Japan is facing criticism and controversy after it began discharging treated water from the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. There have been protests throughout the region in response to the move, and on August 24, 2023, China imposed a complete ban on importing seafood from Japan.
After Japan announced the discharge in February, China condemned the move as “extremely irresponsible” and demanded that it seek authorization from neighbouring countries even though the intergovernmental organization International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s safety review found that the discharge plan was consistent with IAEA’s Safety Standards as the treated wastewater had a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment.
Twitter user @MrSeanHaines collected several commentaries and political cartoons about the wastewater discharge from state-owned media sources:
A lot of PRC officials, state media today upset with Fukushima nuclear plant for releasing waste water into the ocean.
One thing they forget to mention China does too. 6x more. pic.twitter.com/YcCoDFs2OS
— Whipling (@MrSeanHaines) August 23, 2023
In addition, falsified claims that the Japanese government bribed the IAEA with one million Euros had gone viral on Chinese social media, and many Chinese netizens are spreading the conspiracy that radioactive residue in the discharge water will damage human DNA and increase the risk of cancer. Some pointed to Fukushima’s cancer data (2012–2017) to fuel the fear, though the spike might be due to an increase in cancer screenings.
Fukushima’s nuclear crisis occurred in 2011 after a tsunami hit the nuclear power plant, which caused a power cut and led to three nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen explosions. The district was contaminated by radioactive material, and about 110,000 people were evacuated.
To cool down the reactors, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPC) pumped 150 tons of water daily and stored the contaminated water in 1,061 water tanks. The discharged water came from these tanks. The melted-down reactors will take 30-40 years to be fully decommissioned.
Scientific data shows that the treated discharge is safe as it was processed with the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove most radioactive materials. It was stored in water tanks for over a decade to allow the radioactive materials to undergo nuclear decay and then diluted with sea water with a ratio of 1:100 to reduce the level of Tritium — a radioactive material that cannot be filtered out by ALPS — before being discharged into the sea. Data also indicate that the Tritium concentration level of the Fukushima discharge water is far lower than other nuclear power plants, including those from mainland China.
Censorship and fear management
Yet, most mainland Chinese media outlets and influencers are ignoring the scientific data and arguing that Fukushima’s discharge was more radioactive than other nuclear power plants as it was used to cool down meltdown reactors. Dissent has been censored on all Chinese social networks.
Articles that explained the safety standards of the IAEA, the ALPS water treatment system, and the rationale behind the discharge plan over other options from a scientific angle were taken offline, as shown in the Chinese Digital Times’ censorship collections.
On the other hand, the Chinese government’s complete ban on Japanese seafood has received popular support. Anti-Japanese sentiment is rising in China, and many online comments describe the act as a “crime” against humanity on Chinese social media.
While China’s seafood ban has hurt Japan’s fishing industry, many observers pointed out the action may also hurt its own economy. First, thousands of Japanese restaurants in mainland China will be forced to change their menus and will probably lose their customers thanks to the food ban and surging anti-Japanese sentiment.
Secondly, after months of reports from state media about the “nuclear discharge catastrophe”, many mainland Chinese firmly believe that the sea is contaminated, resulting in collateral damage to the Chinese fisheries and aquaculture sector. Manya Koetse from What's on Weibo reposted clips taken from Chinese fish markets on August 24:
This is a difficult time for those in China's fishmarket. Some sellers got visibly upset during e-commerce livestreams this week, repeatedly seeing comments saying their fish must be contaminated after Japan starting discharging treated Fukushima cool water into the Pacific. pic.twitter.com/001WuFfUbe
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) August 26, 2023
Hu Xijun, the top commentator from state-owned Global Times, expressed his concern by managing fear on Weibo:
In the current chaos, we should protect children and young people with birth plans. They can adopt a higher food safety standard. For those who are in the prime time with no birth plans and the elderly, we can be less strict. A low concentration of radiation, after being digested by fishes and transferred to human beings, the process for the [radiation] to take effect will be very slow. Hence, those above 40s with no birth plans need not worry too much. For myself, I will continue to eat all domestic seafood and aquaculture, which are approved by the state’s quality supervision authorities. No more Japanese seafood, but the Chinese fishermen and aquaculture farmers are innocent, and I am willing to stand with them in difficult times.
The gross production value of Chinese fisheries and aquaculture in 2021 was up to CNY 1,450 billion (approximately USD 200 billion).
Some are worried that the anti-Japanese sentiment could evolve into protests or even riots against Japanese businesses based in China. Chinese current affairs blogger Cai Shenkun wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter):
— 蔡慎坤 (@cskun1989) August 26, 2023
The surging anti-Japanese sentiment is primarily online expressions. Once escalated, it may result in protests or attacks on Japanese restaurants or vehicles, demanding the government to impose more sanctions against the discharge. In addition to boycotting Japanese products, they may want to kick out Japanese businesses. It is easy to incite populist sentiment, but the fire would also hurt oneself… In the past, all anti-Japanese protests were fuelled by opinion manipulation to distract domestic problems. Currently, the country also suffers from severe youth unemployment and natural disasters, so an anti-Japanese storm is timely. [Link to the long post]
The last major anti-Japanese protests in China occurred in 2012 and turned violent as protesters in some cities vandalized Japanese cars, restaurants and shops.
Apart from China, other countries, including South Korea and Fiji, also protested against the Japanese discharge of treated water.
In response, many governments tried to ease people’s anxiety over the Fukushima discharge plan. The European Union lifted the Fukushima food import ban one month before the water discharge. The Australian government applauded Japan's transparency and international engagement in its discharge plan and affirmed the safety standard of the treated water. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol had a seafood lunch on August 28 to allay public concern over the safety of local fish products.
The IAEA has also set up a website providing live data from Japan on the release of treated water from Fukushima.