Defying a myriad of opposition both at home and abroad, Japan began to release treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, Thursday.
It’s a task that has a beginning but an uncertain end.
“From 7.5 years to 30 years and a minimum of 30 years.” Those were the words used by Japanese media, saying it is difficult to predict when the release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant will end.
All optimistic conclusions about the discharge of treated nuclear wastewater assume that “everything will go as planned by the Japanese government.” But Tokyo is not even sure of when it could terminate the process.
Japan cites the need to decommission the plant quickly as the reason for using this method. However, Japanese media are skeptical, citing about 880 tons of nuclear fuel debris accumulated in the plant. Few know the exact amount and locations. There are also limits to using robots to remove them. Greenpeace says it is “impossible within this century.”
Those who support or endorse Tokyo’s move, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), say that the filtered and diluted water will do little harm to human health. We hope they are right. However, many scientists point out that related discussions, including its long-term, cumulative effects through the marine food chain, have been insufficient. After all, even science can’t go beyond the limits of what we know today.
The IAEA has a credibility problem regarding this controversy. The U.N. agency, which promotes the nuclear industry, reportedly recommended the ocean release idea to Japan a decade ago, two years after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Considering the U.S.’ influence on most U.N. agencies and that America has not been free from its responsibility for the nuclear contamination of the Pacific Ocean, Washington’s support for Tokyo has long been expected.
What was unexpected was Seoul’s move.
Korea and Japan have long been closest geographically but furthest apart in terms of national sentiment. So, Seoul’s otherwise unthinkable act of consent must have been the proverbial “support of a thousand horses” for Tokyo. A simple endorsement did not suffice. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration made PR material to advertise the released water’s safety using taxpayer money while attacking its political opponents as scaremongers. Little wonder Koreans ask whether theirs is a Korean or Japanese government. Greenpeace called it Tokyo’s irresponsibility plus Seoul’s abetment.
Yoon, who prioritizes trilateral cooperation, might have found it difficult to oppose what Japan decided and America supported. His shortsighted adherence to nuclear power generation could be another reason.
Still, Korea must have an independent voice on issues of global importance, like the environment and climate. As far as nuclear issues are concerned, Japan is becoming a world first, for the second time, by leaving a bad precedent of polluting the ocean with water tainted and originating from a nuclear disaster. Who can block similar attempts by others in the future? And why should Korea become an accomplice for this historic blunder?
Seoul must do what it can before it’s too late to minimize the damage.
First, it must call for forming a more independent international monitoring group than the IAEA-led one. The proposed group should comprise not only officials and scientists but the victims of the act, including fishermen. Second, it must call for introducing a more compulsory provision that makes Tokyo stop ― not suspend ― the current method and seek new ones if things go awry. Third, it must work out financial and other support measures for Korea’s fishing industry, including a continuous import ban on Japanese fisheries imports, for which pressure will likely accelerate.
The government has no time to quarrel with opposition parties. Of course, this issue will adversely affect the ruling party in the parliamentary polls next May. But it’s all self-inflicted.
The government and its party must let opposition parties play their role. Korea must make its voice heard in the international community regarding opposing the Japanese move ― if for no other reason than leaving a record in the history books.