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[Editorial] Fukushima water release

Japan’s decision to discharge Fukushima water sparks a slew of hot-button issues

Aug. 24, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

As Japan plans to start releasing treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea, the South Korean government reassured the public of its safety. However, people remain deeply concerned about the water’s impact amid intensifying political wrangling over the discharge.

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will begin to discharge around 1.34 million metric tons of Fukushima water Thursday. The move came after the International Atomic Energy Agency approved the discharge last month.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant has stored the treated radioactive water since it was destroyed in March 2011 by a massive earthquake and tsunami, and the discharge of the water has become a hot-button issue in neighboring countries, especially in South Korea due to its proximity.

Even in Japan, the release of the water -- purified through the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) and diluted with seawater -- is controversial. Japanese TV stations interviewed people on the street Tuesday, some of whom expressed their worries about the long-term safety of the release.

The issue is particularly tricky here, as the Korean government is widely seen to have endorsed the release of Fukushima water as part of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s push for mending long-soured ties with Japan.

In a briefing on Tuesday, Park Ku-yeon, the first deputy chief of the Office for Government Policy Coordination, said the government has determined that “there are no scientific or technical problems with the planned discharge of the contaminated water.”

Countering the public view over the discharge, Park said the government “neither approves nor opposes the (release) plan.” Seoul will request Japan to stop the discharge immediately if the radioactive material in the discharged water exceeds standard levels, Park added.

The IAEA and the Korean government alike hold a view that there is no scientific problem with the treated water when the ALPS is operated as planned. Worryingly, Tokyo has not accepted Seoul’s demand to shorten the checkup period for the filter of ALPS.

Critics point out that Japan had previously delayed the announcement of the loss of reactor cores at the Fukushima plant and even attempted to hide the technical problems with the ALPS in its initial operations. These actions compromised the public's trust in the Japanese government over the Fukushima issue.

Japan is scheduled to discharge a massive volume of treated radioactive water over a period of 30 years, and it remains to be seen whether the safety monitoring by the Japanese government and neighboring countries will be strictly maintained in the long term.

What matters most is transparency on the part of the Japanese government regarding the discharge process and monitoring. The Korean government plans to hold regular video conferences with Japanese counterparts, and experts will make regular visits to the IAEA field office in Japan to check whether the release is carried out as originally planned.

But political wrangling is also complicating the discharge controversy in Korea. The ruling People Power Party’s position is in line with the government, as it has vowed to ensure the safety of seafood and block fake news from undermining the local fisheries industry in connection with the release of treated radioactive water.

But the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea is strongly opposed to the planned release of Fukushima water. Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung on Tuesday denounced Japan for attempting to “destroy the environment.”

Lee also accused President Yoon of letting Japan release the water during the trilateral summit with Japan and the US in Camp David last week. The party plans to hold a protest while working with civic groups and international bodies to put pressure on Japan to halt the release.

Against this heated backdrop, the Yoon administration needs to take more steps to dispel the public's concerns about the long-term safety of the Fukushima water release. Rival parties are urged to work together to help protect the local industry from the impact of the discharge and step up monitoring of the dispute-laden release.