SEOUL, South Korea — The opposition ranges from the Chinese government to South Korean Buddhism, but Japan cleared a major hurdle to its planned release of wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant this week after South Korea dropped its long-held opposition to the plan.
Separately, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Authority has offered a critical endorsement of Japan’s plan to release wastewater from the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima, northeast of Tokyo, into the Pacific.
While the IAEA’s report is backed by multiple scientific voices who say the radiation levels in the released water will be lower than that recommended for drinking water, China has kept up its loud opposition to the discharge.
The water was used to cool the reactors of Fukushima’s Daiichi nuclear power plant, badly damaged in a catastrophic earthquake/tsunami in 2011. Since then, Japan has been agonizing about what to do with the contaminated coolant water building up in the plant.
Proposed solutions included permanent storage in concrete pens, or channeling the water underground to inland storage sites. The choice was to treat the water using an Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) before releasing it into the ocean later this summer. The full discharge is expected to take up to three decades.
Tokyo’s plan is “consistent with IAEA safety standards,” the agency said in a report presented by Director-General Rafael Grossi to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Tuesday. Discharges of treated water would have “negligible” radiological impacts on people and the environment, the IAEA experts concluded. Mr. Grossi was visiting both Japan and South Korea this week in part to address regional concerns about the plan.
The release plan sparked a toxic and highly politicized regional debate, but Japan won over a regional ally Friday.
“After a review of the treatment plan of contaminated water presented by Japan so far, the total concentration level of radioactive materials of Japan’s plan would meet the standards for a release into the ocean,” Seoul’s Policy Coordination Minister Bang Moon-kyu told a briefing in the South Korean capital. Mr. Bang said the plan would have no “meaningful” impact on South Korean waters.
Japan allowed Seoul experts to visit Fukushima and meet related officials shortly after the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol proposed a resolution to the long-running bilateral dispute over World War II forced labor abuses in May. That was just one component of the conservative administration’s policy of overturning the anti-Japanese policies of the liberal Moon Jae-in administration, which exited office in 2022.
Washington hails the detente Mr. Yoon has engineered with Japan, thereby promoting trilateral defense cooperation against China, North Korea and Russia in Northeast Asia. But the policy has proven politically controversial at home, and the wastewater release has opened another avenue for complaint.
That was evident outside Seoul’s Japanese Embassy today. A line of police buses covered the front entrance and foot patrols blocked nearby side streets.
Outside, protesters held up signs while a group of Buddhist nuns – one playing a Korean folk tune on an electronic flute shaped like a conch shell — collected signatures for a petition condemning the proposal.
“Most people don’t believe the Japanese lobby,” said one masked protester, who gave her name as Sun-hee. “Most people don’t think the sea should be polluted.”
“IAEA report made by Japanese lobby,” a placard wondered. “Report price: 1 million euros?”
The allegation echoes claims in South Korean media that Tokyo bribed the IAEA’s European secretariat with funding as a way to get the release plan approved. Friday’s protests were relatively modest, but some 10,000 demonstrators are expected to flood central Seoul on Saturday.
Environmental and fishing lobbies in Japan, backed by international groups such as Greenpeace, have also opposed the coolant release, arguing that the IAEA is unqualified to judge environmental matters or the long-term impact of the plan.
Politics versus science
While South Korea has dropped its official opposition, China’s communist regime remains adamantly against the release and criticized the U.N. watchdog agency for endorsing it.
The IAEA report “failed to fully reflect views from experts that participated in the review,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. “The conclusion was not shared by all experts. The Chinese side regrets the hasty release of the report. … “Japan has chosen to shift the risk of nuclear contamination onto the whole humanity.”
The Reuters news agency suggested that the Chinese member of the 11-member IAEA committee was not in full agreement with colleagues.
Japan claimed on Thursday that Chinese and Korean atomic plants release more radiation and its position has been backed by independent scientific organizations.
According to the Society for Radiological Protection, cited on the Science Media Center website, “The IAEA verdict is entirely justifiable,” given that the Fukushima discharge is “substantially less than routine discharges from some other nuclear installations,” including the UK’s Sellafield and France’s Cap La Hague. the contaminated discharged water “will also be massively diluted in the ocean.”
“The radiation doses to people will be vanishingly small – more than a thousand times less than doses we all get from natural radiation every year,” added Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth.
Yet, anger at the discharge plan persists.
“Claiming that the contaminated wastewater is safe is nothing but a lie,” said the state-run Chinese newspaper The Global Times. “The Japanese government has considered five different treatment options, but it ultimately chose the cheapest and easiest one, … the solution with the lowest economic cost to Japan.”