At a busy intersection in Seoul this summer, a banner from the main opposition Democratic Party barked “No!” to Japan’s plan to dump treated radioactive water from its destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific.
Across the street, a placard from the governing People Power Party said the real threat was the opposition spreading conspiracy theories that would scare people away from seafood: “The Democratic Party is killing the livelihoods of our fishermen!”
Japan’s imminent decision to release more than 1.3 million tons of treated water at Fukushima Daiichi, the power plant that was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, has raised alarms across the Pacific. But in South Korea, it has triggered a particularly raucous political debate, with the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol and its enemies slugging it out through banners, YouTube videos, news conferences and protests.
What sets South Korea apart from other critics in the region is that its government has endorsed Japan’s discharge plan despite widespread public misgiving, only asking Japan to provide transparency to ensure the water is discharged properly. The authorities are running online advertisements and holding daily news briefings to dispel what they call fear-mongering by the opposition and to convince the people that the water will do no harm.
But the continued uproar in South Korea over the discharge has threatened to complicate the progress the United States, Japan and South Korea have made in recent months to build a stronger trilateral partnership. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the Fukushima site on Sunday, signaling that the water release date would be announced soon, perhaps as early as this week.
Government critics accuse Mr. Yoon of agreeing to the Fukushima water release plan for the sake of improving relations with Japan, South Korea’s historical enemy, and at the behest of the United States, a strong ally of both nations.
Mr. Yoon’s recent attempts to mend ties with Japan by burying longtime historical feuds have pleased Washington, which has pushed to align Seoul and Tokyo more closely together in a broader effort to counter China, North Korea and Russia.
“We need to improve ties with Japan, but also important is to protect our people’s health,” National Assembly majority whip Park Kwangon, a member of the Democratic Party, said in an interview. “I cannot help suspecting that President Yoon made a compromise on this to improve relations with Tokyo.”
In South Korea, issues concerning Japan often spark an intense response. In downtown Seoul, demonstrators engage in shouting matches over whether their country should consider Japan a foe or a friend. Plagued by recurring disasters and corruption scandals, the government has also had a hard time earning trust.
In 2008, when the government lifted a 5-year-old ban on American beef imports, first imposed after the outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States, massive protests paralyzed downtown Seoul for weeks. To the protesting crowds, the issue was not just about health concerns; they accused President Lee Myung-bak of being too eager to do America’s bidding.
In 2017, when South Korea agreed to the installment of an American antimissile battery system known as THAAD, many didn’t trust the government’s explanation that it was deployed solely to guard against North Korea, not as a tool for the American military to monitor Chinese missile activity, too. Many South Koreans would prefer to be left out of the great power competition between the U.S. and China.
A majority of South Koreans were skeptical when Mr. Yoon’s government said it was time to improve ties with Japan, according to recent surveys. When his government said not to worry about the Fukushima plan, they balked at Japan’s ability to successfully filter the contaminated water and be transparent about its safety.
Japan has 1,000 large tanks to hold water that has been used to cool the destroyed reactor cores at the Fukushima plant. As tank capacity runs out, Japan wants to gradually release the water into the ocean over the next 30 years, after filtering and diluting it to meet Tokyo’s regulatory standards.
When the plan was first announced in 2021, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration said it saw “no impact to human and animal health” if the treated wastewater were discharged as proposed. Independent experts appointed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, however, warned of “considerable risks” to millions of lives and livelihoods in the Pacific region.
In July, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, endorsed Japan’s plan, calling the water’s radiological impact “negligible.” Weeks later, environmental regulators in Massachusetts denied a similar request to release treated radioactive wastewater from a shuttered nuclear power plant into Cape Cod Bay.
Like Japan, other nations around the world filter cooling water from their nuclear power plants and release the treated water into the ocean. But critics say the water from Fukushima has been contaminated with more hazardous radioactive materials than what is typical.
“Scientifically speaking, the issue at stake is simple: whether enough radioactive materials would reach our country to affect us,” Chung Bum-Jin, president-elect of the Korean Nuclear Society, said in an interview. “But when politics gets into the mix, the question gets complicated, with more than one answer.”
“What matters is whether Japan releases its water according to international standards. All else is demagogy,” Mr. Chung added. “We can’t really meddle as long as Japan releases its water below regulatory limits.”
Marine discharge is the “surest” way that the water can be disposed of safely, said Jeong Yong Hoon, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Other disposal options only make its eventual route to the sea — and the process of assessing the environmental impact — more complicated, he said.
To add assurances, South Korea vowed to ramp up efforts to monitor seawater and fisheries for any rise in radioactive substances after the water is released. It also said that its ban on seafood from around Fukushima, first imposed following the 2011 disaster, will remain until people felt confident that the water was safe.
Some governing party lawmakers went as far as to drink water from fish tanks in a local fish market to prove their point.
“What Japan is trying to do is unprecedented: It’s no ordinary cooling water from a normal nuclear power plant that it wants to dump into the sea; it’s laced with all kinds of hazardous radionuclides from the meltdown reactor cores,” said Seo Kyun-ryul, a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University.
Japan has dismissed other long-term disposal options, such as keeping the water on land by adding more tanks, digging an artificial lake or mixing it into mortar, angering critics in South Korea, China and Pacific island countries.
“Japan made the cheapest choice — simply dumping it into the ocean,” said Mr. Park, the lawmaker in Seoul. “It may gain economic benefits from that, but it loses the trust of people in neighboring countries.”
In recent protest rallies in downtown Seoul, activists compared the dumping of Fukushima water to an act of “slow and quiet nuclear terrorism,” and described the IAEA safety review as being “tailored” for Japan. In such a heated environment, scientists on both sides of the debate fear a backlash.
Mr. Chung said that those who supported the Japanese plan were vilified as mouthpieces of the nuclear-energy industry or as “pro-Japanese” traitors.
Those on the other side have also suffered consequences in South Korea’s highly polarized political environment. Mr. Seo of Seoul National University was sued by a local fishermen’s group after he raised alarms about potential dangers of the Fukushima water.
“People like me who go against the government policy line are persecuted for spawning anxiety and fear among the people,” he said.