February 26, 2024

‘How Could I Feel Safe?’ Japan’s Dumping of Radioactive Fukushima Water Stirs Fear, Anger

Officials deem the release of nuclear wastewater secure, though South Korea, parts of Japan and other Asian-Pacific countries harbor doubts

‘How Could I Feel Safe?’ Japan’s Dumping of Radioactive Fukushima Water Stirs Fear, Anger

Officials deem the release of nuclear wastewater secure, though South Korea, parts of Japan and other Asian-Pacific countries harbor doubts.

JEJU, South Korea—For years, Kim Young-goo ran a thriving seafood restaurant so close to the docks that the day’s catch could be hand-delivered. The freshness of the sea urchins, flounder and conches made it a must-stop place on this South Korean island. Famous singers, actors and lawmakers often popped in for a meal.

Now it’s a grilled-pork restaurant. 

The abrupt change last year wasn’t due to poor reviews or bad luck. The sole motivator, Kim said, was neighboring Japan’s plans to dump slightly radioactive water into the sea—a move that got official approval on Tuesday by the international nuclear-safety authorities. The discharge from the Fukushima nuclear plant is set to begin this summer.

“I felt that I had no choice,” said Kim, whose business card still touts his eatery’s sashimi and steamed fish. “Ordinary people won’t want to eat seafood.”

Nuclear energy, and the inevitable need to dispose of radioactive waste, has long stoked doomsday fears and stirred health concerns about potential exposure. But the Fukushima waste disposal has attracted an unusually ferocious backlash in South Korea, parts of Japan and elsewhere across the region. The anxieties represent the latest clash on nuclear issues that pits public skepticism about safety versus the assurances of regulators. 

Kim’s transition from fish to pork barbecue has come at a painful cost for his finances, with sales dropping to “absurd levels.” But he doesn’t regret the decision. Nearly three-fourths of South Koreans say they will eat less seafood after Japan starts releasing wastewater, according to a recent survey by the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements. 

The price of sea salt in the country skyrocketed and government reserves were released, as panic buying ahead of the nuclear-water dump emptied out the shelves. The public unease is so high that President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration, which has normalized relations with Japan after years of strained ties, has held daily news conferences aimed at calming the country’s nerves.

Lee Yeon-ji, a 42-year-old homemaker, rushed to a local supermarket recently to buy the sea salt released by the government. “I’m not sure if the discharged water will affect the salt, but I heard people were stockpiling ahead of the discharge just in case, so I came too,” she said. 

Adding to the consternation is Fukushima’s distinction as being the site of the worst nuclear accident of the 21st century. In 2011, three reactors melted down after the Fukushima plant’s cooling systems malfunctioned due to an earthquake and tsunami. Since power was restored a few days later, Japan has been pumping water in to cool the reactors, but the 1,000 on-site tanks that store the wastewater are running out of space.

Japan’s plan to release the water into the sea after diluting the radioactive elements to what it says are safe levels has been affirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations body. The agency’s chief, Rafael Grossi, personally delivered the final IAEA report to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week. The report said radionuclides would be released at a lower level than those produced by natural processes and would have a negligible impact on the environment. 

The assurances from Grossi have done little to quell the concerns of skeptics, who counter that a discharge into the surrounding waters from a nuclear-power plant involved in a major disaster is highly unusual.

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