25.07.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What’s the problem regarding radioactive water discharge from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant? Part Three. Political battles.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant? Part Three. Political battles.

Even a visit to the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant by a delegation of government experts did not dampen the excitement surrounding Japan’s planned radioactive water discharge, and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) with its leader Lee Jae-myung played a crucial part in fueling it.

On May 24, 2023, the Democratic Party proposed that the National Assembly should adopt a resolution against the discharge of radioactive water accusing Yoon of siding with Japan at the price of his own people’s health.

On May 26, the Democratic Party of Korea launched a campaign to collect signatures against the discharge in Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul. As DP Chairman Lee Jae-myung said at the event, “How can the president and the ruling party responsible for state affairs take the side of Japan and give them impunity, consent… to dumping dangerous nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean when South Korea is supposed to suffer damage from it? We will fight, together with the people, to keep our ocean waters clean and to ensure our fisheries industry people and fishery-related industries do not suffer damage. As a starting point, we are entering into a signature campaign.”

On June 1, Lee Jae-myung accused the government’s team of experts visiting Fukushima of playing “the role of a helper for Japan’s environmental destruction and its acts of threatening lives.”

On June 3, the Democratic Party of Korea held a rally in Busan with about 5,000 people in attendance. Speaking at the protest, DP Chairman Lee Jae-myung stressed that President Yoon Suk-yeol should clearly state the position that Japan’s discharge of radioactive waste water is unacceptable, and that he should strongly protest the Japanese side in this regard.

On June 5, Yoo Guk-hee, Chairperson of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, was invited to a meeting of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction. The meeting urged him to develop safety measures, relying on scientific and objective factors. The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy’s criticisms have been described as non-scientific speculation. The leader of the parliamentary faction of the People’s Power Party, Yun Jae-ok, said that the opposition talks about the critical situation of domestic fishermen without providing any substantiated evidence. In response, Park Kwang-on, leader of the parliamentary faction of the Democratic Party of Korea, said that according to Japanese media, cesium levels in sea bass caught near the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant were 180 times higher than the permitted level.

In this context, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries reiterated that seafood from the Fukushima region will not be imported into the ROK; in fact, South Korea has banned seafood imports from Fukushima and seven other Japanese prefectures near the nuclear power plant since September 2013. In addition, the ROK government will increase seafood safety controls in response to consumer concerns: random testing of fishery products will increase from about five thousand samples last year to more than eight thousand this year.  Since late last month, the ministry has been conducting public inquiry testing, analyzing the ten most popular products each week and releasing the results.

On June 8, Kim Gi-hyeon, leader of the ruling People’s Power Party, met with Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koichi Aiboshi. He emphasized the necessity of collaboration in removing mistrust surrounding the Fukushima NPP water discharge issue. Meanwhile, using this matter for political objectives will impede the development of bilateral relations and only harm fishermen. Koichi Aiboshi said in response that Japan understands the South Koreans’ concerns and noted that Tokyo will maintain close cooperation with Seoul to increase understanding of the real situation.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party reiterated during the ROK National Assembly’s hearing of the reports from the heads of government agencies that Japan’s inspection of facilities intended for discharging polluted water into the sea is intended to support the Japanese side’s implementation of pertinent plans at its own discretion. Opposition deputy Kim Sung-joo raised the question of whether purified water can be drunk if the IAEA confirms the safety of its composition. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo responded by saying that the government’s position was misinterpreted, and no one said that the IAEA conclusions would be accepted unconditionally. For his part, the ruling People Power Party deputy Kim Sang-hun said that the problem of contaminated water from the Japanese nuclear power plant had caused anti-Japanese sentiment without any real evidence or arguments. But when ROK Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said that the discharged water was drinkable, Lee Jae Men asked why they were discharging it.

The same day, the local fishing community on Jeju Island and civic organizations held a protest in front of the Japanese Consulate General on the island, urging Tokyo to halt the water discharge plan right away. The protestors, numbering about 800 according to the police, delivered a letter of protest and set fire to a banner with the Rising Sun flag on it, which is considered by South Koreans and other Asian nations to be a symbol of Japanese military aggression and militarism in the first half of the 20th century.

