‘Information War’ Breaking Out Over Release of N-plant Treated Water in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, shakes hands with Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. before their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on June 14.

As the planned discharge of treated water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean draws nearer, an “information war” about the project is heating up.

The government has been bolstering its efforts to provide information to other nations and convince them that the release of the water — which could start as soon as this summer — will be safe. China has been whipping up anxiety over the project through claims that have little scientific basis, setting the stage for an “information war” over the issue.

At a press conference on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno emphasized that the government intended to boost efforts to gain broader support from the international community for the release of water from the plant, which is owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. Matsuno said understanding was steadily “spreading” among various countries and that the government would continue to “carefully explain” Japan’s plan to other nations.

On June 13, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. became the first foreign head of state to visit and observe the Fukushima nuclear plant since it was crippled by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The following day, Whipps held talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Prime Minister’s Office and indicated understanding of Japan’s efforts to release the treated water. Whipps said he had directly confirmed that experts were meticulously working to ensure the treated water was safe, and that his island nation in the South Pacific “trusts science.”

Nations in the South Pacific have traditionally been strongly opposed to nuclear power due to such reasons as repeated nuclear tests conducted in the region by countries such as the United States and France. Consequently, these island nations were inclined against Japan’s planned discharge of treated water into the ocean. This year, Japan’s government has dispatched officials including Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi as envoys with the intention of delivering to the leaders of 14 Pacific island nations a letter from Kishida expressing Japan’s position on the water release. The envoys visited 13 of these nations, except Kiribati, and explained in person the safety of the discharge plan.

As a result of this and other efforts, Micronesia and Papua New Guinea in addition to Palau have already expressed understanding for the plan.

The South Pacific is a strategically important region in which Washington and Beijing are vying to gain greater influence. China is attempting to build closer ties with nations there through such means as building important infrastructure projects. “If Japan pushed ahead with the water discharge plan without properly explaining it, we’d lose the trust of those nations and play right into China’s hands,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

China campaign

While this has been going on, China’s government has made comments including saying the Pacific Ocean “is not Japan’s sewer for discharging its nuclear contaminated water.” State-run media also has rolled out a large campaign that features regular reports on residents in Japan and South Korea who oppose the release.

This appears to be an attempt to undermine international trust in Japan and destabilize the Kishida administration, which has been working closely with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to fortify efforts with other nations to keep China’s influence in check. China also releases water containing tritium into the sea near its own nuclear power plants, but Beijing and Moscow submitted to the Japanese government a joint list of questions regarding the discharge from the Fukushima plant. China also has been calling on South Korean opposition lawmakers to work together on this issue.

Japan’s government has repeatedly offered the Chinese government opportunities to receive data-based explanations. However, Beijing has not accepted these invitations. On June 13, the Hong Kong and Macau governments indicated they could ban imports of seafood and other products from waters near Fukushima Prefecture if the treated water is discharged into the ocean. It also is highly likely that the Chinese government will implement similar measures if the release goes ahead.

S. Korean approach in spotlight

South Korea’s approach to the issue also will be a focus of attention. During their talks in May, Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol agreed that Seoul would send a delegation of experts to observe the Fukushima plant. In late May, the delegation visited the plant and held talks with officials from the secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority and TEPCO.

South Korean online media reported that Japan had donated at least €1 million (about ¥155 million) to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official had claimed the conclusions of a soon-to-be-released report had been decided at the very beginning. The Foreign Ministry issued a press release Thursday that insisted those media reports have “no basis in fact” and that the government “of Japan strongly opposes the irresponsible dissemination of such false information.” Many observers will be closely watching Yoon’s response to an issue that could stoke a backlash among the South Korean public.

“We’ll use the recent improvement in Japan’s ties with South Korea as a tailwind and explain [the issue] as clearly as we can to gain the understanding of the South Korean side,” a Japanese government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.