On the 13th of April, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga officially announced the decision to release over 1 million tons of contaminated water – used to cool down Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant – into the ocean. The space in the container was quickly running out, and a solution needed to be taken. Nevertheless, the timing of this statement generated an immediate overlap of complaints against the government. Beijing and Seoul both expressed harsh criticism against the choice, Japanese fishermen protested to avoid a huge damage to their products and reputation, while environmentalists condemned it as an environmental disaster. The news bounced from newspaper to newspaper, enhancing an overall condemnation of the decision.
After the Fukushima earthquake in 2011 and the consequent nuclear disaster, the sea water used to purify the waste effluents – generated in the cooling of damaged reactors – were stocked in temporary tanks by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company in charge of the nuclear plant. The water in the tanks started being treated with ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) since 2013. The purpose of the system was to reduce the radioactive concentration by 95%, to reach levels that would have allowed to discharge the treated water into the sea. As the only radioactive element that ALPS was unable to remove was tritium, an element naturally present in air and water, the main concerns were related to its concentration and its possible harmfulness. In consideration of the international regulatory health standards, the water that is going to be released in the ocean will be diluted with regular ocean water to 1500 becquerels per litre, so to meet every standard, even the World Health Organization’s guideline for drinking water. So where do all the concerns come from?
When it comes to radiation and radioactivity, people are mostly concerned about the topic, due to the past catastrophic events. Japanese are no different: their relationship with radioactivity has historical grounds and the Fukushima disaster has irremediably left a deep scar in their imaginary. People living in the prefecture of Fukushima are now concerned about the government decision because it will cancel all the efforts made to return to pre-disaster levels of life and economy, whereas fishermen are mainly worried due to the economic damage that will result.
The first concerns about the contaminated waters came from the first radioactive leaks in 2013. As the former prime minister Shinzo Abe instructed his officials to find a solution to solve the problem of radioactive waters, an industry ministry task force spent three years analyzing all the possible technological options to dump them. Already at that time, the discharge of the waters into the sea after a long decontamination process with ALPS seemed the most valuable option not to face enormous costs. Nonetheless, the government found it difficult to justify such an unpopular choice due to the current events, especially because it was still trying to recover itself from their negative economic and social consequences. TEPCO on its side, after the terrible mismanagement of the nuclear disaster, suffered a general and deep mistrust. This fragile balance made the government prefer not to take a clear and public position on the decision, procrastinating it to more suitable times. In this uncertain and vague environment, alongside the public declaration of other possibilities to discharge the water, there was no leading stance on the issue. For this reason, in the last days the government’s announcement has been met with reactions of confusion and resentment from the population. First setbacks were protests by Japanese people, especially those living in Fukushima prefecture, which resulted in a wave of mistrust in TEPCO and a quick inflection of Prime Minister Suga’s approval rate. Simultaneously, main negative repercussions came out also at an international level.
The US was the only country that clearly supported Tokyo’s decision, while other partners expressed their doubts or criticisms. President Moon Jae-in even stated Seoul’s will to refer Japan’s move to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, including filing for an injunction. Beijing lined up with Seoul’s criticism, threatening a boycott of Japanese products due to their risks. In the face of their tense historical relations and the ongoing territorial disputes with Japan, China and South Korea’s reactions came as no surprise. The rising tensions around these unsolved matters did not contribute to a scientific interpretation of the Fukushima issue. Moreover, Japan’s concerns are now related to the probable economic effects that will damage Japanese economy: if Prime Minister Suga will not be able to patch this political knot, important business fields could suffer a great crisis, especially those related to the products of the sea.
The timing of the decision also generated serious doubts. The main one is related to the Olympics, which are already in a precarious balance due to the pandemic situation. What immediately comes to mind is the reasonable question about the motives that led Prime Minister Suga to announce it a few months before the international event, especially because the purification and the dilution of the contaminated waters will end only two years from now. Probably Tokyo did not expect such harsh repercussions, confident of the scientific evidences cleared out about the possible harmfulness of the contaminated waters. The US backup support on the decision probably had something to do with the timing of the decision’s announcement.
Considering what expressed above, the Japanese government is now facing dialogues with both political and civil actors to answer the accusations of acting unilaterally, without proper consultation with all the parties that would have been affected by the decision. At the international level, Prime Minister Suga scheduled important meetings with both Chinese and Korean’s ambassadors. On the domestic side, fisherman and civil societies’ representatives are taking part as well in the ongoing consultations. However, the Japanese government now finds itself in a really delicate position, both domestically and on the international level. Prime Minister Suga in the first place is targeted by many critics about his management, undermining his support in the Parliament. In fact, his first Diet election test was a complete failure. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost recent prefectural elections, registering complaints coming from colleagues of the Party. Discussions and confrontations are going on with both China and South Korea, even though that does not seem to lead to an easy settlement any soon. Certainly, the complex situation given by the pandemic and the Olympics’ issue did not turn in favour of the current Prime Minister.
The situation in which the Japanese government unexpectedly found itself is both complex and delicate. The political skirmishes with Beijing and Seoul landed on diplomatic confrontations, even though the two countries are still threatening Tokyo with possible injunction and economic setbacks. Even if the three countries succeed in finding a common ground, the precedent created by Japan could – and probably will – be used as an advantageous argument to pressure Tokyo’s future decisions. On the domestic side, Suga’s leadership has been strongly challenged after these events, especially with regards to his foreign policy ability to deal with other country’s leaders. Moreover, protests against the government shaked the internal stability, fuelled by the possibility to face economic consequences. The threat of an economic boycott of Japanese products abroad will strongly hit those market fields already challenged by the pandemic situation. Any kind of outcome does not seem to come out without further confrontations while the international attention will now focus on the repercussions that this mismanagement will have on Japanese regional relationships.