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On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck eastern Japan. As a result, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture experienced a catastrophic meltdown that led to thousands being evacuated and radioactive nuclear waste leaking outside of the plant. Through the use of heat given off by radioactive metals, nuclear power plants can generate electricity. However, if left uncontrolled, the same reactions that generate power can lead to overheating and leaking of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment.
In the years following, Japan used seawater to cool down the nuclear reactors in the ruined plant to stop them from overheating. This contaminated water has been stored in huge storage tanks on site at Fukushima, which will hit maximum capacity by 2024. Thus, in 2021, Japan announced its plan to dilute and process this water before discharging it – around 1.3 million metric tonnes’ worth – into the Pacific. The Japanese government claims that there are no other feasible options, and that not disposing of the wastewater would only increase the risk that it leaks into the environment, causing even more damage. However, does this actually stack up? Do the benefits of this plan actually outweigh the costs?
Is Japan’s Plan Safe for the Environment?
Despite reports from both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the South Korean government attesting to its safety, the disposal plan has sparked controversy and panic amongst Japan’s neighbours. Although the IAEA’s report expects the plan to “have a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment,” many remain unconvinced. These fears are bolstered by claims from some experts, particularly those in ocean biology, who believe even the low levels of radioactive material that Japan plans on releasing can accumulate in sea creatures and ultimately move its way up the human food chain. A coalition of Pacific Island nations also issued a report criticizing the unclear effects of the proposed plan, maintaining that it should not be implemented.
The discharged water will be treated to remove most of the radioactive and toxic elements before its release into the Pacific Ocean, but one major chemical of concern remains: tritium. Tritium isn’t as radioactive as other radioactive chemicals like uranium, but can be harmful if ingested in large doses, which scientists worry will increase the risk of cancer. Based on the available scientific evidence, it remains unclear whether the wastewater discharge plan is fully safe due to the limited understanding of tritium’s interaction with marine life and human health.
Impacts on Local and International Communities: The Power of Perception Regarding Nuclear Power
Japan’s plan to release nuclear wastewater into the ocean, even if it is going to be diluted and treated, is also causing unease amongst local citizens both in and outside of Japan. This panic is already having very real impacts, despite the fact that no wastewater has actually been released into the ocean yet as of July 2023. For example, Hong Kong has announced plans to immediately ban Japanese food imports from 10 prefectures should the wastewater discharge plan be executed.
Meanwhile, South Korean shoppers started hoarding salt and seafood in fears that their food sources will be contaminated once the wastewater is released into the ocean. Japanese fishermen, particularly those from around Fukushima, worry that demand for their fish will plummet due to concerns about the safety of food from the area. This is a concern shared by other businesses in Fukushima, in particular those oriented towards tourists, who worry that fears of nuclear contamination may drive tourists away yet again.
Nuclear Wastewater Disposal – A Hot-Button Geopolitical Issue?
This debate around wastewater disposal shows ongoing public fear of nuclear power, which started with anxiety over the damaging potential of nuclear weapons after World War II. This fear was then bolstered by a string of nuclear accidents, such as in 1979 at Three Mile Island and in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 1986. Particularly after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, fears of nuclear meltdowns led to considerable backlash in many East Asian nations (particularly those that surround Japan) against nuclear power in general.
In Pacific Island nations, distrust of nuclear power runs even deeper, as many of these nations were indiscriminately used as nuclear testing grounds during the mid-to-late 20th century. This has led to health impacts amongst the residents, who were often not adequately informed of the tests or their negative effects. This is understandable – however, this fear is also hypocritically being weaponized by some of Japan’s neighbours, in particular China, who employs the same techniques (link in Chinese) in disposing of wastewater at their own nuclear power plants.
Somewhat bizarrely, this has led to Japan’s wastewater disposal plan becoming a geopolitical issue, with European and North American nations generally supporting the discharge in support of the IAEA report. The EU even went as far as to lift all import restrictions of food from the affected areas in Japan in light of the IAEA report, following the footsteps of the US and UK. – However, China and other surrounding nations are strong opponents of the plan.. Chinese media has strongly criticized Japan’s wastewater disposal plan, with state-sponsored media calling the IAEA report “wrong” and decrying Japan’s actions as “an outrageous misconduct.” They also claim that Fukushima wastewater was “fundamentally different” than discharge from normal nuclear plants, despite a lack of evidence supporting the claim.
Takeaways: What Can We Learn?
Ultimately, while there remain doubts around Japan’s wastewater discharge plan, what is clear is the effect that this plan has already had on local communities. Despite uncertainty about the safety of consuming food from affected areas, the perceived risk has already significantly harmed food exports from the Fukushima region. Even after 12 years, food exports from the region remain below pre-meltdown levels. Going forward with this plan, regardless of its safety, will likely worsen the already fragile livelihoods of local residents, many of whom were displaced or affected by the 2011 disaster.
Nuclear power itself is demonstrably safe, and it is only getting safer with increasingly stringent safety regulations, leading to death rates that are much lower than coal, gas, or even hydro power. Nuclear also produces less emissions than fossil fuels when used in energy generation (though more than solar, hydro, or wind), and can be generated in most conditions (unlike traditional renewables like solar, hydro, and wind, which can be affected by weather conditions or require nearby water sources).
The problem of nuclear waste – how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel, which is often still radioactive – is also slowly being solved by scientists, with the world’s first permanent nuclear waste storage site currently being built in Finland. However, aside from scientific considerations about safety and the environment, governments should also aim to dispel rumors and calm the public’s worries over the safety of nuclear power before further adoption of it. Failing to address the public’s worries about nuclear energy can lead to damaged livelihoods and reduced trust in the safety of local food products – something that is already happening in Fukushima.
Edited by Alexandra Hu