Tokyo says it doesn’t need to discuss plans with Seoul, claiming ocean release is matter of “Japanese sovereignty”
Storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The South Korean government disputed Japan’s position that its decision to release radioactively contaminated water into the ocean is a matter of Tokyo’s “sovereignty” and not something that it needs to discuss with Seoul. According to the South Korean government, Japan hasn’t provided enough information about the radioactive water currently stored on site at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Meeting with reporters on Dec. 7, a South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) official said that South Korea “has the right to request information to determine whether Japan’s plans [to release contaminated water] are safe.” The official asserted that this was a “legitimate right of international law based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS].”
On Nov. 20, an official with the Japanese Embassy in South Korea insisted in a meeting with MOFA beat reporters that the decision to release contaminated water from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean was not a matter for discussion with Seoul, asserting it’s Japan’s inherent right as a “sovereign state.”
At the time, Japan said it would agree to a joint investigation of the environmental impact of the ocean release if one was requested by the South Korean government.
A MOFA official said Japan’s determination was “unacceptable,” insisting that the South Korean government has the right to discussions on both the ocean release and the testing process. With Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha having previously stated that the Japanese government’s plan to discharge the contaminated water from Fukushima was a “sovereign decision by Japan,” the message appeared to be stressing the need for Japan to provide information regarding the safety of the ocean release.
“With the regard to the Japanese government, we have requested information regarding how it intends to release [the water] and whether the plan for its release will be properly implemented, and there have been discussions with various actors on how environmental impact surveys will be conducted once a decision is made [on the release method],” the same official said.
The Japanese government is expected to make a decision soon on the ocean release, but the issue hasn’t made a major splash in the international community. A MOFA official said, “At present, no other countries have expressed as much interest in this issue as us.” MOFA explained that this seems to reflect international trust in a 2014 announcement by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — which said there was “no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the US food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern” — as well as a joint announcement by the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The argument is that because the research was based on untreated water, it is reasonable to conclude that a release of diluted water following multinuclide removal would have little impact on the environment.
But those studies focused on the impact on the US. They observed that Japanese sand lance and other forms of marine life exceeding radiation thresholds had not traveled beyond Japan’s coastal region. In short, the US was only concerned about seafood imported to America. Thus, the US studies are not a suitable yardstick for determining the safety of Fukushima water.
According to the MOFA, Japan hasn’t provided enough information to make a determination at present on whether Japan’s ocean release is actually safe. In response, Seoul has been pursuing response measures while expressing its concerns to the Japanese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and South Korea’s neighbors.
MOFA explained that the Japanese government has not yet finalized the methods or the timeline for its treatment of the contaminated water. Tokyo had been expected to announce its decision on the ocean release during the second half of 2020, based on its conclusion that storage tanks on the power plant site will reach saturation by around summer 2022. But with a decrease in precipitation and other factors, the date of tank saturation is now estimated at around spring 2023, leading some to predict that the Japanese government’s decision could also be pushed back.
The Japanese government is currently storing contaminated water that has been treated through an Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) for multinuclide removal, but studies have detected tritium and radioactive carbon-14 in ALPS-treated water.
Because of this, the Japanese government plans to discharge the water only after it has been reduced to below the one-millisievert level of permissible annual radiation exposure recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). How this will actually be implemented remains unknown.
By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter