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Japan: Fukushima water release puts Kishida under pressure

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
August 24, 2023

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government is facing a wave of criticism at home and abroad after allowing the release of treated radioactive water from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean.

Protesters hold signs reading 'Don't throw radioactive contaminated water into the sea!' in Japan
Many Japanese oppose their government's decision to release treated Fukushima water into the oceanImage: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP

To a chorus of criticism at home and abroad, Japan on Thursday started to release treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. 

Analysts say the water dump could harm Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's standing with domestic voters and neighboring governments. 

Engineers at the power station, which was crippled in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, causing three of its six reactors to suffer meltdowns, began discharging water through a pipeline that has been constructed to a distance of about one kilometer (0.6 miles) off the coast.

The Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the operator of the facility, have gone to great lengths to convince the Japanese public and the international community that the water is safe.  

They point out that the water has been treated to remove virtually all the radioactive contaminants, that it is being greatly diluted and that studies endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency show that it poses no threat to human health or the flora and fauna of the Pacific.  

However, China has demonstrated its disagreement with this assessment by announcing Thursday it would ban all seafood from Japan in response to the Fukushima water release, which it called "selfish and irresponsible."

Japan divided on Fukushima water dump

The Japanese public is divided on the matter, with environmental groups, opponents of nuclear energy and people living in northeast Japan, particularly fishermen, furious at the decision.

Protesters hold blue signs with fish on them
Protesters in Tokyo hold signs reading 'no radiation contaminated water into the sea'Image: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Others, however, are shrugging their shoulders and suggest the government had little choice in the matter.  

"Kishida is already dealing with a number of problems in his government, including rising prices and scandals involving his son, who was serving as an aide, and in the party, so this issue is certainly going to add to his problems," said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.   

"But it goes both ways," she told DW. "Among those opposed to his conservative government, this will be something else to criticize him for, but conservatives see this as progress that is finally being made in a problem that has been lingering for the last decade."

Ken Kato, a businessman from Tokyo, applauded the decision after so many delays. 

"I am 100% supportive and this is the only appropriate action," he told DW.

"The IAEA has confirmed that it is of no danger to human health. The most serious issue is the Chinese misinformation campaign that has served to damage the reputations and livelihoods of fishermen in north-east Japan and Japan in general," he added.  

Others take issue with that position, however, with Kanako Hosomura, a housewife from Saitama Prefecture, less than 200 kilometers southwest of the nuclear power plant, saying she is fearful of the impact of the water release.  

"It is obvious that fish, shellfish, seaweed and other food products from the region are going to be affected over time by this," she told DW.

"I'm not going to buy fish from Fukushima again and I will ask the sushi restaurant where I usually go where they are buying their stocks from. And I definitely will not go to any of the beaches there with my children until I am absolutely sure that it is safe again." 

Japan's Fukushima decision may impact fish exports

How is the water being treated?

TEPCO officials have stated that an initial 7,800 tons of water, which has undergone treatment in the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove all but the relatively harmless radionuclide tritium, will be diluted with seawater and released over the next 17 days.  

The water is diluted to reduce tritium levels to one-seventh the standard set by the World Health Organization as being safe to drink, the company said. 

Monitored by the IAEA, TEPCO intends to release around 31,200 tons of treated water in the fiscal year to April.

Experts estimate that it will take around 30 years to release the 1.25 million tons of water that is already in storage at the site and all additional rainwater that seeps into the subterranean complex that houses the damaged reactors. 

What is the international reaction?

The United States said it is satisfied with the safety measures Japan is taking, and Ambassador Rahm Emanuel stated that he will be travelling to Fukushima later this week and intends to visit a sushi restaurant to demonstrate US solidarity. Australia has expressed similar support.  

The government of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol also said it is satisfied that the science supports the decision to discharge the water, but with growing public anger over the move domestically, it has added the condition that it will take Japan to court should radiation be detected above safe levels.

A man being forcibly held back by police
A South Korean protester in front of the Japanese embassy in SeoulImage: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

However, Lee Jae-myung, the head of South Korea's Democratic Party, has called the water release an "act of terror."

Ben Ascione, an assistant professor of international relations at Tokyo's Waseda University, said strong opposition from China was inevitable, but that the water release could negatively affect Japan's "fragile" relations with South Korea.

"China's position has been steadfast and this is not going to change the relationship too much, but the situation with Seoul is more complicated," he said.

"Japan, South Korea and the US have just had a very important trilateral summit at Camp David and there have been triumphant claims that this is a completely new era of relations. My reading is that it is a lot more fragile than that triumphalism would have us believe," he added.  

"This is going to continue to be another thorn in the side of the relationship and an issue where tensions are going to continue to flare," he said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea