we are talking about water that was originally in the reactor circuit. Second, on the water used to cool the wreckage of the plant and the remaining fuel. Also, a significant amount of water from underground sources flowing through the land towards the ocean is also being polluted. The water is processed in order to extract the majority of the radioactive material. However, tritium and other substances remain in the water, a huge amount of which is stored in nearly a thousand large cisterns.
Currently, roughly 1.7 million tons of the substance are stored in water tanks, but by the end (or in the worst case, by summer) of 2022, there will be no free storage space left. Since the three exploded reactors are far from dismantling, TEPCO, the operator of the damaged nuclear power plant, demands that the problem of contaminated water be addressed immediately.
The Japanese government calls the stored water “treated water” because it has been treated to take it below the threshold level of 62 types of radioactive substances (not including tritium), but in September 2018, a study of 890,000 tons of treated water was conducted, which showed that more than 80% still contains radioactive substances in excess of threshold levels.
Japanese experts quoted former Prime Minister Abe as claiming that the amount of radioactivity in the water is less than one percent of the amount of radioactivity at the Wolseong nuclear power plant in South Korea. South Korean scientists are skeptical of this statement. In order to compare the pollution levels at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the nuclear power plant in Korea, it should be clarified where the water samples are collected, according to Moon Zhu-hyun, professor of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Dankook University. After a glance at the numbers from different sampling locations, we can provide an accurate comparison of pollution levels.
Choi Sung Min, professor of the department of nuclear and quantum engineering at KAIST, said Seoul and Tokyo should refrain from presenting scientifically unsubstantiated opinions on the matter and exercise caution.
In his article on NVO, Vladimir Odintsov cites a numerous examples of environmental issues that surfaced in 2017-18 – the deposition of cesium-137 on sandy beaches at a considerable distance from the station and detecting its particles in Californian wines, produced after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster; radioactive iodine isotopes and cesium has also been found in vegetables grown in South Korea, as well as in fish caught off the Japanese coast.
TEPCO announced this in August 2019 and put forth a proposal to pump the contaminated water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi NPP into the Pacific Ocean. All other ways of resolving the problem, according to TEPCO management, are too difficult.
In October 2019, South Korea, at a meeting of the British International Maritime Organization called on Japan to make efforts to reach a consensus from neighboring countries on water management issues.
On December 24, 2019, a subcommittee created in 2016 within the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to discuss measures to remove contaminated water announced three possible plans for removing water from Fukushima: releasing it into the ocean, vaporizing it and releasing it to the atmosphere, or using both approaches simultaneously.
The entire process will take no less than 10 years. According to experts, both methods are quite feasible and meet various requirements, including environmental requirements, since they have almost no effect on the environment and human wellbeing, and there have already been similar precedents. However, negative rumors spawned from dumping radioactive water into the sea can have a significant social impact.
The beloved by South Korean media Shaun Burnie is a vivid example of rumor spreading. The senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace Germany, who has been based in Fukushima since 1997, argues that the issue is clearly important to Koreans as they understand the risks of nuclear energy and care deeply about the environment. In his opinion, Fukushima continues to pose a threat to the environment not only in Japan, but also across the entire Asia-Pacific region. “This is a never ending nuclear disaster, and the Koreans understand that only by speaking out and opposing bad decisions can progress be made in protecting the environment.”
Burnie believes that the discharging contaminated water poses a direct threat to the marine ecosystem and human health as there is no technically safe level of exposure. According to him (which should also be taken with a grain of salt) tritium can damage human and non-human DNA, and other radionuclides such as strontium will still be dumped in huge quantities, even if the treatment of contaminated water is successful. “None of this can be justified from an environmental point of view when there is a clear alternative, namely, long-term storage and processing to remove radionuclides.”
An outbreak of panic occurred after in February 2020 a number of media outlets leaked information that the Japanese authorities intend to discharge over a million tons of radioactive water from the Fukushima NPP into the Pacific Ocean. According to some experts, this method is the lesser evil because the ocean is able to dilute contaminated water, thus making it safe for people. On February 4, 2020, Japanese authorities held a meeting with embassy officials where they tried to convince the latter of the advantages of their plan.
On March 25, a plan became known to dump radioactive water, diluting it with sea water to bring the tritium content to one fortieth level, allowed by the country’s safety requirements. This will be done gradually over the course of 30 years.
On March 26, the President’s Administration expressed concerns regarding Japan’s plans, with a statement from the Public Policy Coordination Office that Japan should take steps to ensure that the water discharge plan does not affect the health and safety of South Korean citizens and the marine ecosystem.
But then, due to the pandemic, the Olympics were postponed, and the peak of concern somehow suddenly dissipated, Seoul’s actions were not a much environmentally based, as fueled by an agenda set on crashing the Japanese party. In the wake of this statement, activists and officials have become much more sporadic.
The latter was made at the 64th session of the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), held from September 21 to 25 in Vienna in the format of a videoconference. The First Deputy Minister of Science and Information and Communication Technology Chung Byung Sung once again expressed concern that Japan is seriously considering the possibility of dumping polluted water into the ocean and stressed the need to carefully analyze the possible damage that the discharge of radioactive water can cause to the environment. He noted that in accordance with international law, Japan is obliged to openly interact with the world community on the issue of disposal of contaminated water, inviting the IAEA to take a more active position on this issue.
Of course, sooner or later, the storage units will overflow, and the problem will have to be addressed by separating panicky rumors from well-founded fears and ignoring attempts to politicize the issue. In the meantime, Seoul is more likely to cry wolf and the intensity of these shouts is closely related to the political situation.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.