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Water from Fukushima

Ichiro Suzuki On August 24, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) started discharging treated water, which has been stored in tanks, into the sea from the ruined Fukushima nuclear power plant. In March 2011 a massive tsunami caused by a giant earthquake off the coast of Northeastern Japan devastated the nuclear plant, melting down its reactor core. In order to keep the reactor’s temperature from rising, TEPCO has been cooling it with water that is pumped up from the sea. Such water then has been stored in tanks on the ground of Fukushima plant. After ten years and over 1,000 tanks, the plant is running out of space for great many more of them, while this process keeps going on indefinitely. Then the Japanese government and TEPCO decided on letting the water spill into the sea, slowly. The water goes through the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) that purifies tritium and other radioactive materials to the levels not harmful to human health. At Fukushima plant the level of tritium is lowered to less than 1,500 becquerel per litter, which is 97.5% lower than Japan’s safety standard and one-seventh of the WHO’s drinking water standard. The plant lets the water flow into the sea up to 22 trillion becquerels a year, for the next 30 years. This is not a unique process limited only to Fukushima, and has been employed relatively widely at nuclear power plants around the world. In fact, the level of tritium at Fukushima is lower than many other plants elsewhere. Nonetheless, with a stigma attached to Fukushima, the Japanese government moved carefully toward discharging the water. In July, a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Fukushima to examine the process, and confirmed the safety of treated water though they are not in a position to authorize anyone’s action. Prior to the IAEA, a group of South Korean scientists visited there and conducted their own extensive research on the water and confirmed the acceptability of what is done there. The Japanese government and TEPCO’s path to the summer of 2023 has persuaded the world outside Japan essentially, at least on the surface. There is, however, one country that strongly disapproves spilling of treated water. It is the People’s Republic of China. The PRC has vehemently opposed before as well as after August 24. Having been gravely concerned about health effects of ‘contaminated’ water, China has banned all fishery products imports from Japan. After August 24, there have been tens of thousands of phone calls from China to TEPCO offices, restaurants in Fukushima or sometimes to places that are not even remotely associated with Fukushima water. They yell loud in Mandarin and then hung up. These phone calls are from private Chinese citizens who are probably responding to calls for protests in the social media. Though probably not driving these people to such actions, the Chinese government says nothing to their conduct at the very least. Discharged water from Fukushima does not go to China, to begin with. The current off the coast of Fukushima flows northbound, to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, Bering Sea, Alaska and then moves south along the Pacific coast of North America. This is why a number of stuffs washed away by tsunami that day reached the shore of Oregon and California many months later. There is an episode that a soccer ball was returned to the original owner. Nothing reached the Chinese coasts. On top of it, discharging treated water from nuclear power plants is not an uncommon practice globally. China does it from several plants to the East China Sea, too. In fact, treated water from Chinese plants contain tritium several times as much as that from Fukushima. TEPCO caps the level of tritium at 22 trillion becquerels per year, Chinese plants spill 90 trillion becquerels or higher, according to the data made public by the Japanese government. The purpose of this vehement opposition is believed to be driving a wedge into the bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan, with a possible emergency over Taiwan in mind. Not surprisingly, Japan’s so-called liberals and the left-leaning media, which speaks against everything the government does, played into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, by resonating with them. Another destabilizing element in this situation is South Korea’s left, that has been less vocal recently under conservative president Yoon Suk Yoel. Sensing the precarious strategic situation in the Far East, President Joe Biden invited Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon to Camp David in Maryland mountains, to solidify the triangular alliance. He did this because there is no formal military pact between Japan and South Korea. Another possible reason behind the fierce opposition is instigating nationalism among Chinese people, turning their attention away from the economy whose marked deceleration is weighing on Chinese people’s life. Every once in a while, the CCP picks on Japan as an escape valve for mounting dissatisfactions among its people. From this perspective, anti-Japanese sentiment this time around is not as fierce as the last time when nationalism erupted over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Today, people are not marching the street and boycotting Japanese products though stones were thrown into the Embassy of Japan and Japanese schools. It remains to be seen how the CCP brings this matter to an end. Though the CCP would have to back down voluntarily with an excuse of some kind to end this, only a very low probability can’t be assigned to this scenario. Most likely the ban stays beyond the foreseeable future. While Japanese seafood does not make inroads into the Chinese market, soon Chinese people would be much less worried about its safety. Already Chinese tourists to Japan are reportedly eating sushi, regardless of what the CCP says. Chinese fishing boats probably will not stop coming near the Japanese water, sometimes illegally into it, catching fishes aggressively, to the point of overfishing. In the mean time, it is highly likely that Japan brings the import ban to the WTO. In addition, China’s application to enter the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership) is not going to be discussed as long as the ban lasts. The ban seems tantamount to economic coercion that the WTO and the trade pact seek to crack down.

About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.

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