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Japan has started to release radioactive water from its stricken Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, sparking retaliation from China which suspended imports of Japanese aquatic products.
The release of the water, which is expected to take decades, comes 12 years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan’s eastern seaboard.
After the plant was wrecked in March 2011, its operator Tokyo Electric Power Company cooled its reactors using seawater, which became contaminated with radioactive nuclides. The water was stored on site in more than 1,000 tanks, but Tepco has said there is no space to build more.
The water has been treated with an elaborate filtration system to remove most radioactive material. However, there is no practical way to filter out tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
Regional neighbours and the local fishing industry have questioned Tokyo’s argument that it is safe to pump 1.3mn tonnes of the water into the sea, despite the decision being supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency and many other nuclear and radiology experts.
China, which has previously fiercely opposed Tokyo’s plans to start releasing the water, said on Thursday that it would suspend all imports of aquatic products from Japan to protect the health of Chinese consumers.
Customs authorities said they wanted to “comprehensively prevent the radioactive contamination risk of food safety caused by the discharge of nuclear contaminated water from Fukushima into the sea”.
China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday: “From the moment Japan started the discharge, it has put itself in the dock in front of the international community and is bound to face international condemnation for many years to come.”
Tritium has a half-life — the time needed for half of the initial radioactive substance to decay — of 12.3 years. Radiation can be dangerous to health, but Japan maintains that the dose from the treated water would be less than one-seventh of the World Health Organization’s drinking water standard.
Inside Japan, the opposition from the fishing industry stems from concerns about economic and reputational damage, while experts say neighbouring countries mistrust the explanations and data provided by the Japanese government and Tepco.
“It’s naturally going to be hard for people in overseas countries to believe when the country that is responsible for the nuclear accident says it is safe to release the water,” said Naoya Sekiya, associate professor at the University of Tokyo. “If you look at the concerns that China is raising, it’s not necessarily that they are not being scientific as the Japanese government argues.”
Hyoe Takata, associate professor at Fukushima University, said: “That’s why universities and other third-party institutions need to continue their analysis and disclose the data after the water’s release, to confirm whether their figures are aligned with what’s being presented by the government.”
Hong Kong had already banned seafood imports from nine Japanese prefectures and Tokyo. It said it strongly opposed the discharge plan, with city leader John Lee criticising the move as “irresponsible”.
Seafood product imports from the rest of Japan are allowed into Hong Kong but will have to undergo radiological tests “before they are allowed to be supplied in the market”, officials said.
Some Japanese restaurant owners and seafood importers in Hong Kong are concerned about the ban, according to Simon Wong, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades.
“The restaurants are really worried,” said Wong. “More people might also be cautious about dining out at Japanese restaurants because of all the news surrounding this.”