The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP / Lafforgue / Hans Lucas

China fears it will bear the toxic brunt when Japan starts to discharge highly radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean, a recently announced plan that has sparked new diplomatic tensions between the two sides. 

Japan plans to begin releasing the contaminated water in two years, according to a plan that has been endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United States but opposed by China, South Korea and Taiwan.

The radiated water is from the melted down reactor cores at what was one of Japan’s largest nuclear plants that were hit by a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. When the disaster hit, some Chinese netizens argued that Beijing should refrain from aiding its neighbor in post-quake relief and reconstruction.

The 10th anniversary of Japan’s nuclear accident would have gone unnoticed in China had it not been for Yoshihide Suga government’s surprise announcement on Tuesday that it would drain the highly radioactive effluent containing tritium and other dangerous impurities into the sea because the onsite containers would be filled to the brim by 2022.   

On the same day, China’s Foreign Ministry was quick to hit out at the move as Japanese officials and scientists had yet to work out the specific details of the release. Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian vowed there would be repercussions if Japan moved unilaterally without consulting its neighbors. 

“Japan is irresponsible as it has not exhausted its options but it decided to brush off domestic and foreign objections to discharge the water into the sea… Japan has to shoulder its obligation and must not move down that path without making a prior and full consultation and consensus with related countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” said Zhao, stressing China’s right to pursue the issue. 

An overview of the water storage facilities in Fukushima’s tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant. Photo: Xinhua

Professor Huo Zhengxin, an international law expert with the China University of Political Science and Law, was quoted by state mouthpiece media Xinhua as saying that as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Japan could not escape the hefty legal fallout if radioactive pollutants from Fukushima permeated into the Pacific and went all the way up the food chain to human beings. 

Zhu Jianzhen, the vice-president of Guangdong Ocean University, told Asia Times that China and other parties to the UN Convention including South Korea could collectively sue Japan and demand compensation if the Suga administration implemented the plan. 

Pang Zhongpeng, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Japanese Studies, told the China News Service that the UN should dispatch a team comprised of observers from China and other nations to Fukushima to supervise Japan’s work in clearing up the site and separating the nuclear residue from the water before discharging it.

Zhong said the UN and China must step in if any irregularities were found and if a spike in radioactive chemicals in Japan’s littoral waters was detected.  

Meanwhile, Chinese nuclear safety and oceanology experts quoted in other state media reports alleged that Japan’s assurances of proper treatment to take out any harmful substances “do not hold much water.”

Liu Xinhua, the Chief of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, told the China News Service that Beijing’s territorial waters would be hit if the entire northern Pacific was polluted with tritium and other radioactive isotopes of hydrogen. 

However, not everyone is convinced that Fukushima’s released radioactive waters would affect China’s shores as the Daiichi plant was on Japan’s Pacific coast and the vast East China Sea could also act as a buffer. 

A computer-generated map that illustrates the possible flow of pollutants from Fukushima into the Pacific once more water is discharged. Photo: Handout

Strong warm water currents spiraling away from Japan’s Honshu Island may first spread the water from the plant to the northern Pacific. One modeling of the water’s likely flow shows Taiwan, the Philippines and islets along the First Island Chain may be more exposed than China. 

Taiwan has already expressed its concern to Japan as its fishermen may have little or no edible fish from the high seas east of the First Island Chain if pollutants are spread there. 

The state-run China Daily admitted in its coverage of the nuclear emergency in Fukushima back in 2011 that almost all operating nuclear plants, including those in China, were mostly built along coastlines and all had been disposing of water containing varying levels of tritium into the sea. 

Previously, there had been reports suggesting there were traces of tritium in water samples retrieved from the main discharge area of China’s Data Bay Nuclear Power Plant near Hong Kong. Asia Times could not independently confirm the reports.

An expert in nuclear science with Shanghai Fudan University said that tritium had a short half-life of just 12.3 years.

He said if Japan released treated water in suitable amounts and if the discharge could be evenly spread over time under transparent management, the situation may not be as dire as portrayed by critics.

However, radioactive water may seep into underground reservoirs causing more imminent damage if left in inland storage facilities, the expert said.