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Fukushima 10 Years Later: How Nuclear Waste Management is Increasing Tensions Between East Asian States

By Julie Choi and Kayleigh Thompson, UNA-NCA Senior Advocacy Fellows

Aerial view of the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant

10 years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the Japanese government has announced the beginning of a two year process that will release more than 1 million tonnes (an amount that is enough to fill about 500 Olympic sized swimming pools) of treated radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. The wastewater is a result of ongoing efforts to control the meltdown of three nuclear reactors after the flooding of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant during the tsunami from the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Neighboring countries such as North Korea, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Russia have contested the Japanese government’s controversial announcement, and it received criticisms from scientists and environmental groups. This decision is the latest to reignite historic tensions between East Asian nations — specifically Japan and South Korea — posing a threat to ongoing efforts to multilaterally combat global challenges such as climate change, COVID-19 economic recovery, and increasing global power competition between the United States and China.

Nuclear Cleanup: Where to Put Radioactive Waste?

The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, measuring 9.0 magnitude on the Richter scale, was centered 130 meters offshore off the coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan. At the time of the event, there were 11 nuclear reactors at four different power plants in operation, three of which were located at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). As a result of the earthquake, a 14m tsunami flooded the Daiichi plant, causing a loss of power to the emergency diesel generators responsible for the continued injection of coolant into the nuclear cores, resulting in partial nuclear meltdown in of the three reactors and chemical explosions in an inoperative fourth. The meltdown in these reactors and the resulting chemical reactions caused significant radiation to leak both into the air and into the water supply, including the Pacific Ocean.

Over the course of the next decade, efforts to contain radioactive materials and maintain cool temperatures in the core involved using treated water either from the sea or groundwater supply and recycling it through the plant to prevent the cores from heating back up, and the construction of reactor covers to prevent radiation from polluting the air. By December 2011, the reactors had reached “cold shutdown” conditions, in which the reactor is cooler than 200 degrees and radiation emissions are minimal. In March 2016, the heat decay output was measured to be 1% of its original level, suggesting that the constant flow of water into the reactors could be interrupted without a spike in core temperatures. The tsunami left the four reactors permanently damaged, and they have subsequently been slated for full decommissioning, a process that will take decades. The water used to cool the cores, which now contains significant radioactive waste, amounts up to 100 million tonnes and is currently being stored onsite in storage tanks.

The April 2021 announcement that the Tokyo Electric Power Company would begin the two-year process of treating the water so that it may be dumped into the Pacific Ocean is an attempt to make space for more water treatment and storage and to continue the process of decommissioning the four nuclear reactors. This process, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the US government support, involves a thorough filtration of the waste water, removing radioactive isotopes such as carbon-14 and cesium-134 and 137, until all that remains is the hydrogen isotope of Tritium, which binds to hydrogen atoms in the water and cannot be easily removed. The remaining Tritium, which the Health Physics Society considers “one of the least harmful radionuclides” as it is unable to penetrate human skin, will be diluted in the treated water until its levels fall below the international regulatory limits. The water will then be dumped into the Pacific Ocean.

According to the IAEA and several scientists quoted in the Science magazine Nature, this process falls well within standard procedure of operating nuclear reactors. Despite the amount of radiation at Fukushima being noted as “unusual,” the plan to gradually release water that has minimal radiation levels over a period of years does not raise significant concerns from several members of the scientific community. Deborah Oughton, the director of the Centre for Environmental Radioactivity at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo, notes that Tritium is a naturally occurring radionuclide, stating, “the direct environmental and human health impact of the radioactivity, in my opinion, will be very, very low.” Despite this prediction, several environmental groups, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution raise concerns over the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s ability to successfully treat the water, citing the 2018 revelation that there were existing radionuclides in the treated water despite the company’s initial claims that the water was safe. Other organizations, including Greenpeace and fishing unions in Fukushima, have cited that the plan violates international law and endangers recovering fish populations. In response, the IAEA assured that they will closely monitor the situation and work with Japan to ensure the safest disposal of the waste water.

International Backlash: Tensions in East Asia

Comfort Women Statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul

The response to Japan’s decision to dump nuclear waste water has been primarily negative, with the largest opponent for the plan being South Korea. The relationship between Japan and South Korea has been tense for centuries, in large part due to a series of unresolved historic disputes between the two countries. The main sources of tension are unsettled issues involving former comfort women, or women the Japanese Imperial Army forced into sexual slavery (survivors come from many different countries that were formerly colonized by the Japanese), and unpaid laborers’ demands for reparations.

With these historic issues looming in the background, tensions have been on the rise since 2019, when the Japanese government placed an export ban on important chemicals vital to South Korean tech companies, like Samsung and LG, and also took the country off their whitelist, a Japanese list of countries who are exempt from “additional export procedures for all products.” Perceiving this action as a form of weaponized trade and a continuation of disagreements stemming from historic tensions, South Korea retaliated by ending a critical intelligence-sharing agreement, GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement), which allowed direct information sharing regarding North Korean military and nuclear activities. Former South Korean Ambassador to Japan Shin Gak-Soo commented, “I thought we’d hit bottom, but then the basement opened up,” emphasizing the perception that South Korean-Japanese relations were only worsening.

