Australian news, and some related international items

Japan’s murky management of Fukushima nuclear wastewater

Japan’s murky management of Fukushima nuclear wastewater June 2021

Author: Cheol Hee Park, SNU

On 13 April 2021, the Japanese government announced plans to dispose of the wastewater stored at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean over a period of 30 years.

The plant has about 1000 wastewater tanks that can hold up to 1.37 million tons of contaminated water. Currently, 1.25 million tons are being stored, which accounts for about 90 per cent of the total storage capacity. The tanks are expected to fill up by the autumn of 2022, which prompted the Japanese government to adopt the least expensive option — disposing the wastewater into the sea, starting from 2023.

The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remain sympathetic to the Japanese decision, saying that it meets the international standard. On the other hand, China and South Korea have voiced concerns about the decision. They are distrustful of and dissatisfied with the sudden decision made by the Japanese government. The difference is starkly highlighted in how the wastewater is being referred to by different countries. Japan and the United States call it ‘treated water’ while China and South Korea define it as ‘contaminated water’.

The Japanese government explained that it will fully treat and dilute the wastewater until the contamination level is reduced to at least one-hundredth of its original concentration. Officials say that tritium will be reduced to one-fortieth of the Japanese government’s normal standard. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso even claimed that the treated water will be drinkable.

he Japanese government also made it clear that before the accident in 2011 the Fukushima nuclear plant disposed of 2.2 trillion becquerels of tritium into the sea each year, which caused no problems. They added that because tritium is a weak radioactive isotope, most of the material will exit the human body, meaning its negative impact will be small.

Despite the Japanese government’s efforts to convince people outside of the country, the most vocal opposition has come from within Japan. The Japan Fishermen’s Association argued that they will not accept the Japanese government’s decision. They explain that the decision went against the government’s promise in 2015 that the release would not happen without their consent. Fishermen from Fukushima and Ibaraki are particularly sensitive about the potential consumer backlash over the radioactive wastewater release, which will directly impact their livelihoods. About 70 per cent of fishermen oppose the government’s decision. It remains unclear whether the Japanese government will be able to persuade them.

Concerns from neighbouring countries are another hurdle to overcome. There is little sign that the Japanese government fully consulted adjacent countries before it announced the decision. Because of the lack of prior consultation and reliable notice, the Japanese government’s decision should be regarded as a unilateral move. South Korea and China should not approach this issue to drag down Japan’s efforts to resolve the problem. At the same time, it is Japan’s responsibility to be attentive to neighbouring countries’ legitimate concerns.

Securing transparency in the process of implementing the plan is another challenge. Despite the Japanese government’s explanation, it remains uncertain whether various nuclides other than tritium can be reliably removed using the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS). Passing on the correct and reliable information to concerned parties in and outside the country is necessary. Japan should incorporate third-party specialists to provide objective and reliable information about the process.

Finally, verifying the safety of the water with international standards would give comfort to and garner trust from concerned parties, including Japanese fishermen. The IAEA could mobilise experts or build a verification team on behalf of Japan and its neighbouring countries so that all concerned regional countries can be persuaded about the safety of the water.

The Japanese government should better fulfil its responsibilities, justify the necessity of its decision, remain transparent about its implementation of the plan and be resilient in verifying the safety of the water it disposes of.

Cheol Hee Park is Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies and Director of the Institute of International Affairs, Seoul National University.

June 25, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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