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Chef Kazuyuki Tanioka owns a sushi restaurant called Toya in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Life hasn’t been easy for him in the past few years. China’s coronavirus restrictions nearly ruined him. Now he’s worried about another existential threat to his business: Chinese restrictions on Japanese fish due to fears of radiation contamination stemming from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
“I’m very worried about whether we can continue,” Tanioka told Reuters. “The inability to import food ingredients is truly a life or death situation for us.”
Japan plans to dump 1.3 million tons of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant that melted down in 2011. As the World Nuclear Association, a trade group, explained, an earthquake caused a tsunami that wrecked the plant’s safety measures.
The water was used to cool the melting reactors, wrote the South China Morning Post in a remarkable graphical story that illustrated the technical issues surrounding the water’s disposal. The water leaked into the nuclear plant’s lower levels, contaminating local groundwater. It was then pumped out of the ground and stored in tanks.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that the plan to dump the water did not present a threat to public health. Much of the radioactivity will be removed from the water, which will be released over the course of years. The vast ocean will absorb much of the treated water without incident, the IAEA researchers found. Traces of tritium, a rare radioactive hydrogen isotope will remain in the effluent, but officials intend to dilute the water significantly to reduce its amount.
But other experts cast doubt on those claims. A black rockfish caught near one of the Fukushima nuclear plant’s drainage outlets contained 180 times the Japanese safety limit of radioactive cesium, for example, the Guardian reported.
South Korea has endorsed the plan, but plenty of South Koreans aren’t happy about it – some are panic-buying sea salt. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s popularity dropped to 32 percent following his declaration that Japan’s release of the tainted water would be safe, the Korean Economic Institute of America, a Washington DC-based think tank, wrote.
Other countries in the region have expressed concerns. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a regional bloc of 17 island nations, says the release of the water could have a major impact on fishing grounds that island economies rely on, and where up to half of the world’s tuna is sourced.
“Our region is steadfast that there be no discharge until all parties verify it is safe,” PIF secretary-general Henry Puna said at a meeting in Suva, Fiji, earlier this year, Reuters reported.
Even at home, there are suspicions, mainly fueled by the lack of trust in the nuclear industry, “which has a history of cock-ups and cover-ups,” the Economist wrote, citing an example of how the plant’s operator TEPCO was forced in 2018 to admit its advanced filtration process system had malfunctioned and the water would need to be reprocessed.
China, meanwhile, has been most strident in criticizing Japan. China has banned seafood from some Japanese regions and compelled radiation testing for seafood imported into the country.
“Twelve years on, Japan has chosen to shift the risk of nuclear contamination onto the whole of humanity,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin at a news conference covered by NBC News.
As Chef Tanioka said, the situation is truly about life and death.