Korean experts are set to inspect Fukushima plant — but will they get a say in whether the wastewater is dumped?

Posted on : 2023-05-08 17:03 KST Modified on : 2023-05-08 17:03 KST
Environmental groups have criticized the agreement for not allowing Korea to practically intervene in the discharge process after the inspection
Tanks containing irradiated water from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown fill the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (AP/Yonhap)
Tanks containing irradiated water from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown fill the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (AP/Yonhap)

After the leaders of South Korea and Japan reached an agreement to have a team of Korean experts inspect the contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant before its scheduled release, Seoul has stressed that the visit will go further than a simple look around the facilities.

However, environmental groups have criticized the agreement for not allowing Korea to practically intervene in the discharge process after the inspection, arguing that the Korean government is merely playing a supporting role in enabling Japan to build a justification for the release of the contaminated water.

In a press conference held directly after the meeting between the two heads of state, President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea announced the agreement on sending a delegation of Korean experts to the plant, adding, “I hope that meaningful measures will take place in consideration of the Korean public’s demand for an objective verification based on science.”

In response, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan stated he was “well aware that there are concerns in Korea.”

“As the prime minister of Japan, I will not approve the release of the water in any form that would adversely impact the health of the Japanese or Korean people or the marine environment,” he said.

Kishida: Final IAEA report will be reflected

Until now, contaminated water containing a high concentration of radioactive materials has been held in water tanks within the accident site. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Japanese government set the goal of releasing the contaminated water into coastal waters near Fukushima in the summer of 2023 after purifying it with the Advanced Liquid Processing System.

Before the discharge, the Japanese government plans to dilute the treated water with seawater until the concentration of tritium — a radionuclide that cannot be removed through purification — falls to a safe level.

Environmental groups are opposed to this plan, pointing to a lack of research on the biological concentration of carcinogens such as tritium and claiming it is too soon to release the water.

In particular, the decision to discharge the water has been criticized by South Carolina State University professor Timothy Mousseau. After reviewing 70,000 or so scientific documents related to tritium, he stated on April 27 that there has effectively been no research at all conducted on the effects of tritium on the human body.

On this matter, the presidential office in South Korea stressed that the on-site visit by Korean experts would be more than a simple inspection.

“In consideration of the special bilateral relationship, Japan has agreed to accept a separate one-on-one inspection team,” a spokesperson from the president’s office stated. “[The Japanese government] has made it clear they will not take any action that could lead to a health scare among the Korean people.”

“We still need to discuss the composition [of the inspection team] and which scientific techniques will be used,” the official went on, “but I imagine the team will refer to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) methods and be able to investigate any potentially problematic substances.”

Japan’s Kyodo News reported that a Korean inspection team will visit the Fukushima nuclear plant on May 23 in accordance with the agreement between the two nations. The timing of the visit has been interpreted as aligning with the expected release date in June of the IAEA expert team’s final report regarding the discharge of contaminated water into the ocean.

Having formed an international verification team in 2021, the IAEA’s interim report on May 6 was favorable toward Japan’s claim that the level of concentration is minimal when contaminated water is diluted before release, labeling the plan as “sufficiently conservative yet realistic.”

The Japanese government has treated this verification by the IAEA as a shield against public backlash.

“We will incorporate the final IAEA report in the implementation of domestic procedures,” Kishida stated in the press conference. “During this time we will remain in communication with Korea while continuing to take action.”

This appears to indicate Japan intends to push ahead with the discharge plan based on the IAEA’s conclusion.

Critics claim that if the IAEA absolves Japan of responsibility for releasing the contaminated water, the Japanese government may resume pressuring Korea to import marine products from Fukushima.

On this point, a spokesperson from the president’s office stated “The processing of contaminated water at Fukushima is the current issue at hand, so I think both countries will focus on this matter first.”

“If there is an opportunity for this to be discussed, we will approach it with the same stance we take toward the contaminated water,” the official said.

Criticism of providing legitimacy to Japan’s plan to dump water

Environmental groups have slammed the agreement as akin to Korea playing a supporting role in helping Japan justify the discharge of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“The heads of state of Korea and Japan should have declared an end to the ocean dumping of radioactively contaminated water from Fukushima and discussed a long-term storage solution,” the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements noted in a statement. “[Korea] has fallen to the status of co-conspirator in justifying the dumping of toxic water simply for the sake of President Yoon’s diplomatic success.”

“The biggest concern is the biological impact of radioactive substances,” said Greenpeace campaigner Chang Mari. “Simply visiting the site without any mention of this is a meaningless formality.”

This sentiment was echoed by Lee Heon-seok, a policy member at Energy Justice Actions, who stated, “We can’t help but view this as the Korean government helping Japan to provide a justification for the processing of contaminated water.”

By Nam Jong-young, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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