World, Asia - Pacific

Furor over Fukushima waste: Science or rhetoric?

Experts say concerns being raised over Japan’s Fukushima wastewater plan have ‘no scientific basis,’ see political factors at play

Alperen Aktas  | 12.09.2023 - Update : 13.09.2023
Furor over Fukushima waste: Science or rhetoric?


Japan’s decision to release treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean has set off a storm of controversy.

At the core of the issue lie environmental concerns, specifically how the discharge of millions of tons of treated wastewater will affect the marine ecosystem.

The plan was endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, and Japan started the process on Aug. 24.

The first round of the release was completed on Monday, with 7,800 tons discharged, according to the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Plant (TEPCO), while the entire process will last 30 years.

The outcry over the plan was led by China, which accused Japan of “forcibly” starting the “discharge of nuclear-contaminated water” and using the ocean as a “sewer.”

South Korea’s government has said it has no objections, but the opposition, citizens and environmental groups have raised concerns.

The fishing industry in the region is also worried about the effects, fearing that consumers will be wary of buying seafood.

However, James Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, believes there is “no scientific basis over the public concerns.”

“This is something that happens at nuclear sites all around the world, actually at much higher levels very often than at Fukushima,” he told Anadolu.

China’s nuclear site “emits about four times more tritiated water (including tritium-radioactive material) into the Pacific … the UK’s site emits about five to ten times more tritium into the Irish Sea,” he said.

“There is a site in the north of France which does reprocessing of nuclear fuel and that emits about four to five times more tritiated water into the English Channel than this Fukushima release will do,” said Smith.

He emphasized that these discharges around the world “haven’t caused any significant radiation doses, either to people or to the environment.”

Smith said the radiation exposure to people and the environment will be “incredibly low.”

“We’ve studied lakes at Chernobyl, including the cooling pond of the Chernobyl reactor, and we don’t find significant impacts on the ecosystem,” he said.

“Even at the levels at Chernobyl, which are thousands of times higher than they will be from this Fukushima release, even at those radiation levels, we don’t see significant impacts on the ecosystem,” he added.

Geopolitical ‘rivalry’

Yuki Kobayashi, a research fellow with the Security Studies Program at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Japan, sees political factors at play in the controversy.

“It is not possible to rule out whether China’s official responses to the discharge of water intend to play to or play up persistent domestic concerns, even animosity, toward Japan,” he told Anadolu.

Beijing’s stance, he added, is “based on the brand of Chinese nationalism at this point.”

China has been insistent that Japan should shelve the plan.

“The ocean sustains humanity. It is not a sewer for Japan’s nuclear-contaminated water. China strongly urges Japan to stop its wrongdoing, cancel the ocean discharge plan, communicate with neighboring countries with sincerity and goodwill, dispose of the nuclear-contaminated water in a responsible manner, and accept rigorous international oversight,” Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said in Beijing late last month.

China lodged official protests with Tokyo and even summoned the Japanese ambassador in August.

Over in South Korea, the main opposition Democratic Party has denounced the plan, calling it “water terror.”

Kobayashi, however, said the US has offered “strong support” to Japan after the IAEA’s assessment, while the EU “lifted restrictions on Japanese food imports.

“So we can say that China’s vociferous opposition might reflect its rivalry with the US and its allies. Few countries agree with China’s claims. Even South Korea has come to draw a line with China’s claims,” he said.

Pointing out that South Korea has been trying to mend its relations with Japan, he said Seoul was “initially worried about the plan, but has soft-pedaled its concerns after conducting its own assessment and receiving the IAEA’s assurance over safety.”

“However, opposition parties have put a question mark over the credibility of the IAEA report in order to make the issue a point of contention with the ruling party,” he added.

Treatment and transparency

TEPCO is treating the contaminated water using machines called Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS).

They are basically high-tech pumping and filtration systems that remove radioactive materials from the water, with only the radioactive isotope tritium left behind.

Once the contaminated water is sufficiently filtered, it is stored in tanks at the nuclear power plant site as treated water.

Kobayashi pointed out that there are some “uncontrollable factors” in the entire process.

“TEPCO said at first that ALPS can remove all radioactive materials except tritium. But in reality, radioactive materials other than tritium is sometimes detected,” he said.

He stressed that TEPCO “has to think about improvement measures.”

“ALPS will not always run smoothly. When something inconvenient for Japan happens, such as the presence of radioactive substances other than tritium in treated water and exceeding the standard value, it is important for the Japan government not to conceal the fact and to immediately disclose the information to the domestic and international community,” Kobayashi added.

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