Conflict Alerts # 365, 21 April 2021
In the news
On 20 April, South Korea's foreign ministry announced that it would participate in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety verification efforts to address concerns regarding the release of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. On the same day, more than 30 students protested by shaving their heads in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
On 18 April, US climate envoy John Kerry backed Japan's plans during a visit to Seoul. He said: "We think we have confidence in the ability of IAEA and Japan and our relationship with the agency".
On 15 April, in a joint statement, three UN human rights experts expressed concern on the release. They said: "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".
Issues at large
First, Japan's plan to release water. On 12 April, Japan announced that it would start releasing 1.25 million tons of contaminated water stored at the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean after two years, that is, 2023. Water used to cool down the reactor units destroyed by the Tsunami in 2011 is being stored in huge tanks at the plant site. Costing a billion dollar to maintain, the storage tanks are also running out of space. According to the plant operator Tepco and Japan's Prime Minister Suga, releasing the water will also aid in the decommissioning process of the Fukushima plant. Before release, Tepco will first filter the radioactive isotopes present in water and then dilute the water (to reduce the level of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that cannot be filtered). The process of water release is expected to take decades to complete.
Second, the opposition to release. Japan's plans have received widespread opposition, including UN experts, environmentalists, and fishermen from neighbouring states. China, South Korea, North Korea. Russia and Taiwan have all raised objections to Japan's plans, arguing that it will lead to environmental pollution in the ocean and affect their populations' health and livelihood. Fishermen and environmentalists in Japan and across the neighbouring countries opposed this move. Their primary opposition stems from tritium (and other radioactive particles) in the filtered water. According to a 2014 Scientific American study, tritium can cause cancer if ingested. To address radioactive contamination, Environmental groups have suggested constructing additional storage tanks and allowing the radioactive particles to decay before releasing the water.
Third, Japan's mixed record. The Fukushima nuclear disaster was followed by anti-nuclear protests in Japan and worldwide, with a significant decline of trust in Japan's nuclear power industry. There were significant safety lapses at Fukushima. Then, in 2018, Tepco admitted that the filtered water stored at Fukushima contained radioactive particles, including cobalt and strontium, in 71 per cent of the tanks. This admission cast severe doubts on Tepco, which for years maintained that these particles were removed. Notwithstanding poor record, Japan claims that it will work with IAEA and meet international standards before releasing water. It also insists that tritium will be diluted to one-fortieth of what is permitted in drinking water.
The Fukushima water release issue has resulted in rare convergence in a very divided region, with all of Japan's neighbours opposing the move. Despite the backing by the US, Japan would find it difficult to ignore the opposition not just by neighbours but also by environmentalists and fishermen. Given Japan's poor record, beginning with the safety lapses that lead to the Fukushima accident in the first place, it is imperative that Japan takes everyone along on this sensitive issue, ensures utmost transparency and meets all regulatory standards.