When Japan began releasing treated radioactive water from Fukushima last month, Russia and China were quick to criticize the move and suggest it was unsafe. Now, in an interview with HuffPost, a Japanese government official accused the two countries of spreading disinformation.
“It’s political,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the diplomatic process. “Misinformation — disinformation — is causing reputational damage and adversely affecting the lives of people in Fukushima.”
In August, the state-owned Tokyo Electric Power Company started releasing heavily diluted and filtered water laced with small amounts of tritium, a short-lived and relatively harmless radioactive isotope of hydrogen, into the Pacific Ocean. The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said this was safer than storing the water for a long time in tanks, where it could leak or spill in an earthquake, and pledged to maintain an independent monitoring system throughout the yearslong process.
Despite routinely discharging tritium in far larger volumes from its active fleet of nuclear reactors, Beijing lambasted Tokyo for treating the ocean as its “sewer” and banned imports of Japanese seafood, cutting off the fishing industry’s biggests market.
Russia, which also releases tritium regularly from its own reactors, stepped up its criticism of Japan on Wednesday.
“We don’t see any transparency or openness from Tokyo,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters at a press conference, according to Reuters. “We are not the only country which is expressing such concerns - China has too, and the Japanese themselves have.”
The Chinese and Russian governments sent Japan three separate questionnaires — in June and November of 2022, and in July of 2023 — formally inquiring about Tokyo’s plans to release the treated water into the Pacific. Each time, the Japanese government responded with detailed answers about the process for filtering the water and safety protocols for its release. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, posted the responses on its website.
But the follow-up questionnaires appeared to ignore past replies.
“They contained many ambiguous questions and statements,” the Japanese official said. “The series of joint questionnaires from China and Russia made us wonder if previous answers provided by Japan were excluded.”
Nuclear energy has long been associated with the horrors of atomic weapons. Misconceptions about the dangers associated with radiation from reactors are seared into the popular consciousness with images of mushroom clouds and hazmat suits. As a result, while many around the world live relatively comfortably with the growing threats of disease caused by exposure to microplastics or the tiny particles of fossil fuel pollution, they panic over radiation of any kind, regardless of the health risks.
Surveys by the consultancy Bisconti Research, which has polled Americans’ opinions on nuclear energy for decades, routinely show a “perception gap” in which respondents assume the broader public is more opposed to atomic energy than they are.
Nearly 53% of Japanese polled this month by the news agency Jiji Press supported releasing treated water from Fukushima into the sea, while just 16% opposed the move and about 31% were undecided, as The Japan Times reported. That represents a significant shift from July, when another Jiji Press poll showed about 39% supported the discharge plans and 28% opposed.
The panic has only worsened in China, where rumors spread across the country’s tightly regulated social media networks that water from Fukushima threatened to cause cancer and other diseases. The claims sparked a run on iodized salt, which many Chinese shoppers believed would protect against radiation sickness. While table salt would not provide enough iodine to protect a person’s thyroid gland from taking in the particularly toxic radioisotopes released in an accident like the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster ― and could itself harm the body if overeaten ― the rush to stock up came after Chinese officials banned imports of Japanese seafood.
Losing access to their largest export market stirred outrage among Japanese fishers, many of whom blamed the government in Tokyo for carrying out the discharges in the first place.
“Local people are afraid of the reputational damage generated by erroneous and false rumors, which are not based on scientific facts and have affected their livelihoods,” the Japanese official said.
The United States, which works closely with Japan on nuclear energy and supported Tokyo’s decision to release the water, sent Ambassador Rahm Emanuel to eat sushi on camera in Fukushima prefecture to demonstrate the seafood’s safety.
The mounting pressure from China and Russia comes as Japan looks to revive its nuclear energy industry, after halting most of its reactors more than a decade ago due to a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
On Friday, Japan restarted a reactor in the Fukui prefecture on the country’s west coast that had been mothballed since 2011. Last week, Japan’s Chubu Electric Power said it was buying a stake in the U.S. reactor firm NuScale Power, in a sign that the two countries’ long-entwined nuclear industries would continue to work closely together.
It’s part of an effort by the U.S., Japan and other nuclear energy users to generate more electricity from fission, as they seek to cut back on planet-heating fossil fuels and stabilize increasingly blackout-prone grids.
But any growth in the nuclear industry could be hampered by rising tensions within the IAEA. As they jockey for influence, both China and the U.S. are far behind on paying dues to the organization, Bloomberg reported. As a result, the IAEA has a $235 million funding gap in its roughly $694 million budget for this year, according to documents that the financial newswire obtained. Work at the agency could reportedly “grind to a halt” in a month because of the unpaid dues.