Japan has begun to release radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, a decision that was quickly met with protests and seafood bans. This decision has stirred controversy around the potential environmental and health impact of radioactive wastewater, which primarily contains radioactive tritium.
Proponents of this plan argue that the tritiated water will be carefully diluted in the ocean, bringing levels below all safety limits. Critics warn that radionuclides could transfer from the bottom of the food web to the top, resulting in bioaccumulation, the process by which contaminants concentrate and magnify themselves.
While debate is raging around the dangers of tritium, it is fair to say that the decision to release wastewater will symbolically hurt Japan. It will do so by creating anxiety toward food safety, hampering citizens’ trust in their government, and fueling geopolitical tensions with Asian neighbors.
First, the release will be a setback for Fukushima’s – and particularly its food products’ – image. For more than a decade, the government of Japan has been working hard to revitalize the Fukushima region, which was harshly affected by the nuclear disaster. To help citizens rebuild their life, the Japanese state launched an official recovery effort in Fukushima, investing trillions of yen to clean and decontaminate the region before repatriating evacuees, while promoting tourism in public relation activities.
In Fukushima, food production was particularly affected by the nuclear disaster. State officials have complained of the persistence of what they call “harmful rumors” (fūhyō higai) around radiation risks, which caused consumers to avoid food produced in the region. With the aim of reducing reputational damages, the Japanese state established regulation values and regular testing for radioactive contamination in food products, while asking people to consume Fukushima’s products via a series of food fairs.
The decision to release the wastewater, then, seems to go against the government’s efforts to revitalize the region. It is facing stark opposition from Japan’s fishing industry. Fishermen are precisely afraid that the release of wastewater will drive consumers away and hurt their business, which has been struggling to recover since 2011. On a broader scale, the release will negatively impact Japan’s international image, especially as a country that successfully branded sushi and seafood products as staples of its traditional culture.
Second, the release of wastewater risks increasing citizens’ mistrust toward their government, a trust that has already been wobbly since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Indeed, before 2011, a nuclear disaster was deemed impossible in Japanese society, and few citizens had reasons to doubt a state that repeatedly assured the population of the inherent safety of nuclear power. The nuclear disaster, which was later described as being “beyond assumptions” (sōteigai), completely broke the nuclear “safety myth” (anzen shinwa) that had prevailed in Japan.
It also revealed that the government was ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe. Following the disaster, many citizens were unable to obtain concrete information about radiation in a timely manner. They faced confusion due to poor risk communications around evacuation orders and radiation-related metrics, while being left to self-assess radiation danger amid contradicting international assessments. Many citizens felt betrayed and abandoned, losing trust in government officials and state experts.
This legacy of mistrust continues to this day and is merging with Japan’s decision to release Fukushima wastewater. In that regard, many citizens are wondering if a state that failed to predict the nuclear disaster at Fukushima can now provide assurances of safety during the release of wastewater. The plan will further add to mistrust by depicting Japan as a state that opted for the cheapest option of “dumping” wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.
Third, Japan’s decision to release radioactive water will fuel geopolitical tensions with Asian neighbors, most notably South Korea and China. Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, countries like South Korea and China have banned fish imports from Japan’s Fukushima region, leading to a drastic decrease of Japanese products. Concerns about radiation came back when Japan was chosen to host the 2020 Olympics, as different civic groups and politicians wanted to boycott the Olympics due to safety concerns over radiation.
Similar diplomatic tensions are arising now that Japan is releasing wastewater. While the South Korean government has officially vouched for the safety of Japan’s plan, the Korean population has been far less sympathetic, with civic protests mounting in the last few days. Will the South Korean government bend under popular pressure? It remains to be seen. For its part, the Chinese government has been much more vocal, immediately banning Japan’s seafood products as the wastewater was released.
These diplomatic tensions are not particularly surprising when we consider the history of these countries’ relationships. Korea used to be a colony of the Empire of Japan and relationships between Japan and South Korea is plagued by past scars, such as the issue of “comfort women,” Korean girls were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. China also faced atrocities at the hands of the Japanese military during the first half of the 20th century, while being currently embedded in territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. These historical tensions are still highly present and are combining themselves with current nuclear-related tensions.
In the future, we can expect to see the issue of wastewater being strategically mobilized to suit geopolitical needs. In fact, the release of wastewater is already giving political ammunition to Japan’s opponents, as seen by China’s eagerness to highlight the issue.