TOKYO – In late 2019, the Japanese government convened diplomats from 22 countries for a briefing on how to handle more than a million tons of wastewater from the paralyzed Fukushima nuclear reactors.
Storage space was quickly running out, authorities explained, and they considered various solutions. One of these was to remove the most harmful radioactive material from the water and then release it gradually into the ocean. The diplomats did not object, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.
On Tuesday, when Japan officially announced it would put the plan into action, the knives came out. South Korea condemned it as “utterly unbearable” and called on the Japanese ambassador. China cited “serious concerns”. Taiwan also raised serious concerns.
Japan has dismissed criticism of his plan as unscientific, saying that the treated water is well within safety standards, and noting that such discharges into the oceans around the world are routine. But her argument, as Tuesday’s response showed, leaves Tokyo a long way from gaining the trust of its neighbors, a challenge made all the more difficult by mounting regional tensions over a range of issues.
While envoys from the 2019 rally may have kept their minds to themselves, it is no secret that many countries have doubts about Japan’s approach to the nuclear disaster. China and South Korea are among 15 countries or regions that have banned or restricted food imports from Fukushima, despite the Japanese government’s abundant efforts to demonstrate that products from the area, from rice to fish, are safe to food.
International advocacy groups, such as Greenpeace, have also criticized the government’s decision, arguing that it is a cost-cutting measure that ignores the potential environmental damage. The group advocates building additional storage facilities for the waste instead.
Even at home, the idea of pouring treated or untreated water from the crippled plant into the ocean is unpopular. In a national poll late last year by the Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun, 55 percent of respondents were against the plan.
It’s even less welcome in Fukushima itself, where residents fear that the mere perception of risk will destroy the local fishing industry hoping for a recovery after a decade of self-imposed limits.
Announcing its decision on Tuesday, the Japanese government said it could no longer avoid the sewage problem. Officials say they spent more than six years thinking about different options for the water – currently enough to fill 500 Olympic-size pools – before settling on the current plan.
The Fukushima plant contains more than 1.25 million tons of wastewater in more than 1,000 tanks. The cooling of the three reactors damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami generates more than 150 additional tons per day.
Under the plan, powerful filters will be used to remove all radioactive material from the water except tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say in small doses is not harmful to human health. The radiation levels in the resulting product are lower than those in drinking water, according to the government. Japan plans to release the water in 2023, in a process expected to take decades.
In an effort to calm things down at home, authorities have placed dosimeters around the prefecture to monitor radiation levels and conduct routine screenings of seafood from the region. The government has held public hearings on the plan in Fukushima and Tokyo.
Authorities say they have also discussed the issue extensively with other countries and in international forums. In a newsletter on Tuesday, a Japanese official said the country had held 108 group briefings for diplomats in Japan and met representatives from China and South Korea on the day of the announcement to explain the decision.
The United States supported the plan. The International Atomic Energy Agency also endorsed it, saying in a statement that it was “in line with global practice, although the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it a unique and complex case.”
The gap between such reassurances and the strident responses closer to home was striking.
The outrage in the region is “understandable,” said Nanako Shimizu, an associate professor of international relations at Utsunomiya University in Japan, who opposes the plan.
“If South Korea or China were to announce the same thing, I am sure the Japanese government and the vast majority of the Japanese people would also object,” she said.
Governments in the region are most likely feeling domestic pressure to take a firm stand, said Eunjung Lim, an associate professor of international relations at Kongju National University in Gongju, South Korea, who specializes in Japan and South Korea.
Whether their concerns are rational or not, many people in the region “will be very concerned about what would happen if this radioactive material got into our nearby seas and polluted our resources,” she said.
Even under the best of circumstances, Japan would “find it very difficult to convince its neighbors to accept decisions like this, because clearly it is not our fault. It’s Japan’s fault, so why do we have to experience these kinds of difficulties? she added.
Regional tensions make neighboring countries even less receptive to the plan. In recent years, territorial disputes and disagreements on trade and historical issues related to World War II have strained Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, spilling over into government dialogues on a wide variety of issues.
China on Tuesday warned Japan not to take a decision without further consultation with the international community, saying it “reserves the right to take further action.”
In its statement, South Korea accused Japan of taking “unilateral action” without seeking consultation and understanding with South Korea, which is “closest to Japan.”
Some in Japan believe that such complaints should be answered with more than scientific arguments. Shunichi Tanaka, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said the criticism looked like hypocrisy.
South Korea itself has four heavy water reactors that routinely discharge water containing tritium at levels higher than planned in Fukushima, he said in a recent interview.
“When South Korea makes claims like this, we shouldn’t be silent, we should refute them properly,” he said.
But the challenge facing Japan isn’t just on the world stage. At home, many are reluctant to trust the government or Tepco, the operator of the nuclear power plant.
A parliamentary committee found that the meltdowns were the result of a lack of oversight and collusion between the government, the plant owner, and regulators. And Tepco had to retract the claim that it had purified most of the wastewater. In fact, it had only fully processed about a fifth, a problem that stemmed from not changing filters often enough in the decontamination system.
Ultimately, Japan is in a battle to change perception, whether it’s the reliability of its own government or the risk of the treated water, said Hirohiko Fukushima, a professor at Chuo Gakuin University who specializes in local governance issues.
In Fukushima, the government’s response to local concerns has often come across as haughty, he said. To change that view, authorities need to improve transparency around their decisions and build new relationships, he said.
“From my perspective,” he added, “it’s probably hard for Japan to convince other countries if it can’t even convince its own people.”
Choe Sang-Hun contributed from Seoul. Albee Zhang contributed to research from Shanghai.