At one time the author wrote about the fate of the radioactive water accumulated at Fukushima-1 and that sooner or later the Japanese government would decide to drain it. Finally, it happened. On April 13, 2021, the Japanese government decided to allow a significant amount of water from the damaged nuclear power plant’s storage tanks to be discharged into the ocean. A government statement released by Japanese media claims that the water is generally clean of radioactive substances, so the discharge needed to dispose of the damaged reactors will be done safely.
There was a “well-orchestrated hysteria” about it in South Korea, and it came to accusations of nuclear terrorism. But before describing the details, let us recall the situation and examine the extent to which Tokyo’s actions actually pose an environmental threat.
The Fukushima accident occurred in March 2011, when the plant’s power supply and cooling systems failed as a result of the tsunami. To cool the reactors, water is continuously pumped into them, which is stored on the territory of the plant, but already now the storage tanks for contaminated water are almost full, and there is no way to build new ones. The volume of treated water exceeded 1.2 million tons and in February 2020, a government commission presented a plan to dispose of the water by discharging it into the sea or evaporating it into the atmosphere after the concentration of radioactive substances has been reduced to levels acceptable under environmental and other regulations.
The Korean media like to mention the “highly contaminated” or “radioactive” water, but through using adsorbing equipment, the power plant operator TEPCO is freeing the water from cesium and strontium, which make up the largest portion of radioactive materials. The ALPS treatment plant then removes the rest of the radioactive substances. Water is then stored in tanks more than ten meters high, which are densely packed in the NPP area. As the Japanese media wrote, the forest of these containers as tall as a three-story house is a depressing sight.
Even in the immediate vicinity of the cisterns, the radiation level is no different from the normal background on the streets and in the houses of the Japanese capital. Although the water is not completely cleaned of radioactive substances, it already meets the state standard of radioactivity, which, if complied with, allows this water to be released outside the NPP facilities. One thing ALPS cannot remove is tritium, but TEPCO is considering diluting the treated water by a factor of 500 before discharging it into the sea. Because the energy of its radioactive radiation is low, it does not penetrate the body through the skin, and if the substance does enter the body, it passes through it and is excreted without accumulating. Unlike strontium/potassium/iodine, tritium does not accumulate anywhere.
The Japanese media note that water containing tritium is also produced in conventional nuclear power plants, so diluting it to below the standard level and discharging it into the sea is an internationally accepted practice. Experts say that discharging treated water into the ocean is the cheapest and, therefore, the most tempting method. Nevertheless, talk about the safety of the water discharge process still worries both Japanese fishermen and international environmental organizations, but it is the ROK that is making most of the fuss over this issue.
The first outburst of outrage and concern came after the media reported on October 16, 2020 that the Japanese government had decided to release the water into the sea. It has been noted that even if the government makes a positive decision, it will take at least two years to release the water, including the preparation phase, and the release will most likely begin in October 2022. An official announcement was expected by the end of October 2020, but it was probably postponed because of the scale of the outrage.
The ROK sent a number of letters to the IAEA and other international organizations expressing concern, summoned a high-ranking embassy official to explain, and maintained a ban on seafood imports from the Fukushima area while considering tougher inspections of Japanese seafood in general. The main argument was that the international community should have a good look at the whole process to see if the water discharges really comply with international standards.
On November 4, Presidential Chief of Staff Noh Yong-min said that South Korea is considering joining the IAEA monitoring of Japan’s plan to release radioactive water: Japan will ask international institutions, including the IAEA, to play a role in ensuring public confidence in the process, and South Korea is considering participating in related activities.
On November 20, 2020, a high-ranking official at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul said on condition of anonymity that Japan was ready to work with the ROK to monitor the treatment of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant and its discharge into the Pacific Ocean. Exactly how the monitoring will be conducted and how the results will be transmitted to other countries has not been announced, plus the process is unlikely to take place before 2022, when the recycling process will begin in earnest.
However, on December 7, an anonymous South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told the press that “the information Japan has been providing us with so far is too little to judge that their plan is safe … We’ve been asking them very specific and scientific questions and Tokyo has been responding within their possible extent“.
On March 3, a Japanese government official said that Tokyo could not continue to postpone the disposal of contaminated water, and on April 13 the decision was announced. The government statement claims that the water is generally cleared of radioactive substances, but contains tritium isotopes that cannot be purified. Nevertheless, tritium concentrations will be reduced to permissible limits and meet the standard set by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The preparation process will take about two years, while the draining itself will continue until 2041-2051, i.e. until the complete disposal of the damaged reactors.
After that, official Seoul went for a second round: The media described the situation in such a way that an untrained person could safely think that the Japanese were going to drain all the water at once, and that tritium is the most dangerous of substances and a carcinogen. That “according to one study” polluted water will reach the waters near Jeju Island seven months after the discharge, and 18 months later most of the Sea of Japan will be affected by it.
On April 13, Koo Yong-chul, head of the ROK Office of State Policy Coordination, expressed “deep regret” over the Japanese government’s decision: Seoul “urges” Tokyo to ensure the transparent disclosure and verification of information related to the overall process of cleaning up contaminated water, taking concrete measures to ensure the safety of South Korean citizens and prevent damage to the marine environment. Koo Yoon-cheol also said that the South Korean government will convey its concerns to the IAEA and ask the world community to objectively consider safety issues related to the water discharge. In addition, radiation control and verification of the origin of imported food products will be strengthened. “The government will take every necessary measure in line with the principle of keeping the Korean people safe from the contaminated water from the Fukushima plant”. A special meeting at the level of deputy ministers has been convened for this purpose.
