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The politics of nuclear wastewater

Japan’s decision to release nuclear wastewater from the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean has strained relations among East Asian states.
Last Updated : 25 September 2023, 21:00 IST

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Japan’s decision to release nuclear wastewater from the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean has strained relations among East Asian states. Japan, as the sole nation to have experienced a nuclear holocaust, makes this decision significant. So, what explains Japan’s decision to proceed, knowing it could damage
its pacifist nuclear image, impact commercial interests, jeopardise its security and leadership aspirations?

The stated reason for releasing wastewater was to create more space for water storage tanks and to dismantle the meltdown reactors. Much of the scientific community, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), believes the treated water poses no significant threat to aquatic or human lives. However, some have reservations about data authenticity and the failure to explore alternatives such as evaporation or transporting it elsewhere for treatment and discharge. Yet, none of the available technologies can completely remove tritium from the wastewater.

China reacted sharply, accusing Japan of treating the ocean as its ‘private sewer,’ despite China releasing wastewater into the Pacific with higher levels of tritium from its Fuqing power plant in Fujian province. China distinguished its discharge as part of normal operations, while Fukushima water came in direct contact with melted reactor cores. Japan-China relations was already deteriorating as the 2023 Japan Defence White Paper labelled China ‘the greatest strategic challenge’ and sought closer cooperation with the US over Taiwan.

Consequently, China suspended all seafood imports from the Hokkaido region. Mainland China and Hong Kong constitute two of the largest market for its food and agricultural products. At the WTO, Japan submitted counterarguments to China’s notification on suspension of seafood, contemplating a counter complaint. Without delay, Chinese Coast Guards vessels patrolled the disputed territorial waters of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

South Korea’s response was much more complex. While the Korean government initially expressed reservations, it reached a compromise with Japan, provided Korean experts could conduct periodic inspection and receive regular data updates. The Korean opposition leader, Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung reminded Japan of its imperial past, dubbing the Fukushima water release as ‘second Pacific War’. Thousands gathered in Seoul demanding government action to prevent Japan’s actions.

On the other hand, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida demonstrated the safety of Fukushima food by consuming it with his cabinet colleagues. Even the Mission of Japan to the EU in Brussels hosted a garden party for the EU officials to promote food and sake from Fukushima after import restrictions were lifted last month. However, they failed to calm the nerves. In a recent poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, 75% of respondents believed the governments’ efforts were insufficient to mitigate the damage to its reputation caused by the water release.

The catalyst for Japan’s concerted action was its energy security concerns. Following the Fukushima meltdown, Japan had shut down all nuclear reactors for safety audits and established the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to implement stricter safety standards. Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy dropped from around 30% in 2011 to 6.4% today. However, mounting oil import bills, growing uncertainty in global oil and gas supply, and pressure to reduce carbon emissions compelled Japan to re-evaluate its strategy. Japan is the second-largest importer of LNG, after China, and
relies on imports for 90% of its energy needs.

In December 2022, the Japan approved a change in its nuclear policy, allowing existing reactors to operate beyond 60 years from the previously set 40-year limit post-Fukushima, with a focus on developing innovative next-generation reactors. They set a target of 20-22% for nuclear energy to meet the country’s needs by the end of the decade, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. However, of the 33 operable nuclear reactors, only 10 have received NRA clearance to restart. Thus, the challenge lies in securing space for new reactors, restarting the existing ones, decommissioning Fukushima reactors and reconstructing affected areas to gain public support for the new policy.

Japan’s desperation to secure its energy compelled it to face potential security challenges, combat the loss of its fisheries and agricultural product markets, and pre-empt any damage to its pacifist nuclear posture caused by releasing Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

(The writer is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Taiwan Centre for Security Studies, National Chengchi University, Taipei)

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Published 25 September 2023, 21:00 IST

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