Plan and Expectations for Contaminated Water Discharge
In March 2011, an accident occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP), caused by a massive earthquake to the east of Japan. To cool down the melted nuclear fuel, water was injected into the reactors, and as a result, water from rainfall and groundwater mixed with the nuclear fuel, creating highly contaminated water. Japan has announced plans to release this water into the Pacific Ocean over a period for 30 years after removing radioactive isotopes through the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS).
According to simulations conducted by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology, if the contaminated water is discharged, it will flow eastward toward the Pacific Ocean due to its location on the eastern side of Japan. The Kuroshio Current will then carry the water across the North Pacific to Canada and the United States before circulating widely in the Pacific Ocean and eventually reaching Korean waters. The predicted time for the impact on our water ranges from approximately 4 to 5 years, and in some cases, it could take up to 10 years. However, the influence of radioactive substances such as tritium is scientifically predicted to be negligible, at around 1/100,000 of the average domestic seawater concentration, meaning it would have an insignificant impact.
Various Perspectives on the Discharge
On July 4, 2023, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on Japan's contaminated water issue. According to the report, the IAEA confirmed that Japan's plan to discharge treated water from the FDNPP into the ocean meets the IAEA safety standards and that almost all radioactive substances have been removed through the ALPS. In other words, they assessed that the environmental and human impact would be negligible.
While some support the discharge, the international environmental organization, Greenpeace, raised concerns, stating that nuclear isotope removal is not sufficient, and they questioned the filtration process by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Others argue that Japan should store the remaining isotopes until they naturally decay to safe levels due to their half-lives, and emphasize the need for extensive research on the potential impact of the water discharge on marine ecosystems.
Looking at the perspectives from other countries, there seems to be little reaction from North American countries such as the United States and Canada, and the United States expressed confidence in the IAEA's findings. However, concerns were raised during the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), where 18 Pacific countries participated, and many countries in the Asia-Pacific region also opposed the discharge. China demanded that the Japanese government reach an agreement with international organizations and neighboring countries before proceeding with the discharge, accusing Japan of violating international obligations. These opposing voices are also echoed within Japan itself. On the night of July 5th, a group consisting of around 100 Japanese citizens held a protest against the ocean discharge plan, and they expressed their intention to continue opposing the discharge through press conferences and the launch of antidischarge websites. Amidst the opposition, the Japanese government promised to maintain a 'high level of transparency' and stated that they would continue to try to persuade others.
Despite opposition from Japanese fishermen, civic groups and neighboring countries, the discharge of contaminated water began on August 28 following the decision of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Korean Government's Response
The Korean government reviewed the stability of the contaminated water and concluded that the impact on our waters would be insignificant. The government respects the IAEA as an authoritative organization with long-standing expertise and representation and takes the position of respecting the contents of the comprehensive report. The government believes that the possibility of Japanese coastal fish migrating to Korean waters is slim, and they reassure the public that radiation levels in our seafood and seawater have been continuously and meticulously monitored since the Fukushima nuclear accident, with no instances exceeding safety standards. The government is also actively engaging with fishermen by organizing ongoing safety explanation sessions to address their concerns and communicate practical measures.
Domestic Movements Regarding Contaminated Water
In a joint survey conducted by the Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo and the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, it was revealed that 83.8% of Koreans oppose the water discharge. Concerns have risen domestically regarding the safety of sailors who filter seawater for drinking purposes, worries among female divers who enter the sea for their livelihoods, and anxieties among consumers about food consumption. Incidents of hoarding iodized salt and sea salt have been reported. In fact, there was a surge in online orders for iodized salt from Sinan County, resulting in temporary shortages. Fishermen anticipate that domestic seafood consumption might be negatively affected by the contaminated water discharge.
The Citizens' Action Against Radioactive Water Dumping into the Ocean (CAARWO) held a press conference in front of the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin in Seoul on July 5. They pointed out that the long-term testing of the design and performance of the ALPS was not conducted by the IAEA, and there are still problems related to biological concentration, and IAEA’s conclusion was pre-maturely made by the TEPCO’s data. Therefore, CAARWO announced that they will continue their nationwide candlelight protests on August 15.
As opinions remain divided, it is essential to consider not only short-term but also long-term perspectives when discussing the environment, as restoring a damaged environment can be a very challenging task. Therefore, thoughtful considerations on what the best course of action is from both short-term and long-term environmental viewpoints are required.