The release of the radioactive water from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has been a point of contention that has been made a geopolitical tool for strategic returns, more than being moulded from a scientific discourse and argument. Critical players including China have upped the ante of criticizing Tokyo and projecting a sustained climate of narratives based on this perceived irresponsible move by Japan.
While Beijing is further squeezed by its internal economic decline and the aftermath of the tech and investment embargo by the West, prospects are worsened by the inaugural tripartite alliance and defence pact among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington as cemented in the recent Camp David pact. While Beijing has gained ground in Southeast Asia in elevating its soft power narrative and influence seeking activities to enhance its legitimacy and trust, it continues to receive dwindling perception and acceptance in its Eastern neighbours. With its economic clout being used as a tool in expressing its displeasures on moves by Seoul to seek closer ties with Washington and in placing anti missile systems, public perception further took a hit.
Both Seoul and Tokyo are cognizant of current needs to repair ties and forgo past historical discord in order to jointly face common threats from Beijing and Pyongyang in particular, and both are not able to fully have a deterrent and post deterrent capacity in standing up to both powers without Washington. Beijing’s worst fear of a consolidated security pact has come true, and the prospects of an expanded version of the Camp David alliance or an enlarged Quad in the form of a mini or Asian Nato further accelerate Beijing’s scramble to solidify its friendshoring efforts through the Global South and BRICS as the primary tools.
Japan has been growing its defensive readiness and charting a new comprehensive defence and security transformation with the biggest defence budget and a new strategic review on its security resilience in facing a three-pronged threat from Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow.
The inevitable move to release the water from the plant has been conveniently used as an added ammunition to frame Japan as an irresponsible regional player,despite scientific facts available, and that trust, discipline and the moral high ground that the country is known for are now at the expense of selfish individual pursuit to secure its own needs and interests.
This move to discredit Tokyo is potentially an opportunistic and convenient pretext amidst growing tensions in the South China Sea and the growing counterbalancing forces and solidarity shown by the West and other players for Manila while standing up against attempts of intimidation and rules breaking behaviours.
As polarizing as this issue has been, being seized upon by both sides, scientific arguments and evidence presented are used in different interpretations according to one’s own affiliation.
Different standpoints on inferring the data and scientific evidence have created convenient openings for criticizing the move or in defending it. Even if the evidence is clear on the safety of the water, perception and narrative are difficult to be swayed, especially when this issue is being taken advantage of in advancing the geostrategic interests in the Indo Pacific.
Evidence and data as reported in the Fukushima water discharge have been reviewed by top experts and professional bodies but differing views and interpretations remain high, further exacerbated by future unknowns in the perceived long term changes of the safety levels of the water.
A two-year safety review by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, found negligible radiological risk to people or the marine environment. Most of the nuclear and radiology experts who have commented on the release support Japan’s plans accepted the conclusions of this two-year safety review, but others have reserved their opposition.
As reported, the IAEA endorsed scientific calculations indicating the treated water will be far below the acceptable radiation threshold. One scientist who advised the IAEA on Fukushima reports described the water released as “a drop in the ocean”, in volume and radioactivity.
According to the IAEA, the tainted water has been recycled through the five-stage Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), a pumping and filtration system which uses “a series of chemical reactions to remove 62 radionuclides from contaminated water. The only significant radioactive material left is tritium, an isotope of hydrogen produced in nuclear reactors, which is also generated naturally by cosmic rays in the atmosphere. The treated water containing tritium will be diluted more than 100 times with seawater before being discharged into the ocean through a pipe 1km long.
As reported,the discharge will be done over a protracted timeline, in pumping 1.3 million tonnes of treated water into the sea over the next 30 years, not a one off discharge. The first discharge totalling 7,800 cubic metres – the equivalent of about three Olympic swimming pools of water – will take place over about 17 days.
The concentration of tritium will then be one-seventh of the World Health Organization drinking water standard. Proponents of the discharge also point out that the amounts of tritium released annually into the Pacific from individual nuclear plants in China and South Korea are from two to 10 times greater than is planned for Fukushima.
IAEA expert Professor Mikhail Balonov stated that nuclear facilities in other countries release more tritium in their wastewater each year, in comparison to the level of tritium in the wastewater that Japan intends to release.
Online media collective The Conversation reported that about 8.4kg of tritium is already present in the Pacific Ocean, which is small in comparison to the total amount in Fukushima’s wastewater at 3g.Some scholars including Professor Nigel Marks of Curtin University have pointed out that it is a routine operation in nuclear power plants all over the world to release tritium into waterways or into the atmosphere, and that the main thing to be released will be tritium, something China also does every day.
Differing arguments put forth by opponents are the future long term risks involved and some opponents have a deep mistrust of the data and arguments put forth, especially by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
China has called into question the effectiveness of decontamination and the trustworthiness of the data. Interestingly, the scientific data put forth by Japan indicates that the level of tritium in the treated wastewater is way below the level measured from the annual wastewater discharged by Chinese nuclear facilities.
Scholars have also pointed out the need to have better communication capacity and efforts with the people that should have taken place on a consistent basis years ago, on the safety of the procedures taken and many similar situations happening at other plants around the world, and that the situation on the ground creates no other genuine alternative. Japanese officials noted that the wastewater must be removed to avoid accidental leaks in the event of another earthquake as well as to create space for the decommissioning of the plant.
The IAEA stated that it will continue its safety review during the discharge of wastewater, while maintaining an on-site presence and ensure the relevant international safety standards continue to be applied throughout the decades-long process laid out by the government of Japan and TEPCO,as mentioned by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi, adding that IAEA will continue to provide transparency to the international community to rely on verified fact and science.
The entire spectrum of the issue has not been properly and adequately communicated to the regional and global communities. Japan will need to elevate its efforts to gain more soft power influence, gain deeper trust and cement its historically proven value based approach in the region and beyond. It will need a more consistent, resilient, strategic and comprehensive structure of more effective narrative and messaging capacities in portraying the big picture pillared on proven truth and scientific evidence, to avoid the issue to be seized upon in targeting Japan’s image and putting it at a disadvantage in the region’s geopolitical rivalry and tensions.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.