China announced a complete ban on the import of Japanese seafood after the Fukushima nuclear power plant began releasing wastewater into the Pacific Ocean today (Aug. 24). The release, planned for months, was approved as safe by the UN’s atomic oversight body, but it faces loud opposition from Beijing, as well as from local fishing communities and some members of the public in neighboring countries.
Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima plant, livestreamed (link in Japanese) the release of water, which began at 1:03pm local time today. A statement from China’s customs agency said that the ban (link in Chinese) is intended to “prevent the risk of radioactive contamination” and to “protect the health of Chinese consumers.”
Japan plans to release more than one million metric tons of treated wastewater from the tsunami-wrecked nuclear plant as part of its decommissioning process. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted a two-year review of the plan and determined it would have a “negligible radiological impact.” The wastewater discharge is expected to take between 30 and 40 years.
In a statement today, China’s foreign ministry accused Japan of committing an “extremely selfish and irresponsible act” and said that it had “failed to prove the legitimacy and legality of the ocean discharge decision.”
Japan’s wastewater release is being opposed by its own fishing communities, who have expressed worries over the impact on their livelihoods. Japan’s National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives stands in opposition to the plan, as AP reported, due to concerns over safety and reputational damage. China’s ban on their catch would seem to bear out their anxieties.
The South Korean government stated on Aug. 22 it sees “no scientific or technical problems” with the wastewater discharge, Reuters reported. But a portion of the South Korean public, including the country’s opposition party and fishing communities, have staged rallies in dissent.
While the wastewater will be treated before release, that process will not eliminate a radioactive form of hydrogen called tritium. Both TEPCO and the IAEA have argued that tritium is a naturally occurring element (found, for example, in rainwater) and will be diluted enough in the wastewater to avoid harming the environment or people.
Some environmental activist groups, like Greenpeace, have criticized this conclusion, arguing that there has been no comprehensive assessment of tritium’s biological impacts.
“The Japanese government has opted for a false solution—decades of deliberate radioactive pollution of the marine environment—during a time when the world’s oceans are already facing immense stress and pressures,” Greenpeace said in a statement on Aug. 22.
But scientists have said the perceived risks of tritium greatly outweigh its actual potential for harm. “The water release is designed to have seven times less tritium per liter than is recommended for drinking water by the World Health Organization,” David Krofcheck, a senior lecturer in physics at the University of Auckland, told the Science Media Centre.
Tony Hooker, the director of the Center for Radiation Research, Education and Innovation at The University of Adelaide, also commented: “The release of tritium from nuclear facilities into waterways has and is undertaken world-wide with no evidence of environmental or human health implications.”
The ban by China, the largest export market for Japanese seafood, has dealt a heavy blow to Japan’s fishing industry. One-fifth of Japan’s seafood exports went to China in 2022, totaling $610 million, according to the Japan Times.
Hong Kong, which has aligned with Beijing on the seafood ban, was the top importer of Japanese seafood for 16 years, according to the Asahi Shimbun, until China took the top spot last year. Scallops, sea cucumbers, bonito, and tuna are among Japan’s most popular seafood exports to China and Hong Kong.