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[Wang Son-taek] Another scenario for Fukushima wastewater problem

By Korea Herald

Published : July 13, 2023 - 05:30

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Japan's discharge of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant seems imminent. As the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the discharge plan meets safety standards, the only thing that remains is Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s decision on the discharge date. Some Japanese media are predicting the release in August. The prospect that the Japanese government will push ahead with the release underscores the IAEA's final report. It is also a boon for Japan that the leaders of the Group of Seven countries expressed support for the IAEA’s activities in April. The problem is that many voices in South Korea and other surrounding countries oppose it.

The country with the most vigorous opposition to the discharge is China. China's state media has strongly urged suspending the discharge plan, calling it a criminal act. In a recent interview, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wu Zhanghao urged to stop the discharge plan, saying the IAEA's assessment report cannot be used as a "license." While the Korean government has been ambiguous on its stance, most Koreans are opposed. According to a joint poll conducted by the Hankook Ilbo and the Yomiuri Shimbun in late May, 84 percent of Koreans opposed it, while only 12 percent agreed. Unlike the Japanese government, many Japanese people are also concerned about the release. The Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations recently adopted a resolution maintaining its opposition to the discharge. Japan is in a severe dilemma.

Japan fell into this dilemma because of its own policy mistakes. Japan's first mistake was to confuse the situation as a domestic issue, although it was one that concerned the entire Pacific region. The moment Japan decided to release the water into the Pacific in 2021, the issue became a regional, if not a global one. Pacific Rim countries, including Korea and China, are bound to be in a state of anxiety. Japan's second mistake was to turn a scientific problem into a political one. The issue of discharging contaminated water has long been considered a matter for scientists to judge. However, over the past decade, Japanese authorities have often shown insincerity through their activities, raising distrust and anxiety among neighboring countries. A straightforward example is that they hid that the water was contaminated around the Fukushima power plant for more than a year since 2011.

Third, nuclear safety issues have turned into health and environmental issues. Nuclear safety standards were considered guidelines for the policy judgment regarding the water release. Japan has done so, and so has the IAEA. However, as the issue became political, distrust and dissatisfaction spread to health and environmental issues, raising new standards. The water should be assumed as unsafe until it is confirmed otherwise, as it is a health and environmental problem.

If Japan wants to resolve this issue smoothly, it is necessary to face its own policy mistakes and return to the basics. If Japan goes back to the basics, we can call for it to take on three tasks. First, multinational governance should be established to address issues at the regional level. A joint response consultative body should be created, and an expert panel should be organized. Second, policy promotion programs for receiving support for a water release at home and abroad should be actively developed. Active public relations activities should be carried out with the governments and media of Pacific Rim countries. Third, internationally renowned health and environmental experts should be invited to an expert panel, and a review report prepared reflecting their opinions. Creating multinational governance and persuading people of foreign countries will take at least six months to a year. Therefore, it is necessary to hold off the discharge for at least six months.

If Japan decides to suspend the discharge and adopts forward-looking measures, the question of who will lead the joint response will arise. Japan is in a very advantageous position because there is a high possibility of political justification regarding the water release in six months. Japan has no choice because its own government is mainly responsible for exacerbating the discharge problem. Nevertheless, if Japan can lead the formation of a multilateral consultative body, it could experience a blessing in disguise.

It is also natural to consider the US to lead the joint response. Multilateral governance involving China can be a device for the US that leads China to comply with universal norms, if not the US' rules. Above all, leading a multilateral consultative body that includes major countries as a hegemonic power will be advantageous in maintaining hegemony and managing order.

China can also expect significant benefits if it leads the multinational consultation. Suppose the new governance involving Korea and Japan is actively operated under China's leadership. In that case, it can neutralize the US' policy of checking China.

If Korea leads the mission, it will benefit the national interest. Korea needs to gain experience in taking the initiative in dealing with significant problems in the international community due to limitations in national power. If it can lead this time, it will have the experience of leading a consultative body involving big countries such as the United States, China and Japan. Therefore, Korea will have a tremendous experience in enhancing its national capabilities.

The contaminated water discharge is a dilemma. Still, if we review the root causes of the problem and adopt a forward-looking approach, we can find a breakthrough in solving it. Through this process, the countries involved may be able to come a compromise. Furthermore, if it serves as an opportunity to build a more peaceful and convenient new order by creating standard norms for coexistence and co-prosperity among Pacific coastal countries. Then, a blessing in disguise would be a more accurate description for the solution than a breakthrough.

By Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.