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Pollutant water = polluting diplomacy?

Pollutant water = polluting diplomacy?

 April 25, 2023, construction of an undersea tunnel to be used to discharge radioactive material contaminated water stored in a tank on the site of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant 1 into the sea is over. All that remains is the discharge of contaminated water to the sea, which will begin after July this year. Due to the nature of the sea where water is constantly circulating, it will affect not only Korea but also the oceans around the world, starting with the Pacific Ocean. However, despite the upcoming release schedule and enormous influence, there is a lack of domestic media coverage. Therefore, we would like to gain insight into the situation by examining the current status of Japan's Fukushima contaminated water discharge plan and implementation, its impact on Korea-Japan relations, and the international community's response.

 

Why it became an issue (Kyodo Newspaper's report on President Yoon's remarks)

 Before we get to know the influence of Fukushima contaminated water in earnest, we need to find out the concept first. Fukushima contaminated water refers to water used to cool down nuclear fuel melted during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and up to 180 tons of radioactive contaminated water have been produced a day so far. The reason why Fukushima's polluted water has recently emerged as a hot issue is because of Kyodo News' report. President Yoon Suk Yeol's remarks further highlight Japan's diplomatic attitude in favor of Japan and the government's diplomatic strategy of "normalizing Korea-Japan relations," which was also seen in the announcement of a three-way payment plan on March 6. Japan's Kyodo News reported on March 29 that President Yoon Suk Yeol met with former Japanese Prime Minister Suga in Tokyo on the 17th and said, "We will seek the understanding of the Korean people even if it takes time." In addition, President Yoon reportedly pointed out in an interview that "the former Moon Jae Inn regime seems to have avoided understanding." And he explained to Japan that Japan's explanation was not known enough in Korea because of Moon's political position on Japan. Finally, he stressed the need for the Korean government to know the situation through the procedures of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and said, "The Japanese government should try to make Korea understand more." President Yoon Suk Yeol's remarks further highlight Japan's diplomatic attitude in favor of Japan and the government's diplomatic strategy of "normalizing Korea-Japan relations," which was also seen in the announcement of a three-way payment plan on March 6. SBS (Next Research Agency) conducted a poll on the current state of diplomacy of the government, as a result, 59.7% of the respondents said the government had done wrong in diplomacy with Japan and 31.9% said they were doing well, dismissing the people's disappointing response. When the controversy erupted, the president's office dismissed Japan's report as a "groundless report" and explained that "Japanese Fukushima seafood will never enter Korea." However, some respondents say that continuing to provide answers related to the inflow of marine products to complain about the discharge of contaminated water is not an appropriate answer.

 

Impact of Contaminated Water Outflow on Korea

 Among the substances contained in contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, tritium is the most talked about. This is because tritium remains even if it goes through Japan's multinuclear species removal facility "ALPS." When tritium accumulates in the human body, it pushes out normal hydrogen and takes its place. Later, when beta rays are released, tritium causes a "nucleon conversion" that changes to helium, and when a nuclide conversion occurs in DNA, genes are deformed and cells are destroyed, causing various cancers or degrading reproductive function. Korea has also conducted a simulation of the discharge of contaminated water from domestic research institutes based on Japan's plan to investigate the impact on Korea. As a result, tritium is expected to arrive on the coast of Jeju between 2027 and 2028 if discharge begins in 2023. In addition, the researchers predict that if tritium is diluted as planned by Japan, the amount of tritium off Korea will not change significantly. However, the simulation has been criticized for being carried out on the premise of the Japanese government's claim that Japan's "Multinuclear Species Removal Facility (ALPS)" can completely remove other radioactive components, leaving only tritium. In particular, Jean-Marie Greenpeace Campanner said, "There is currently no scientific and objective evidence that ALPS can treat 62 nuclides below the baseline. Nevertheless, the simulation was operated on the assumption that ALPS could not handle only tritium, which means that the Japanese government's position was applied mutatis mutandis. In other words, this simulation analysis only targets the spread of tritium, and the process of moving various radioactive materials (nucleoma) being released accumulated along the biological food chain was not considered. Therefore, Korea's analysis does not show the overall impact of discharging contaminated water on the environment. In fact, Greenpeace, an international environmental organization, published a report titled "The Reality of the Fukushima Radioactive Contaminated Water Crisis in 2020", and the contents are as follows: Besides tritium, radioactive nuclides such as carbon-14, strontium-90, cesium, plutonium and iodine in contaminated water are more dangerous. Nuclear species accumulate in the sea for tens of thousands of years, causing serious radioactive damage from food to human DNA. In conclusion, currently, it is difficult for an individual to fully and objectively evaluate the risk because the opinions and research data cited for each report are different.

