S. Korea says Fukushima water release to meet int’l standards if carried out as planned

July 7, 2023

The government said Friday that Japan’s plan to release contaminated water from its crippled Fukushima plant would meet international standards, including those set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), if carried out as planned.

The government announced its own scientific analysis of the discharge plan, based on the findings of an on-site inspection of the plant completed in late May and other related data, as well as an analysis of the IAEA safety review.

“After a review of the treatment plan of contaminated water presented by Japan so far, the total concentration level of radioactive materials of Japan’s plan would meet the standards for a release into the ocean,” Government Policy Coordination Minister Bang Moon-kyu told a daily briefing.

Bang said, therefore, the plan has been confirmed to meet international standards, including those of the IAEA.

According to a simulation based on an emission standard set by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, the radiation impact on South Korean shores is estimated to be about one-100,000th of the average level.

Government Policy Coordination Minister Bang Moon-kyu (2nd from L) speaks during a daily briefing on the Fukushima issue at the government complex in Seoul on July 7, 2023. (Yonhap)
Government Policy Coordination Minister Bang Moon-kyu (2nd from L) speaks during a daily briefing on the Fukushima issue at the government complex in Seoul on July 7, 2023. (Yonhap)

The government further said that the technology of the plant’s custom purification system, known as ALPS, has gradually improved and stabilized, resulting in radionuclide levels within permissible limits since mid-2019.

“The result of the simulation shows it would take around four to five years and up to 10 years in order for the contaminated water to reach our seawater and have an effect,” Bang said, adding it would “not have any meaningful impact.”

Previously, the Seoul government had reported that six types of radionuclides were detected at levels exceeding permissible limits even after treatment through ALPS, but most of these cases occurred before 2019.

As ocean currents disperse the contaminated water, radioactive materials would become nearly undetectable on South Korean shores, the government said, emphasizing that the concentration level would remain within the acceptable limit.

Notably, the concentration level of tritium, a hydrogen radioisotope known to still be detected after treatment through ALPS, would also be within the limit as the seawater would dilute it sufficiently.

“The review was carried out under the premise that Tokyo Electric Power’s discharge plan is carried out as planned,” Bang said.

The government would conduct a further review if there were a change in the plan, Bang said.

It deferred its final decision on whether to endorse Japan’s water release plan.

“After checking how Japan will finalize the discharge plan, its propriety and implementability, we will be able to deliver a final judgment,” Bang said. “The government’s final position will be announced at the stage where Japan’s discharge plan is finalized and announced.”

In its assessment, the government has also decided to advise Japan on several concerning issues.

“We have reached a conclusion to advise Japan to shorten the interval of the inspections and strengthen the ALPS’ cross-flow filter, as breakdowns have occurred several times,” said Nuclear Safety and Security Commission Chairperson Yoo Geun-hee.

Despite the conclusion, Bang said the government will not lift the import ban on seafood from the Fukushima region.

“I once again emphasize that the current import ban will remain in place,” Bang said, adding that Japan should prove the safety of its seafood.

South Korea banned all seafood imports from eight Japanese prefectures near Fukushima in 2013 on concerns over their radiation levels in the wake of the meltdown incident in 2011.

In an apparent move to reassure the public, the government plans to add eight spots in international waters close to Japan to a radiation monitoring list.

The government also emphasized its respect for the outcome of the IAEA’s safety review of Japan’s plan.

On Tuesday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog announced that its two-year review found Japan’s plan to release water from the plant into the sea to be consistent with its safety standards. The agency also stated that the treated water would have a negligible radiological impact on both people and the environment.

This announcement coincides with IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi’s visit to South Korea later in the day for a three-day trip, following his ongoing four-day trip to Japan.

Before heading to Seoul, Grossi said he has been “very attentive” to South Korean people’s worries about Japan’s water discharge plan, while unveiling a plan to meet with opposition lawmakers here to discuss the “difficult points.”

“I have been very attentive to South Koreans’ views and concerns, and I accepted their invitation to come again to engage, as I am doing here with the press, with the public and with parliamentarians,” he told a press conference earlier in the day.

“I have an invitation to address some parliamentarians that have a very strong opposition to the plan so I can do what I am doing here … try to explain and illuminate the difficult points so that they can understand that,” he added.

In response to heightened public concern, Seoul launched a daily press briefing last month to keep the public updated on the planned release of contaminated water from the plant.

Despite the findings, the plan is still being heatedly debated by political parties.

The main opposition Democratic Party (DP), which has argued the release will have health and environmental consequences, again questioned the credibility of this week’s IAEA report, saying too much belief in the report would be harmful.

All 167 DP lawmakers held an overnight sit-in at the National Assembly on Thursday to protest Japan’s release plan and denounce the South Korean government’s response to it. On Friday, the DP lawmakers held a party meeting, demanding IAEA Director General Grossi hold a public debate on the issue.

The ruling People Power Party (PPP) has accused the DP of inciting fears among the people with unscientific claims in an attempt to take advantage of the issue for political gains ahead of next year’s general elections.

The PPP further criticized the discrediting of the IAEA, an internationally recognized agency, as it only makes a mockery of South Korea in international society.