A team of South Korean experts embarked on a six-day visit to Japan on Sunday for an on-site inspection amid growing concerns over whether the team will be able to properly check the safety status surrounding Japan’s planned release of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
The inspection comes after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a summit in Seoul earlier this month to thaw frosty bilateral relations. Early Sunday, the two leaders also met again in Hiroshima, Japan, where the Group of Seven summit was held.
"If we take a scientific approach to explain what we saw and what we need to confirm further, then I think people will have more trust in us," said Yoo Guk-hee, chief of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission and leader of the 21-member inspection team, shortly before he departed for Japan on Sunday.
Despite the reassuring comment, Yoo may face serious challenges as the team will review the safety of the discharging process and try to ease safety concerns of the Korean public.
Separately, the government formed a consultation group of 10 civilian experts, some of whom strongly raised safety issues with the radioactive water and called for a thorough inspection. But the consultation group members were not included in the on-site inspection team.
This raises the question of objectivity. As the current on-site team members belong to state-run agencies, they may find it hard to voice any opinion different from that of the government, which favors Japan’s safety claims.
Other restrictions are also expected to hamper the inspection team’s efforts to check the safety. Japan will not allow Korean experts to collect samples of the radioactive water at the power plant site, nor will it recognize the results of the Korean inspection team’s safety appraisal, a clear indication that Japan does not want a full-fledged, objective inspection.
The Yoon administration and the ruling People Power Party said the public needs not worry about the inspection, as the Korean delegation will have the opportunity to examine the Fukushima plant’s custom Advanced Liquid Processing System for purification, or ALPS, and assess its results. The government also argued that Japan would allow an additional inspection should a problem be discovered at the site.
In contrast, critics pointed out that Korea may end up as a mere sidekick to Japan if it dumps the radioactive water into the ocean shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency finalizes its full safety review of the planned water discharge in late June or early July.
If Japan pushes for the release of the ALPS treated water, it is feared to argue the Korean inspection team made a visit to the power plant and verified the safety of the discharge process.
Another critical fact is that Japan’s policy does not allow Korean reporters to accompany the inspection team. The lack of transparency and openness surrounding the visit may result in future disputes about closed-door dealings -- a factor that could spark safety concerns among Korean people.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea was quick to attack the objectivity of the inspection. On Saturday, Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung joined a civic rally in protest of Japan’s release of the “contaminated water” into the ocean, arguing that Japan’s plan to discharge the water reveals the fact that it does not view the water safe.
The Fukushima plant’s cooling systems were badly damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The plant stores over 1.3 million tons of water treated by ALPS, and the release of the water into the ocean will take decades to complete -- a highly sensitive issue for Korea, the geographically closest to Japan among neighboring countries.
The government must bear in mind that ensuring the safety of the Korean public through objective and scientific inspection is the top priority.