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[Gearoid Reidy] Fukushima water opposition is steeped in anti-science

By Korea Herald

Published : July 25, 2023 - 05:38

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Hong Kong is so opposed to Japan’s plan to release treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant that it’s banning seafood products -- from four of the country’s landlocked prefectures. That sounds a bit off, yes?

Tochigi, Gunma, Nagano and Saitama, which have a combined zero kilometers of coastline between them, are among the 10 regions whose aquatic produce will no longer be welcome in Hong Kong’s restaurants once Japan proceeds with its aim to begin releasing the more than 1 million cubic meters of treated water into the ocean, possibly as early as next month.

Combined with the fact that right on Hong Kong’s doorstep, nuclear plants in the Chinese province of Guangdong emit similar or higher levels of tritium (the main radioactive element that remains in the Fukushima wastewater after treatment), it’s clear that science isn’t leading this debate. It feels opportunistic at best.

The discussion has echoes of the alarmism that proliferated after the March 2011 disaster that led to the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. That has a real-world impact on the residents, farmers and fishermen still dealing both with the accident’s aftermath and the stigma created by anti-nuclear opponents who exaggerate its dangers.

Hong Kong has joined mainland China in opposing the release of the water, acting according to one report as a “wolf warrior” for Beijing’s campaign. It’s not hard to understand where China’s opposition stems from: It’s an easy PR win against a country with whom it has a prickly relationship and an unfortunate history.

The Yangjiang Nuclear Power Station, located about 200 kilometers away from Hong Kong, emits more than five times the levels of tritium expected to be released from Fukushima’s treated water. If the world wants to be serious about tackling carbon emissions, then the use of nuclear energy is a must. China knows this -- it’s planning to further boost its capacity to 400 gigawatts by 2060, more than seven times its current output, or about as much as the current total global fleet of reactors provides. Kudos, then, to South Korea. Having previously opposed the plans, the government has thrown its weight behind the release following the publication of an International Atomic Energy Agency report backing Japan’s actions. President Yoon Suk Yeol, acting amid a historic thaw in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, backed the consensus view even amid public ire. Yoon is pro-nuclear, with South Korea also aiming to lift the source to one-third of its power generation capacity by 2030. The timing of a European Union decision to terminate its remaining import restrictions on Japanese food products imposed after the 2011 disaster also seems unlikely to be coincidental -- and comes as a welcome vote of confidence.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Japanese government should absolutely be held accountable. In particular Tepco, as the plant’s operator is known, has much to do before it can be given the benefit of the doubt, even if the Japanese utility and its nuclear regulator have been hugely overhauled since the disaster. It was the myth of “absolute safety” in nuclear power that led to the accident occurring in the first place.

Local opposition to the plan is understandable: Residents have suffered both from the radiation release and from the stigma associated with it. Some had to move away for years, with many never to return. The international community should continue to monitor the water release (as indeed the IAEA intends to) and ensure it is being carried out according to plan.

But skepticism is one thing, and scaremongering another. It’s hard to think that the welcoming treatment given to opponents of Japan’s plan would be as generous or understanding if they were opposed to vaccines or gravitated heavily toward climate-change skepticism.

Just as discussions around vaccines currently threaten to do, our fear of radiation long since left the realm of the logical. “Is Japan downplaying the danger Fukushima water poses to human health?” reads one headline. “Anxiety and anger over Japan’s nuclear waste water plan,” says another, from an outlet that earlier this year was forced to apologize for not sufficiently pushing back against the claims of a vaccine skeptic during an interview on air.

As understandable as such concerns might be, we must stick to the facts. The release is “consistent with relevant international safety standards,” concluded the IAEA, and “will have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.” The science at question here is settled: Tritium poses very little risk to human health in the quantities being discussed, which will be lower than before the accident even occurred. It’s why tritium is routinely released from nuclear plants as part of normal operations, including those much nearer Hong Kong. Given how little the public knows about this, or how nuclear power works in general, there seems a need for a comprehensive campaign to boost awareness.

For all the concern back in 2011, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation in 2015 concluded that the main effect on the Japanese public from the Fukushima disaster was on mental health. Presenting nuclear as a uniquely dangerous option, at a time when it has never been more important to combat climate change, only leaves us more dependent on burning coal and gas, as Japan has been forced to do to make up for its nuclear shortfall.

Amid the latest headlines about record-breaking heat, that seems as questionable a long-term strategy as “just asking questions” around established vaccine practices. The work to decommission Fukushima will take decades. Decarbonizing the grid will take even longer. There’s little time to waste.

Gearoid Reidy

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)