At a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, the Japanese government officially decided to dump 1.25 million tons of contaminated water from the now-defunct Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea. It plans to start releasing the wastewater into the ocean in two years over the course of 30-40 years. The decision has sparked fierce protests from Japanese fishermen, experts, and civic groups. The South Korean government condemned the decision, saying it is “unacceptable” and China’s Foreign Ministry called the decision “extremely irresponsible” and “unilateral.”
Japan had to make a decision on how to deal with the contaminated water since storage capacity is expected to run out as early as fall next year. However, it cannot avoid getting tough criticism since the decision has been unilaterally made without consulting with or asking for understanding to neighboring countries. Japan has an obligation to minimize any damage stemming from the discharge and share information under the international law since the discharge of contaminated water containing radioactive materials can pose a risk to the marine environment and the safety of neighboring countries. However, Japan hastened the decision to dump the contaminated water into the sea.
Japan argues that there is no safety issue since the radioactive materials in the wastewater will be removed through the advanced liquid processing system (Alps). However, even if the water is treated with Alps, it is impossible to filter out tritium, which can cause radiation exposure inside the body. Japan says the wastewater will sufficiently be diluted with the sea water before it is discharged but that is not enough to dispel fears. Nevertheless, Japan appears to be focused more on preventing what it called “groundless rumors” surrounding the discharge.
The Japanese government is finding it difficult to appease opposition at home. Even after listening to the government’s explanation, Japanese fishermen groups firmly opposed the decision. An expert, who participated in a government subcommittee, criticized the government by saying Japan should first seek understanding from neighboring countries but it is instead taking a firm attitude. While Japan was appreciated by the U.S., a country across the Pacific Ocean, for its “transparent efforts” in its decision to dispose of the wastewater, it makes one wonder what kind of diplomatic efforts Japan has made for South Korea, its closest neighbor. Beyond being irresponsible, Japan is being arrogant.
South Korea, which has sought cooperation with the U.S. and Japan despite the ongoing South Korea-Japan dispute over historical issues, is showing restraint in responding to the decision so as not to create another diplomatic row with Japan. Discharge of the contaminated water into the sea is not just an issue between the two countries, but an international issue and a matter directly connected to public safety. The issue calls for a cool-headed and thorough response. The South Korean government needs to demand transparent disclosure of information and an international verification process, and at the same time, channel its efforts into pan-government response, such as monitoring the influx of radiation and conduct strict inspection on the country of origin of marine products in order to dispel public anxiety.