 

Domestic impact of contaminated water spills: seafood market

 On the other hand, looking at the impact on real life in Korea, it is the seafood market that has the greatest impact on Korea when discharging contaminated water. In the Noryangjin Fisheries Market, the average daily trading volume of fisheries products fell 12.4% in the three months immediately after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Large domestic discount stores also had avoided consumption of marine products, regardless of import or domestic product.

 

Changes in the number of consumption cases in the Noryangjin Fisheries Market (March 2011)

 

 According to a survey on marine product consumption changes conducted by the Korea Maritime and Fisheries Development Institute during the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan, 81% of the respondents said they had "reduced marine product consumption" after hearing the news of the leakage of contaminated water. Since Japan, the site of the nuclear accident, is the closest country to Korea, sellers and consumers seem to have reacted very sensitively. In addition, more than half of the survey respondents considered the safety of marine products as an important matter. For this reason, researchers investigated that the country of origin was checked when purchasing marine products, and they found that domestic marine products were preferred at a very high rate. Considering these consumers' sensitive reactions to radioactive substances and the possibility of accumulating radioactive substances such as tritium on our coast, it is necessary to ensure and enhance the safety of the domestic seafood market by properly responding to Fukushima contaminated water discharge for the country.

 

International position

 The Japanese government decided in April 2021, to release Fukushima contaminated water to the sea. It is expected to take about 30 years to discharge all contaminated water. Considering that the half-life of tritium is 12.3 years, the international environmental group Greenpeace has also proposed an alternative to storing tritium in tanks for a certain period of time and releasing it when pollution decreases, but the Japanese government insists on discharging it to the sea. In fact, in addition to marine discharge, there are options for underground reclamation or vaporization. However, considering the processing price, it seems that they chose the cheapest method because marine emissions are the cheapest (3.4 billion yen based on 800,000 tons) and landfills are the most expensive (253.3 billion yen to 620 billion yen). In addition, the Japanese government plans to lower the concentration of radioactive substances in contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear power plant to below the legal standard through the multinuclear species removal facility (ALPS) and send them out to the sea over 30 years. In particular, tritium that is not removed by the device is planned to be diluted to 1/40 of the reference value. Looking at domestic public opinion in Japan, the construction of the Fukushima sewage discharge tunnel was completed on April 25, 2023, but the integration of public opinion still seems to have a long way to go compared to the progress of the discharge plan. In fact, in a Japanese survey of Japanese citizens, 51.9% of the respondents said they were "not understood by the people" regarding the discharge of contaminated water. Only 6.5% said they were "understood by the people."

 

Japanese Public Opinion on Fukushima's Discharge of Contaminated Water

 

 

 42.3% of the respondents said, "Sea discharge should not be carried out until the understanding of fishermen and other officials is obtained," overwhelmingly more than "It should be carried out" (5.6%).

 

 

Pros and Cons of Discharge of Contaminated Water in Japan

 

 

 In fact, Japan's Mainichi Shimbun reported the appeal of Japanese fishermen as follows: "The damage lasted for years (after the nuclear accident). (Ocean discharge) can affect grandchildren and grandchildren, so you should be careful." While construction for discharging contaminated water is proceeding smoothly, public opinion is unlikely to be easily unified in Japan due to securing safety and protecting the Fukushima seafood market.

 China strongly opposes the Japanese government's decision to send Fukushima contaminated water to the sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Won-bin strongly criticized, "The Japanese government and TEPCO promised not to discharge contaminated water from nuclear power plants without the consent of the parties concerned, but they are reversing it."

 

Henry Puna, Secretary-General of the Pacific Book Bureau Forum (PIF) [Provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Joint Foundation]

 

 The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a cooperative body joined by 17 Pacific Island countries, including Fiji, Tuvalu, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand, is urging Japan to delay the release of water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. "There is no change in the position that there should be no discharge until all parties acknowledge it to be safe," PIF Secretary General Henry Puna told a public meeting in Fiji. Many countries, including Korea, are opposed like this. On the other hand, the United States maintains that it is in favor. In 2021, then-U.S. Presidential climate envoy John Kerry said, "The Japanese government had full consultations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and I'm sure the IAEA had a very strict (contaminated water treatment and discharge) procedure." In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued several reports that "there will be no radiation leakage and damage to the human and marine ecosystems caused by contaminated water." This seems to have been diplomatic cooperation as Japan's cooperation has recently become important in checking China.

