Japan hopes to win the world’s trust over Fukushima with hard science, objective facts

Tepco has even successfully used the water to breed healthy flounder, abalone and seaweed.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


Tanks containing treated radioactive wastewater, at the facility for releasing the water to the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, on Aug 27. PHOTO: EPA-EFE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS POOL/THE STRAITS TIMES

August 28, 2023

FUKUSHIMA – Japan wants to win the world’s trust that it is doing the right thing – neither wilfully poisoning the Pacific Ocean nor trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes regarding the safety of its seafood with its treated nuclear wastewater release.

On Sunday, The Straits Times was among the first media outlets – domestic and foreign – to visit the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant since the discharge began three days earlier, in a process that will end with its full decommissioning only in 2051.

As at 5pm on Sunday (4pm Singapore time), 76 hours after the gates were opened, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) had released 1,420 tonnes of water that had been treated to remove radioactive materials except tritium.

Also on Sunday, Japan said tests of seawater off the coast did not detect any radioactivity. A day earlier, inspections of fish samples from waters near the plant also found no detectable traces of tritium, a hydrogen isotope that most scientists say is harmless and naturally discharged without accumulating in the body.

Tepco has even successfully used the water, cleansed by a process known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), to breed healthy flounder, abalone and seaweed.

Yet, the blowback has been swift since the discharge began. China imposed a blanket ban on all Japanese seafood, while Hong Kong and Macau stiffened restrictions in what Japanese newspaper editorials have lambasted as “economic coercion”.

These regions are a minority, among only nine to have retained import restrictions since the March 11, 2011 disaster. But they hit Japan where it hurts: China accounted for 22.5 per cent and Hong Kong, 19.5 per cent, of seafood imports in 2022, the annual Fisheries White Paper said.

And even where their governments have not imposed bans, leery consumers in the region, including in Singapore, have also vowed to steer clear of seafood from Japan, at least for now.

To counter these narratives, United States Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, who is due to visit Fukushima this week, said he would “eat local fish” – just as the late prime minister Shinzo Abe made Fukushima rice a daily staple to prove a point.

Amid the brouhaha, water was being discharged as planned at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant – a drab coastal compound of six nuclear reactors – on Sunday, with the audible sounds of seawater gushing in through large pipes to be used for dilution. Much has changed since this reporter’s last visit in 2018, with more than 1,000 giant water tanks now dotting the site.

In total, 1.34 million tonnes of wastewater has accumulated, and the pressing lack of space has been a major obstacle to dismantling the plant. Just 380 of the 1,000 cherry blossoms trees that turn the facility pink in spring remain, the rest axed over contamination and the need to make space for tanks.

In the clearest sign that decontamination was progressing, protective gowns were no longer necessary over clothing, though masks and gloves were mandatory. The radiation dose during the six-hour media visit, as per the reading on my dosimeter, was less than that one would have received during a dental X-ray, according to Japan’s National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology.

Yet Japan and Tepco, despite sound scientific evidence in their favour as endorsed by the neutral International Atomic Energy Agency, are struggling to shape the narrative, dampen the water-cooler talk and stamp out fake news.

The issue with nuclear science is that many laypeople find it esoteric. How many know what tritium is, let alone realise that it exists in rain and tap water? How many know about background radiation, let alone that levels in Fukushima are similar to those in Singapore or Seoul?

Some have disputed the science, but Japan argues that Tepco’s annual planned discharge of up to 22 trillion becquerels (Bq) of tritium annually is among the lowest in the world, lower than China’s Yangjiang Nuclear Power Station in Guangdong province (112 trillion Bq), Britain’s Haysham Two Power Station in Lancashire (323 trillion Bq), or France’s La Hague nuclear fuel processing centre in Normandy (10,000 trillion Bq).

Others have argued that testing is inherently random. Can one absolutely be sure that there are no sampling errors?

Also working against Tepco and Japan was their botched crisis management in the wake of the disaster that, for a while, had raised prospects that the world’s busiest metropolis would become a no-go zone.

Tepco wants to change minds and win trust, even enlisting two public relations agencies to help shape the narrative.

China, which has rebuffed Japan’s bilateral outreach, is, however, censoring social media posts and blocking accounts that are in favour of the discharge and hence counter to its own narrative that Japan was the “ecological and environmental destroyers and global marine polluters”.

The echo chamber has stoked a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in China, where Japan’s Embassy in Beijing urged Japanese nationals not to speak in Japanese unnecessarily or loudly in public. Spam phone harassment calls from China are being made to Japan, while there is a nascent movement to boycott Japanese cosmetics brands.

“This kind of Chinese narrative needs to be corrected, and we definitely need to safeguard the public from such narratives. But we need absolute accountability to be able to do that,” Japan Institute of International Affairs director Koichiro Matsumoto told The Straits Times.

Tepco’s risk communicator Kenichi Takahara told visiting reporters on Sunday that the operator’s lodestar was, indeed, absolute accountability and accuracy.

Radioactive water is continuously being generated at the plant – to the tune of about 90 tonnes a day – and this is first treated using ALPS before being heavily diluted with tritium levels below one-seventh that of the World Health Organisation’s standards for drinking water and then stored.

To prevent sampling errors, water is separated into a group of 10 tanks, and it is constantly “agitated and circulated” for six days to fully mix it.

Each day, 460 tonnes of the first batch of 7,800 tonnes of ALPS-treated water is diluted with 340,000 tonnes of seawater, to be discharged over 17 days.

Automatic emergency valves are in place to immediately stop the discharge if the seawater inflow stops or if radiation is detected, while a manual override – kept under lock-and-key control of the unit chief – is also installed. Corroborative tests are being conducted by multiple agencies.

Painstaking as it is, the release of the treated nuclear wastewater is just part of the decommissioning process, which faces many other challenges, including the removal of the molten debris from two reactors, which Mr Takahara said was the “next priority amid a long to-do list of important tasks”.

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