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Korean politicians trade barbs over Fukushima waste release

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Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung speaks at a protest rally against Japan's ongoing release of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on Friday. [YONHAP]
Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung speaks at a protest rally against Japan’s ongoing release of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on Friday. [YONHAP]

The war of words between Korea’s politicians over Japan’s ongoing release of radioactive water from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant continued to escalate on Friday, a day after the discharge began.

During a Democratic Party (DP) meeting held on Friday, party chairman Lee Jae-myung claimed that Tokyo has “ultimately chosen the path of an environmental war criminal” and that the government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had committed “environmental terrorism against humanity” by beginning to release water from the Fukushima plant.

The DP leader also criticized Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his administration for “not saying a single word” against the radioactive water discharge.

Lee’s labelling of the president as an “accomplice” to the Japanese water release follows the DP’s well-worn playbook of accusing Seoul’s conservative government of cozying up to Tokyo during the two countries’ diplomatic rapprochement and efforts to deepen security cooperation.

The DP leader also joined a protest against the water discharge at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on Friday, with his party vowing to step up its opposition to the ongoing water discharge by holding more rallies and protests over the weekend.

The DP has seized on the controversy surrounding the Fukushima water discharge to pillory the Yoon administration, which has not actively opposed the water discharge after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Korea’s own nuclear experts concluded the impact on the environment and human health would be negligible.

But perhaps mindful of domestic fears and deep-rooted Korean mistrust of Japan, Seoul has also not expressed unequivocal acceptance of the ongoing water release, with Korean officials only saying that its experts have found “no technical or scientific problems” with the release.

The conservative People Power Party (PPP), which is aligned with the government, has castigated the DP for fanning fears over the water release.

Rep. Yun Jae-ok, who serves as the PPP’s floor leader, urged the DP to cooperate in putting together support measures for fishermen during a party meeting on Friday.

“The DP is pouring all its energy into fearmongering over the radioactive water,” Yun said.

“It should stop holding useless protests outside the National Assembly and come to the negotiation table and gather opinions on how to support fishermen.

PPP leader Kim Gi-hyeon also called on the DP to “stop propagating false claims” regarding the safety of locally caught seafood, emphasizing that such claims would only damage the livelihoods of Koreans employed in the domestic fishing industry.

During a daily briefing on the Fukushima issue, Park Ku-yeon, the first deputy chief of the Office for Government Policy Coordination, said that the discharge “is proceeding stably as originally planned so far, and it is understood that there are no abnormal situations.”

Park stressed that the Korean government is conducting its own monitoring and analysis of the water release process, and that Seoul and Tokyo have agreed to share information immediately through a hotline should abnormalities be detected.

“The government will do its utmost to continue monitoring so that there will be no impact on people’s safety and health,” Park said.

Park noted that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which operates the Fukushima plant, as well as the IAEA and the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, have all made updates on the ongoing discharge available on their websites.

Tepco’s hourly updates include information on radiation levels and the level of tritium present in the water being released into the Pacific Ocean.

Tritium is one of the few radioactive nuclides that cannot be removed with current technology from the water used to cool the Fukushima plant’s nuclear core, which suffered a meltdown during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan.

Prior to being released, Tepco dilutes the tritium-laden radioactive water with seawater so that it contains less than 1,500 becquerels of tritium per liter, or one-fortieth the amount that is considered safe by Japanese standards. A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity.

On Friday, the level of tritium in the sea near the plant came out below ten becquerels per liter, according to Tepco testing of seawater samples collected the day before from ten locations within three kilometers of the Fukushima plant.

The World Health Organization considers water with less than 10,000 becquerels per liter to be safe for human consumption.  

The current radioactive water release, which began at 1 p.m. Thursday, is scheduled to last 17 days and is the first of four separate discharges planned for this year.

Approximately 460 tons of radioactive water are being released daily into the Pacific Ocean via an undersea tunnel that extends 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the Fukushima plant, with a total of 7,800 tons of water to be discharged during the current round.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]