In the midst of this growing trade dispute, Japan was simultaneously exploring contingency plans to deal with the 1 million tonnes of nuclear wastewater remaining in the Fukushima reactors. Although the government created a panel to propose multiple solutions, including burying the treated water in concrete tanks and “injecting it into geological strata far beneath the surface”, the Japanese government ultimately decided on the least costly plan of slowly releasing the waste into the ocean. In response, South Korea has become one of the loudest opponents of the country’s plan to dump the treated water into the Pacific. At the 63rd IAEA General Conference in September 2019, South Korea’s Vice Minister of Ministry of Science and ICT Mun Mi Ock made a formal statement raising concerns about Japan’s plan to dump the water into the ocean. Mun stated that dumping the contaminated water into the ocean would no longer make the management of Fukushima’s contaminated water a domestic issue, but an international one, which could affect the entire international community. She emphasized that Japan needed to proceed with caution so that future generations would not be affected by the negative effects of contamination, such as endangering recovering fish populations and exacerbating the climate crisis. Mun, on behalf of the Moon Jae In government, also called on the IAEC to carefully monitor Japan so that the government would take “substantive and transparent actions.’’ In 2020, upon the first meeting between South Korea and newly inaugurated Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, South Korea once again raised “serious concerns’’ about the plan to dump the nuclear waste water into the ocean.

In a show of support for their government’s policies, citizens of South Korea have also voiced concerns about Japan’s execution of plans. Polls in 2019 indicated that while people believe the contaminated water can successfully be treated, they do not fully trust the Japanese government to safely go through with the plan. In April of 2021, demonstrations in South Korea erupted in front of Japanese embassies in protest of the plan to dump the nuclear waste.

South Korea university students gets their heads shaved during a protest against Japan’s decision to release contaminated water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, in front of the Japanese embassy, in Seoul, South Korea, April 20, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-ji

The international community has also raised criticisms in regards to the nuclear waste plan. In 2019, the North Korean government took a stand alongside South Korea, making comments publicly condemning the Japanese government. Rodong Simmun, a state-run media organization, stated, “Japan should heed the grave warning from the international community, stop taking reckless action and pull out of its plan to discharge contaminated water,” and went as far as to call the decision a “criminal act.” China and Taiwan echoed these criticisms, emphasizing the fact that Japan took unilateral action on an issue that will affect multiple nations and stating their intent to closely monitor the situation to ensure proper sanitation is carried out. However, in response, the US Department of State issued their support for Japan’s plan in partnership with the IAEA, stating that Japan has been fully transparent about the situation and that the dumping process will be closely monitored.

Despite IAEA assurances that the plan will be closely monitored, additional factors are further exacerbating the tensions in East Asia, particularly between Japan and South Korea, stunting any progress in reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue. In 2021, Japan included the disputed islands of Dokdo/Takeshima, which are controlled by the South Korean Government but are claimed by the Japanese, on the map of Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. Perceived as a political move, South Korean lawmakers were infuriated at Japan’s refusal to revise the Olympic Map, despite the South Korean government agreeing to leave out the islands in their Olympic Map used in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, citing the desire to keep politics and sports separate. This dispute, paired with the Japanese government’s commitment to their nuclear waste disposal plan, have reignited historically strained tensions between the two nations in the wake of the Tokyo Olympics, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in ultimately declining to attend the games, despite initial plans to hold a bilateral summit between the two nations.

In South Korea, 65% of citizens are reported to have supported this decision to not attend the Olympic games. This poll can be compared to another in which nearly 77% of Koreans found Japan “unfavorable”, which is the highest number since 1991. On the other hand, a 2019 poll in Japan found that 74% of Japanese felt distrustful of Koreans. With the residual tension from previous conflicts, both historic and modern, and the evidence of polls which show growing discontent from the people in both countries, there is an increasing need for reconciliation efforts between the two nations.

From the standpoint of the United States, ensuring cooperation between Japan and South Korea may be an essential component of combatting the increasing threat of China, and as a result, US diplomats have pushed for several trilateral meetings between the nations based around discussing the North Korean nuclear program, climate change, and COVID-19. In pursuing multilateral action against global challenges such as increasing pressure from China, economic recovery after COVID-19, and reaffirming a commitment to environmental protections, successful multilateralism between Japan, South Korea, the United States, and other nations in East Asia will continue to be essential. The United States has an important role in facilitating successful multilateralism in the region. As a close ally to both Japan and South Korea, the United States should continue to encourage dialogue between the two countries with a clear understanding of the underlying issues that stem from historical trauma. The Biden Administration has the task of walking a very fine line of staying neutral and not seeming disinterested. As tensions between Japan and South Korea continue to rise over nuclear waste disposal and with historical context between the two nations once again influencing current relations, the United States has an essential role in supporting successful multilateralism.



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