China warns of action over Japan’s decision to dump radioactive Fukushima water into the sea

Catherine Wong
·5-min read

Beijing warned that it might take action in response to Tokyo’s decision to dump radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, adding to already strained ties between the two East Asian neighbours, while also urging Washington to be “impartial” on the issue.

China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday blasted the Japanese government for being “extremely irresponsible” in its decision to release 1 million tonnes of waste water into the Pacific Ocean in two years, a decision that has prompted fierce opposition from the local fishing industry as well as neighbouring countries, including South Korea, and environmental groups. However, the United States said the approach was acceptable.

“The US side has always paid a lot of attention to environmental issues. We hope the US side can be impartial in its treatment towards environmental issues of real concern,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that the decision, long delayed by public opposition and safety concerns, was the “most realistic option”. This comes a decade after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl was triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami that ripped through northeastern Japan in 2011.

Suga said the Japanese government would “take every measure to absolutely guarantee the safety of the treated water and address misinformation”. He said his cabinet would meet again within a week to work out the details of the plan.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc, and government officials say tritium, a radioactive material that poses little risk to human health in low concentrations, cannot be removed from the water. Other more radioactive materials, including strontium and caesium, can be eliminated from the water before its release.

In a separate statement on Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said safety concerns remained and that China had not been properly consulted by Tokyo over the decision.

“The Japanese side has yet to exhaust all safe avenues, disregarded domestic and external opposition, has decided to unilaterally release the Fukushima plant’s nuclear waste water without full consultation with its neighbouring countries and the international community,” the statement said.

“This action is extremely irresponsible and will pose serious harm to the health and safety of the people in neighbouring countries and the international community.”

China called on Tokyo to reverse the decision, adding that it would continue to monitor the development and “reserve the right to respond further”.

Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Japan, said the East China Sea had already been polluted by caesium leaked from Fukushima since 2011, citing a 2018 model study by Nanjing University of Science and Technology in China.

He said that although the level of radioactive material from Fukushima in the East China Sea would not be significant in the future compared with that on the coast of Japan, there was no reason to allow it to pollute any marine environment. The variety of radionuclides that would be discharged into the sea might damage the DNA of humans and other organisms, Burnie said.

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Greenpeace Japan said the discharge disregarded the human rights and interests of the people in Fukushima, wider Japan and the Asia-Pacific region.

“Rather than using the best available technology to minimise radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option – dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean,” said Kazue Suzuki, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, adding that the Japanese Cabinet’s decision failed to protect the environment and neglected the large-scale opposition and concerns of the local Fukushima residents, as well as neighbouring citizens around Japan.

Also on Tuesday, South Korea declared “strong regret” over Japan’s decision.

“The government expresses strong regret over the Japanese government’s decision to release contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean,” said Koo Yoon-cheol, head of South Korea’s Office for Government Policy Coordination.

Koo presided over an emergency vice-ministerial meeting to discuss Seoul’s actions following Japan’s announcement before addressing a press conference. He said the government would “take every necessary measure” to keep the South Korean people safe from contaminated water from the Fukushima plant.

More than a dozen South Korean civic activists staged a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Tuesday condemning Japan’s proposed discharge of radioactive waters into the sea as a “nuclear terrorist act”.

Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council on Tuesday expressed opposition to and regret over Tokyo’s planned action.

Tokyo, meanwhile, said it had been in close coordination with, and had the backing of, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The decision also appears to have been backed by its ally, the United States.

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“In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards,” said Ned Price, State Department spokesman in a statement on Monday.

Relations between China and Japan have been strained in recent months with Tokyo being forced to postpone its Olympics because of Covid-19, which was first reported in China. Tokyo has also said it is concerned about alleged human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and China’s passage of a law allowing its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels.

Liu Weidong, a scholar in US-China relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the issue of discharging Fukushima water was highly politicised amid a period of heightened concerns.

“This issue has gone from a scientific question to a political problem. Each side is presenting their own views and there is no consensus. It is better to let a third-party international organisation provide an independent opinion and conclusion on the matter.”

Additional reporting by Park Chan-kyong and Amber Wang


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