China announced Thursday that it will ban all seafood coming from Japan in retaliation for Tokyo’s decision to begin releasing treated, radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant, dramatically escalating an already tense feud between the two neighbours.
This version is part of a controversial plan that has been met with strong objections from many consumers as well as some regional countries, with Beijing leading the charge.
The beginning of the release on Thursday afternoon drew sharp criticism from China, which called the operation a “selfish and irresponsible act”.
The Chinese customs department then announced that it would stop importing all aquatic products coming from Japan, which means the ban may limit other ocean products besides seafood such as sea salt and seaweed.
The move is aimed at preventing “the risk of radioactive contamination of food safety caused by the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water in Fukushima, Japan” and protecting the health of Chinese consumers, the customs department said in a statement.
Japan has argued throughout the construction controversy that the discharge of treated water is safe and urgently necessary to free up space at the crippled nuclear power plant.
The dump began at 1 p.m. local time (midnight ET), according to state-owned electric utility Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO).
The company said that it expects to discharge only about 200 or 210 cubic meters of treated wastewater. As of Friday, it plans to release 456 cubic meters of treated sewage continuously over 24 hours and a total of 7,800 cubic meters over 17 days.
TEPCO said the operation would be suspended immediately and an investigation carried out if any defect was discovered in the discharge equipment or the dilution levels of the treated wastewater.
Later in the day, it will send a boat to the port to collect samples to monitor and ensure that the treated wastewater meets international safety standards.
The devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 caused the water inside the Fukushima nuclear plant to be contaminated with highly radioactive materials. Since then, new water has been pumped in to cool the fuel debris in the reactors, while groundwater and rainwater have seeped in, creating more radioactive sewage.
The plan to release the water had been in the works for years, with authorities warning in 2019 that they were running out of space to store the material and had “no other options” than to release it in a highly processed and diluted form.
While some governments have expressed support for Japan, others have staunchly opposed the release of sewage, with many consumers in Asia stocking up on salt and seafood amid fears of future contamination.
The United States supported Japan, and Taiwan agreed that the amount of tritium released should have a “minimum” effect.
However, China and the Pacific Islands have expressed their vocal opposition, arguing that the launch could have a wide regional and international impact, possibly threatening human health and the marine environment.
Before China announced its seafood ban on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said the release of sewage “will transmit dangers to the whole world and extend pain to future generations of mankind.”
Chinese social media was also awash with anger and dismay on Thursday, as a hashtag about the release garnered more than 800 million views on Weibo in just a few hours.
Many users supported the seafood ban, while others called on the authorities to take it one step further. “We should ban all Japanese products,” reads one important comment.
Many people in China still have ambivalent feelings about Japan. Despite the popularity of Japanese products and culture in China, calls for a boycott of all things Japanese have become common whenever old grievances stemming from current bilateral disputes resurface.
And in 2012, a series of anti-Japanese protests in cities across China turned violent after Japan decided to nationalize a group of islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.
The blanket ban on Japanese aquatic products and seafood extends previous regulations that have already halted imports from Fukushima and nine other regions in Japan. Earlier this week, Hong Kong announced a similar ban on food imports from parts of Japan.
Both places – mainland China and Hong Kong – are Japan’s two largest export markets for seafood, according to Japanese customs data, which could spell potential trouble for the Japanese fishing industry.
Despite the backlash, Japanese authorities and their international backers, including the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, say the release is safe.
Over the years, wastewater has been continuously treated to filter out all harmful removable elements, and then stored in tanks. Much of the water is treated a second time, according to TEPCO.
When the sewage is finally released, it will be so diluted with clean water that it contains only very low concentrations of radioactive material. It will travel through an undersea tunnel about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) off the coast, into the Pacific Ocean.
The discharge will be monitored by third parties during and after its release – including the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
She added that the IAEA has staff stationed at the newly opened Fukushima office and will monitor the situation for years to come.
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