On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the east of Japan, leading to the deaths of 22,000 people and ultimately resulting in permanent damages to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It caused a nuclear meltdown of three reactors, releasing high radioactive substances, and forcing over 100,000 people to evacuate. This incident was rated 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, which is the highest level accident indicating “widespread health and environmental effects”. To date, only two other environmental catastrophes have also been rated a 7, the other one being the infamous Chernobyl disaster, whose devastating aftermath haunts locals and people around the world even today.
Over the past ten years, the Japanese government has been working on the cleanup of the site, focusing especially on the 1.25 million tons of radioactive water. Their solution involves storing the contaminated water in 1000 tanks situated on the site of the ruins. The flaws of this plan are evident: the tanks will very soon run out of storage and the cost to build new ones is enormous. With this inevitable deadline quickly approaching, the Japanese government plans to release the contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean in small amounts over the next 30 years. They hope that this will successfully dilute the water’s concentration of tritium and meet national health standards. However, the plan has received an overflowing criticism from Japanese citizens and from those abroad.
The local fishing industry has been one of the most prominent voices opposing this plan of action. For ten years now, fishing communities in Fukushima Prefecture have been suffering from damaging rumours about the quality of their fish even though there have not been any tested cases which have exceeded the acceptable level of radioactive materials since 2015. Furthermore, the industry’s total catch has dropped dramatically since 2011. Its current amount still represents only 15% of the total catch before the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese fish industry representatives vigorously oppose the release of contaminated water, saying it could lead to more restrictions on the export of local fishery products.
However, even this strong opposition has failed to convince the Japanese government to consider other alternatives, despite the fishing industry being a critical part for the country’s economy. According to the 2020 sector trend analysis from the government of Canada, Japan was the third-largest exporter for fish and seafood in the world. To remedy the reputational cost, the Japanese government has adopted an unusually conservative radiation safety limit and tests hundreds of pounds of fish in the lab every day. However, this does not shield the fishing industry from the skepticism of other countries—15 countries and regions still enforce import restrictions on food from Fukushima Prefecture. Today, the fishing industry in Japan is far from being fully recovered, and the decision to dump contaminated water into the sea would undoubtedly worsen this situation.
Beyond the local fishing industry, other countries, especially neighbouring countries like China and South Korea, have expressed wariness over the discharge of contaminated water. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “The ocean is not Japan’s trash can”, and challenged the Japanese official to drink treated water. Meanwhile, the South Korean Foreign Ministry “strongly rebuked the decision” and planned to file a petition during an international court. Experts from the United Nations are also “deeply disappointed” by the decision of releasing Fukushima water, claiming that “the release of one million tonnes of contaminated water into the marine environment imposes considerable risks to the full enjoyment of human rights of concerned populations in and beyond the borders of Japan.”
This statement is not without its grounds. While the Japanese government keeps stressing that after ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System), the water released into the ocean will not cause harm to the environment, the ALPS process cannot completely eliminate these risks since some radioactive isotopes, such as tritium, cannot be removed through it’s process. According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, exposure to tritium causes health effects in humans, including increased risk of cancer. It is still unclear how smaller doses of the chemical would impose health risks to the human body.
The repercussions of releasing contaminated products cannot be downplayed. For instance, following the Chernobyl disaster, the UN has predicted that a further 400 people would possibly have died as a result of radiation exposure. Even after more than 30 years, the estimation of damage caused by the Chernobyl incident is still unresolved, this should be a sufficient warning to us that we should treat radioactive contamination from the Fukushima disaster with the highest caution. The inherent uncertainties surrounding the situation is the fundamental problem of the dumping plan—no matter how the Japanese government justifies its safety, there are no guarantees.
However, some international authorities are optimistic about this decision. The International Atomic Energy Agency approves of the Japanese government’s decision, claiming that releasing the water into the sea is a common way to dispose of water at nuclear power plants and meets the global standards. The United States also publicly expressed support for the water release plan. Nevertheless, on April 3, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published “Import Alert 99-33” to issue a “detention without physical examination of products from Japan due to Radioactive Contamination.” A reporter from The Hankyoreh, a center-left daily newspaper in South Korea, believes the United States sided with Japan on this issue for diplomatic reasons.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has not published any details about what the plan will entail and seems to be putting more effort on reversing its public image rather than trying to come up with safer alternatives. To win more support for releasing the contaminated water, the Japanese government has created an animated character, “Little Mr.Tritium”, and published online flyers and videos to persuade people that the contaminated water will not cause danger after being released into the sea. Regardless, this mascot is largely detested by Japanese citizens, and the authorities have decided to redesign it only one day after introducing it to the general public.
Considering Japan’s tumultuous history dealing with nuclear contamination, it is ironic how the current government tries to downplay the unavoidable negative consequences of their water release plan. It is also disheartening to see how the global COVID-19 pandemic has still not made some people realize that reckless behaviour done in the name of convenience can bring about disastrous outcomes.
Despite everything, people across the world who are rightly concerned about the water release plan are working hard to make their voices heard. For example, Korean college students are protesting against the water release plan by shaving their heads and protesting in front of the Japanese embassy.
At the end of the day, this is no small issue. After all, the Japanese government’s decision will concern the fate of millions of lives, all of which depend on the resources provided by the Pacific Ocean. We cannot afford the price of another irreversible disaster.
Edited by Olivia Shan