Anxiety grows among Japan’s neighbours ahead of Fukushima water dump
What’s happening? A fish caught near the Fukushima nuclear plant in May contained 180 times Japan’s legal limit of radioactive caesium, fuelling concerns about the plant’s planned release of treated water. The black rockfish had 18,000 becquerels per kg of cesium-137, while Japan’s limit is 100 becquerels. It was caught near drainage outlets where contaminated water flowed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Dozens of fish above safety limits have been caught in the past year. With the planned water release starting next month despite regional opposition, the high radioactivity levels reinforce environmental and health concerns. Japan insists the water discharge is safe but faces demands for discussions based on scientific evidence. (The Guardian)
Why does this matter? The planned release of 1.3 million tonnes of treated water sprayed onto damaged cores following the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has generated significant regional tension. It’s estimated that the contaminated water contains 64 radioactive elements, known as radionuclides. Some of these have a short half-life, so have decayed since the 2011 disaster, but others take much longer. Carbon-14, for example, has a half-life of more than 5,000 years and cannot be removed via the Advanced-Liquid Processing System used to treat the water.
TEPCO has received the green light to go ahead with the release following an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report deemed the treated water “consistent with international safety standards” and in line with water releases carried out as standard by nuclear plants. Despite this, opposition has been significant inside Japan and among its Asian and Pacific neighbours.
Seafood markets spiralling – The upcoming release has sent shockwaves through Asian seafood consumer markets and poses significant short-term risks of stranded Japanese assets in the sector. Hong Kong promises to ban seafood imports from ten Japanese prefectures if the release goes ahead and has already increased inspections of vegetable imports. Similarly, in South Korea, consumer sentiment is highly wary – last month, the government had to release 50 metric tonnes of sea salt per day as shoppers looked to hoard salt amid safety fears. China has also voiced concern and extended a ban on food imports earlier this month.
Fukushima prefecture’s agricultural industry never fully recovered after the disaster despite returning to 90.7% of pre-disaster levels in 2021. However, the regional fallout from the release will reignite mistrust and lead to revenue losses in the industry. In anticipation of this, the government has allocated JPY80bn ($573 million) to seafood firms to combat this reputational damage. However, regional distrust may not materialise everywhere: the European Commission recently lifted all remaining food import restrictions from Japan.
Undermining treaties – Away from the Asian continent, Pacific nations are also voicing concern. Following years of US and French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 20th century, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty – otherwise known as the Rarotonga Treaty – was drawn up by Pacific nations, including Australia and New Zealand. Article Seven of the treaty obligates states to not “dump radioactive waste…at sea”. While Japan is not tied to this treaty, Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) secretary general Henry Puna argues contaminated water will encroach upon PIF territory, meaning the Rarotonga Treaty will be “undermined,” according to international lawyer Duncan Currie.
Nuclear fallout – At the centre of this storm sits TEPCO, which has suffered immense reputational damage. TEPCO executives were taken to court on professional negligence and manslaughter charges and eventually ordered to pay JPY13tn in damages. Although they were acquitted of criminal charges, a re-trial is expected next year.
Despite the disaster and subsequent fallout, Japanese public support for nuclear power is at its highest point in a decade following increasing power prices and electricity shortages in Tokyo. Reputational risk may therefore be confined to TEPCO, rather than nuclear power in general.