 

Korea's position and response from the time of Fukushima's contaminated water problem to the present

 The most controversial part is the conflict between Korea and Japan over the Fukushima seafood import regulation. In 2013, South Korea banned imports of marine products from areas at risk of radiation, such as Fukushima. In response, the Japanese government filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization in 2015 against the Korean government based on "discrimination against Japan" and "excessive trade restrictions." At that time, Japan won the first trial, but the World Trade Organization's Appellate Body, the final trial, accepted Korea's logic that the environment of the Japanese sea and the environment of the Korean sea were different and reversed all of the first trial. This is an unusual victory that overturned the results of the first trial. The problem is that the WTO winning decision is not permanently maintained. In addition, there is no formal analysis to support the provisional measures. In this situation, if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) judges that Japan's discharge of contaminated water is safe for the sea and Korea agrees with it, it will not be easy to restrict the import of Japanese marine products, saying that the sea environment is not safe. In other words, the main arguments for Korea's Japanese fisheries import regulations may be shaken. Also, Jean-Marie Campanner of Greenpeace says: If we allow the discharge of contaminated water, there is a high possibility that we will not be able to maintain regulations on the import of marine products. If more than 1.3 million tons of contaminated water are allowed to be discharged for 30 years, it can be argued that "Korea also admitted being safe, so there will be no problem with marine products." Considering that the existing import regulation system, which served as the basis for preventing direct damage to Fukushima seafood, should be maintained, the current government's move on discharging contaminated water and controlling the impact on our coast seems important.

 

Impact of this issue on Korea-Japan relations

 Currently, in the past few months, Korea has announced a solution to forced labor in Japanese colonial era and started paying reimbursement according to a third-party repayment plan. In addition, by responding with a low voice to Fukushima's discharge of contaminated water, the current government is engaged in diplomacy with Japan, pursuing "normalization of Korea-Japan relations." Supporters of normalization of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan are positively evaluating the current government's move based on follow-up issues such as Japan's lifting of regulations on semiconductors and normalization of Jisomia between Korea and Japan on March 16. However, the assessment of whether the current government's diplomatic moves will benefit or hurt the future is clearly divided, with opposition parties and some people criticizing it as "abandonment diplomacy." Those who criticize it as "bending diplomacy" criticized the current government for giving Japan the initiative in diplomatic relations by holding Korean companies responsible for the Japanese government and Japanese war criminal companies instead. Regarding the issue of discharging Fukushima contaminated water, various criticisms also have been added, including protests from Busan civic groups that "it is abandoning the health and safety of the people." In fact, while the government is responding with a low voice to compensation for forced labor and discharging Fukushima contaminated water, Japan announced in April that it could re-claim Dokdo's sovereignty and double defense costs without permission from South Korea and other neighboring countries. In other words, while Korea is low-key, Japan is not willing to bear any damage in Korea-Japan diplomatic relations. The "a declaration of the state of affairs" is emerging as a means of criticizing current Korea-Japan diplomacy. In fact, since the Yoon Suk Yeoln government announced its policy of "third-party repayment" as a solution to forced mobilization on March 6, 41 declarations have been issued by professors at Seoul National University, Korea University, Kyung Hee University, Chonnam National University, Pusan National University and so on. This shows that public opinion and diplomatic strategies are currently mixed.

 

 There are currently few indicators that can objectively grasp the risk of Fukushima contaminated water in consideration of Japan's actual purification treatment capacity. In particular, the Japanese government insists that only tritium cannot be removed with ALPS and has only proposed a dilution policy for tritium. However, if the ALPS' ability to remove 62 nuclides is unclear as Greenpeace reports, there should also be a plan to completely prevent damage, such as dilution, but such a plan has not been properly announced, making it difficult to accurately estimate the damage. Also, in the case of this issue of discharging contaminated water, it is a change of the sea environment, so once implemented, it cannot be returned to the previous one. Therefore, more careful decisions reflecting international positions are needed. It is time to implement a diplomatic strategy for the future of Korea by accurately estimating the value of diplomatic normalization between Korea and Japan and the extent of damage caused by contaminated water that people will suffer without knowing its expiration date. The role of the people is important for him, so a lot of attention and participation are needed.

김나영  nnayyo@naver.com

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