Japanese citizens Tuesday protest the Japanese government's decision to release the contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea, outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo. (AP/Yonhap News)
At a cabinet meeting Tuesday, the Japanese government decided to proceed with dumping around 1.25 million tons of contaminated water currently being stored in tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean over a period of roughly 30 years.
The unilateral decision was made in defiance of international concerns about the release of contaminated water and public opposition in Japan.
Japan's irresponsible decision, and its disregard for the safety of its neighbors, is utterly unacceptable. South Korea's government and politicians will need to do whatever is necessary to protect their public's lives and property.
The Japanese government claimed that it could "no longer put off a decision on the handling [of the water] so as not to delay the decommissioning process for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant," which has been non-operational since an explosion resulting from a major earthquake in 2011.
Currently, the contaminated water is being stored in around 1,000 tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi site. But the Japanese government is claiming that those tanks will be full by around fall of 2022, which means they will be incapable of storing any more water.
Koo Yun-cheol, the head of South Korea's Office for Government Policy Coordination, presided over an emergency meeting of vice ministers in related agencies Monday, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission. Following this meeting, the South Korean government expressed its deep dismay over the Japanese government's decision to dump the contaminated water from Fukushima.
The biggest concern is the water's safety. The Japanese government has claimed that the water poses no problems once it has undergone purification to reduce major radioactive materials below threshold levels. The US State Department backed its decision, saying it was "in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards."
The problem is that the international standards, including the safety standards adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are too lax and vague. For instance, there are no shared international standards for the release of tritium, a radioactive isotope that cannot be removed with purification systems. Instead, each country is left to decide them on their own.
It's unclear how appropriate it is for a country to apply its own safety standards in a special situation like that of the Fukushima plant, where large volumes of contaminated water are to be released over a long period of time.
To perform a simulation to anticipate the spreading of radioactive material in the sea and accurately gauge the contaminated water's impact on the environment, we would need to know exactly how much is being discharged, when, and for how long.
Japan has not been forthcoming about sharing this basic information, which means that the South Korean government cannot perform any precise analysis. Under the circumstances, how are we supposed to take Japan's claims that there are "no issues" at face value?
In a March 11 statement, five UN special rapporteurs in charge of human and health rights said that "any decision to discharge [the contaminated water] into the Pacific Ocean cannot be an acceptable solution."
An opinion-gathering process showed around 70 percent of the Japanese public opposing the ocean release plan. Some critics are claiming that the Japanese government decided from the outset that it wanted to go the inexpensive route of dumping the water in the sea — and that it never seriously considered any other alternative. Japanese civil society has suggested alternative approaches such as storing the water in large aboveground tanks or sealing it off with concrete.
The South Korean government should do whatever is necessary to protect its public's safety. We need more than just statements of "dismay" — we need a resolute response.
Seoul should clearly communicate its concerns and anger to Tokyo and continue demanding transparent information disclosure and scrutiny for the entire process behind the contaminated water discharge decision and its handling. It also needs to ask the IAEA and others for their objective scrutiny while actively considering the possibility of taking the case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
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