Storage tanks for water contaminated with radioactive matter from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Yonhap News)
With Japan launching full-scale preparations to start releasing contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea next spring, South Korea has yet to carry out an assessment of the impact of radioactive material that will arrive in its waters.
Given South Korea’s lack of preparations and Japan’s lack of cooperation, there has not even been any model analysis of the possible spread of contamination, which is an essential part of an environmental impact assessment.
On May 18, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved a Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) plan for the release of contaminated water from the nuclear plant into the sea.
According to Japanese media, the NRA plans to go through procedures for collecting feedback from the public before officially approving the implementation plan for the release sometime next month. Once that happens, TEPCO will only need the consent of the presiding local government to begin constructing the necessary equipment for the discharge effort.
The official decision to release the water from Fukushima into the sea was made by Japan’s Cabinet on April 13, 2021.
The Japanese government announced that the water would undergo processing to ensure that most radioactive nuclides in it would remain below the allowable threshold for discharge, while untreated tritium would be diluted with seawater prior to its release.
But this approach would not change the total volume of tritium released into the sea.
While that has prompted concerns in the fishing community and elsewhere about how Korea might be impacted by the influx of contaminated water, there has been a jumble of confusing and contradictory information. Some claim that releasing the radioactive water into the ocean would be the worst example of maritime pollution in the history of mankind, with the potential to cause cancer and genetic disorders among Koreans. But others say the domestic impact would be negligible even if Japan doesn’t repurify the contaminated water before releasing it.
Predicting the impact that releasing the contaminated water would have on the Korean environment is considered a prerequisite for finding a reasonable way to respond to the issue of contaminated water amid this controversy.
As a result, Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT, Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, and Nuclear Safety and Security Commission promised to “thoroughly analyze and review what impact this might have on the Korean environment and public health by running a maritime diffusion model.”
While more than a year has passed since then, such modeling hasn’t even begun. An official at the Ministry of Science and ICT, the body in charge of the model analysis, offered the following reason for this delay.
“The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute is still working on improving the model that’s being developed. It also needs to receive data from Japan.”
According to that official, Japan hasn’t provided the specific data needed for the computer modeling analysis, such as the density and volume of radionuclides that would be released into the ocean and the duration of their release.
The maritime diffusion model that is currently being upgraded was put into development by related organizations shortly after the Fukushima nuclear accident, with development completed in 2017. Therefore, it shouldn’t be impossible to run the model once the Japanese provide the data.
“We haven’t been able to try because we haven’t received any of the basic data inputs for the simulation,” said an official from the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.
As a consequence, the South Korean government raised the issue of the data again in a bureau chief-level virtual meeting with Japan on June 2 that was attended by officials from bodies connected with the contaminated water at Fukushima. But the Korean officials didn’t get a clear answer from the Japanese.
“When we asked for specific data, such as the density of all the nuclides in the contaminated water, [the Japanese] said that’s something they still need to research and that once they do, they’ll disclose it transparently,” said an official from the Ministry of Science and ICT.
This situation has prompted environmental groups to criticize both the Japanese and Korean governments.
“The Korean government hasn’t prepared any meaningful measures on its own even though a majority of the public have been strongly opposed to releasing contaminated water at Fukushima into the ocean since 2019. Furthermore, Japan hasn’t been transparently disclosing information about contaminated water. For instance, it has omitted key information, including radioactive density and the impact on the environment and the human body, from reports assessing the radiation’s impact,” said Mari Chang, a campaigner for Greenpeace.
By Kim Jeong-su, senior staff writer
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