Since June 15, due to the concerns of South Koreans, the ROK government has started daily briefings on the water discharge situation. The first briefing was given by Park Gu-yeon, first deputy head of the Office for Government Policy Coordination. He discussed the situation at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and the specifics of the equipment testing that will happen over the next two weeks, noting that the government is well aware of the concerns of its residents and the media reports about them. Tokyo Electric Power Company evaluates the functioning of the undersea tunnel, water storage tanks, pipes, and pumps using a mixture of fresh water and seawater. The reliability of water pumps and valves are tested. The discharged water does not contain radioactive materials.  In response to claims that the quantity of radioactive chemicals in treated water is more than 20,000 times the “safe” threshold, he stated that Tokyo will bring the water quality up to par.

Against this backdrop, the excitement began to have an impact on the economy, with people stockpiling sea salt. As of June 16, three of the six sea salt products were completely sold out.   Deputy Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Sang Keon-song reiterated that there will be no resumption of seafood imports from areas adjacent to Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

On June 20, the South Korean daily newspaper Seoul Shinmun reported, citing a Japanese government official, that Tokyo has chosen not to appeal the WTO ruling upholding Seoul’s ban on Fukushima fish imports and will not put further pressure on Seoul on this issue. The next day, however, Park Ku-yeon pointed out that there had been no official statement from the Japanese government on the matter.

On June 23, Park Kwang-on said that Tokyo’s plan to discharge radioactive water into the ocean would be a direct blow to the region’s economy, and Lee Jae-myung met with the concerned fishermen. Furthermore, the Democratic Party wrote to the Pacific Islands Forum (a group of 18 independent and self-governing entities in the region) to seek approval for the plan to discharge water into the ocean. “Our party has done what the government couldn’t” Park Kwang-on said.

The Foreign Ministry expressed regret that the DPK “has undermined the government’s unified diplomatic approach on the Fukushima wastewater release.”  “The letter, which does not provide any scientific basis, disregards not only the joint efforts for safety review (on the treated wastewater), by the international community including the IAEA, as well as the research conducted by our own country,” the statement read.

The People Power Party strongly condemned the move, stating that the Democrats’ plan was an unreasonable and reckless idea aimed at scaremongering foreign countries with unscientific claims, and would be an embarrassment to South Korea. Yoon Jae-ok also warned that sending the letter could mislead host countries into thinking that what was written in the letter was the official position of the South Korean government.

On June 22, deputies from the minor opposition Justice Party traveled to Japan on a three-day trip that included a visit to a nuclear power plant to protest Tokyo’s plan to release radioactive water. It is unclear whether they were allowed into the nuclear power plant, but on June 26 Justice Party leader Lee Jeong-mi went on a hunger strike to protest the release in front of the Japanese Embassy because the government “remains silent when the release of the nuclear contaminated water is imminent” at a time when some 84 percent of South Koreans are opposed to the release. She went on to accuse President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration of acting as a “parrot” of the Japanese government and merely repeating Tokyo’s stance.

Park Ku-yeon pointed out at a regular briefing on June 26, that Japan’s decision to discharge contaminated water from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant was finally made years ago as the most realistic alternative, and now there is no point in talking about other ways to dispose of the water.

On June 27, Spokesperson and Deputy Minister for Public Affairs Lim Soosuk reiterated that the ROK has no plans to resume importing seafood from Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture.  According to him, the release of water from the emergency Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and imports of Japanese seafood to the ROK are two separate problems. The health and safety of South Korean citizens have a higher priority. The ROK may reconsider the issue of imports when there is confidence in the safety of seafood from Fukushima,” Lim Soosuk added.

Meanwhile, politicians from both major parties were staging performances. Two opposition deputies went on hunger strike while ruling party deputies visited local markets to eat seafood and assure the public that the contaminated water would not affect Korean seafood.

On June 28, Park Ku-yeon said that although six types of radionuclides were detected at levels exceeding acceptable limits, even after treatment with the special ALPS system, most cases occurred before 2019. And in 2023, radionuclides detected in treated water did not exceed permissible limits. Park pointed out that “It appears the ALPS technology has gradually improved and stabilized”: even if radionuclides going over limits are found, water containing them isn’t released immediately. It goes through another purification process.

