South Koreans shaving their heads in protest to Japan’s wastewater plan

Dozens of South Korean college students shaved their heads in front of the Japanese embassy the past week to protest the Japanese decision to release water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.

It all began on April 13th, with the announcement of the Japanese government of the decision to dump more than a million tons of treated – but still radioactive – wastewater over the next few decades, leading to outrage from the neighboring governments of China, Taiwan, and South Korea.  

What is processed water?

The contaminated water has built up at the plant since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami knocked out electricity and cooling. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding (TEPCO) has built over 1.000 tanks to hold about 1.5 million tonnes of radioactive water; some was used to cool the three damaged reactors, while the rest is from the rain at site and groundwater. Various measures to tackle the issue include building an “Ice Wall” around the damaged reactors and wells to draw groundwater away. These efforts slowed down, but not halted, the build-up. Back in 2018, TEPCO admitted it had not filtered all the dangerous materials, despite saying for years they had been able to remove it all.

Why ocean release?

Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, said the government’s decision was the “most realistic” option and “unavoidable to achieve Fukushima’s recovery.”

The quantity of radioactive water increases by 140 tonnes per day, plant operator TEPCO argues that it will struggle to make progress on decommissioning the plant if it has to keep building more storage tanks at the site.

How dangerous the water is and how it will be released.

Even after removing most of the radioactive isotopes through the advanced Liquid Processing System, some isotopes, including tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, can’t be removed. 

Tritium does not emit enough energy to penetrate human skin, but – as reported by TEPCO – it can raise cancer risks when ingested. The Electric Power Company’s plant operator will begin pumping out water in about two years after treatment. Once started, the water disposal will take decades to complete, with a rolling filtering and dilution process, alongside the planned decommissioning of the plant. The government says the release will meet the international standards and is enforced by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

What will happen to Fukushima seafood?

In Fukushima ten years after the nuclear accident, the problems for the environment and human health are even more current than ever.

For years, Fukushima fishing unions have asked the government not to release the water, arguing it will undo the work to restore the damaged reputation of their fisheries, but the discharge of water will begin in two years and will last an indefinite period, even for many years. However, this dilution will not diminish the problem, on the contrary, it risks turning it into chronic radioactive pollution. 

Marine research teaches that every substance released into the sea, even in its dissolved state, is incorporated into the tiny organisms of plankton, in particular in the plant component, phytoplankton, which produces about 50% of the oxygen we breathe. What is incorporated into these organisms enters the food web, as phytoplankton is eaten by marine herbivores such as small zooplankton crustaceans and then by fish larvae and so on from small to large fishes, to reach large ocean predators such as the tuna and sharks. In this process, the risk of radioactivity accumulated by organisms is amplified, because each predator could accumulate even 10 times the radioactive content of its prey, reaching ever-higher levels of radioactivity (technically they are defined as magnified) in large predators. It is therefore a possible drama announced with consequences that we cannot yet foresee for marine life.

Why are people shaving their heads?

South Koreans have a long tradition of hair shaving as a protest. This practice has traditionally been seen as a way of demonstrating devotion to a cause and is rooted in conventional Confucian teaching. Under the military regime in South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, protesters often shaved their heads as a show of defiance. Activists and lawmakers have used it as a form of dissent for decades.

Even if Japan stated that the wastewater containing tritium would be so diluted and released over a long time that it will not harm people nor marine life, Seoul has strongly opposed the decision. The protestors who shaved their heads outside the Japanese embassy were draped in protective sheets emblazoned with messages condemning the Japanese plan and calling for it to be abandoned: “The Japanese government should immediately cancel the plan to release the contaminated water“.

Even with anti-pandemic prohibitions on demonstrations larger than ten people, police disrupted crowds that protested and raised placards. 

What others had to say

While many people opposed it, the US supported it describing Japan’s decision-making process as “transparent“. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted: “We thank Japan for its transparent efforts in its decision to dispose of the treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi site”. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace allege accumulated doses over time could damage DNA and want to see the water stored until the technology is developed to improve filtration. Besides South Korea, also China and Taiwan had something to say: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “a Japanese official said it is okay if you drink this water then please drink it. The ocean is not Japan’s trash can.”

Giulia Francesca Pressani


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