Public organizations even called Tokyo’s move “nuclear terrorism,” demonstrating a rather specific understanding of physics and mathematics: “The Japanese government promises to gradually purify radioactive water to a level that is harmless to the human body. But it will not reduce the total amount of radioactive material released into the ocean.” A number of civil activists and environmental organizations held a press conference in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, recalling that not only neighboring countries, but also Japanese fishermen, oppose the discharge of polluted water, and called on the ROK government to take drastic measures, including filing a complaint with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
The activists were joined by populist politicians declaring that releasing the water would be an irreversible disaster for the world’s marine ecosystem. All information about the purification system was either glossed over or presented under the guise of “that’s what the Japanese say, and they’re definitely lying.” Virtually every more or less prominent politician, regardless of political orientation, has commented on the unacceptability of Tokyo’s move, from interim Democratic leader Toh Jong-hwan to acting conservative leader Chu Ho-young.
On April 14, “the deep concern of the South Korean government and people over Tokyo’s decision to dump contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean” was expressed to the Japanese ambassador personally by President Moon Jae-in. On the same day, Moon instructed the government to consider referring the radioactive water dumping case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
In terms of actions rather than statements, on April 13, the Ministry of Marine and Fishery of the Republic of Korea presented detailed measures to ensure the safety of the marine environment and seafood. It was decided to tighten control over radioactive substances such as tritium and cesium entering the country’s coastal waters. To do this, the network of data collection checkpoints will be expanded. Methods for predicting the environmental impact of contaminated water from Fukushima will also be improved. All information about the state of territorial waters will be published through the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology as soon as detailed data on discharges are received from Japan. In addition, the government will strengthen control over the quality of imported seafood. Supermarket chains E-mart, Lotte Mart and Homeplus have also confirmed that they will continue to boycott the sale of Japanese seafood.
This time, South Korea’s demands were supported in part by China. Beijing called Japan’s actions irresponsible and capable of affecting the health and immediate interests of people in neighboring countries. The leakage of large quantities of radioactive material can have far-reaching consequences. On April 14, at a government-level dialogue on maritime cooperation, South Korea and China reaffirmed their opposition to Japan’s plan and agreed to consider measures depending on Tokyo’s future actions.
A concern was also expressed by Moscow. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “Unfortunately, Tokyo has not seen fit to hold consultations with neighboring states, including the Russian Federation”. The Foreign Ministry pointed out that the official information from the Japanese authorities does not contain an assessment of the risks to the ecology of the Pacific region that the water discharge may cause, and Russia expects that “if necessary, Japan will allow monitoring of the radiation situation in the areas where such discharge will be carried out.”
Nevertheless, the United States and the IAEA again supported Japan’s decision, stressing that the decision was made in accordance with global nuclear safety standards. South Korea’s response to this was, broadly speaking, to say that the United States could react in this way because it was farther away from Japan than Korea.
However, the South Korean activities have yielded some results. The IAEA is considering sending an international team of experts to Japan, Tokyo has once again expressed its willingness to cooperate on this issue, and Seoul has confirmed its readiness to participate. At a meeting of the Japanese government, it was decided to create a special working group that would listen to the opinions of different parties and help make the necessary decision. Moreover, additional funds have been allocated for the implementation of the entire strategy.
To summarize, the South Korean hysteria seems to lack any reasonable foundation. An environmental disaster is not expected, but the South Korean press and especially the government NGOs describe the situation as if Japan will dump all the contaminated water directly from the reactor into the ocean at once. There is much more of a political agenda on this issue than an environmental one.
Clearly, the decision to dump the water into the ocean was expected, but still surprising to Russia and China, who would have liked a more detailed description of the process. And ideally, complicity in supervising it to make sure that the release of water will actually be carried out in accordance with all safety standards.
However, anti-Japanism is at the core of South Korean ideology and to a certain degree part of the Chinese political myth, and therefore Seoul cannot help but ring this bell, especially since after the failed mayoral by-election in the capital it will be convenient for the ROK authorities to shift attention to the “oh so terrible Japanese” who once again did something wrong, “the galaxy is in danger”, all must rise to the challenge.
Furthermore, the environmental agenda, in addition to the anti-Japanese one, is a good way for Moon to raise his political rating, because nothing else will do so in the foreseeable future. Inter-Korean relations are at a standstill, the economy and domestic politics are in trouble. Add to this the protective reflex: the opposition is ready to berate Moon for everything he has and has not done. If, however, fish with high levels of radiation were found in the fish market, there would be a big scandal and Moon would be blamed for allowing this to happen.
Of course, NGOs will throw tantrums as usual, but serious action like lawsuits would require at least data that can refute a positive IAEA review, as well as tangible evidence that the prolonged release of radioactive water has caused serious damage to Korea. So far there are none, and so the government’s plan has been met with skepticism from experts who doubt the chances of winning the case. In their view, Seoul should focus on providing objective security checks on this measure through close monitoring.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD 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”.