On June 29 (as a reminder, briefings are held daily), Park said that even if radioactive water from the crippled Japanese Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant reaches the sea, the shores of South Korea will not suffer much, because the dangerous water will be swept away by ocean currents.

As several simulations conducted by scientists from both the ROK and abroad have shown, it will take about 10 years for the released contaminated water to reach Korean waters. The shortest period is 4-5 years.

In addition, Park stressed that radiation levels in Korean waters have remained unchanged for the past 10 years, even after a significant release of radiation following the severe damage caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

On July 1, 2023, the Democratic Party held a rally in central Seoul to protest Japan’s planned release of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean. Participants in the rally urged the authorities to prevent Japan’s plans from coming to fruition. The rally was attended by almost 100,000 people.

On July 4, National Assembly Speaker and Democrat Representative Kim Jin-pyo said that the international community should take its time and consider alternatives to dumping if the IAEA’s safety checks do not address people’s concerns.

But on the same day, July 4, “a terrible thing happened: After a two-year review, the IAEA stated that Japan’s plan to discharge treated radioactive water stored at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant meets its safety standards and that discharging ALPS-treated water would not have significant radiological impacts on people or the environment. The report that reached these conclusions was personally presented by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The People Power Party stated, as predicted, that it accepts the IAEA assessment. As Conservative MP Kang Min-kuk said, “It would be appropriate to say that the water problem at Fukushima has entered a new phase.” Democrats, on the other hand, were urged to “stop spreading false rumors on this issue for political gain and instead make a bipartisan effort to develop a public safety follow-up.”

No less expected was the objection made by the Democratic Party that the IAEA’s conclusion was an “empty” report that failed to independently verify water safety: estimates were made based on the Japanese government’s position and the assumption that Tokyo Electric Power Co. would perfectly implement the plan, so that “the IAEA actually neglected its responsibility to verify the safety of Fukushima nuclear waste water.”

As a result, by the time the author finishes this text, everyone is waiting for Rafael Grossi, who will visit South Korea from July 7 to 9. The visit included meetings with Yoo Gukhee, Chairperson of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission and Foreign Minister Park Jin.

Japan has not yet set a date for the start of the water discharge, which is expected to occur soon and will continue for the next few decades. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is currently making final preparations to release water as soon as the IAEA gives the green light, completing its ongoing safety inspection…

But as Cho Jinman, Professor of Political Science and Foreign Affairs, told the Korea Times, even if the IAEA guarantees the safety of the release, it probably won’t solve the problem: “With the general elections coming in less than a year, the opposition party obviously thinks that highlighting the Fukushima issue would be politically beneficial in a country where anti-Japan sentiment is shared by many. The campaign is only expected to intensify, with the elections approaching.  Factual matters regarding the water would probably be a lesser concern.”

But because of wild rumors about allegedly “radioactive seafood,” the operators of stores, markets and catering points, which offer fish products, say the situation is worse than even during the coronavirus pandemic. Back then, people would at least order fish at home, but now even these orders are declining, not to mention visits to the restaurants, where there is already a decrease in demand of up to 50%.

Sushi bar owners dread the day Japan begins discharging radioactive water into the ocean, expecting even more declines in foot traffic at their establishments, and sea salt prices have jumped more than 10 percent, although up to 400 tons of salt will arrive at major discount chain stores and traditional markets nationwide and will retail for about 20 percent less than the consumer price for June.

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo, meanwhile, is equally critical of both the mass rallies of the Democrats and the fish-eating of the conservatives.

The government must take effective measures to prevent fishermen and others involved in the maritime business from suffering serious harm from the spreading of wild rumors….

Food safety is a major issue. And yet it should not be used as a means to attack opponents politically…

Since the IAEA report does not mean it ends there, we must respond to the leak in the long term. Given the possibility of a technical error in the water discharge process, the government should be mindful of the emergency. Both countries need to establish a channel of communication on a permanent basis…

So, the author is forced to repeat the conclusions of his text from three years ago: the fuss over water discharge is not environmental, but domestic political in nature.


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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