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Fukushima Safety and the Discharge of ALPS Treated Water

"It is important to continue providing accurate explanations" to correct misconceptions about Fukushima, says University of Tokyo Professor Naoya Sekiya.

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Storage tanks of ALPS treated water lined up on the premises of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (bottom of the picture) in February 2022. (© Sankei)

The discharge of ALPS treated and diluted water has been underway since August 2023 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. As it continues, Japan is tackling misconceptions about the safety implications.  

University of Tokyo social psychology researcher Naoya Sekiya has been studying the perceptions and misconceptions about Fukushima since soon after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. He spoke to JAPAN Forward about his work and shared insights on the importance of conveying accurate information going forward. 

Preparations for ocean discharge are underway at the site. (© TEPCO)

The Background to ALPS Treated Water Discharge

In 2021, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electronic Power Company (TEPCO) announced a plan to treat, dilute, and safely discharge water stored at the site as part of the ongoing decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. 

The stored water is first treated with a process called Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS). Then it is further diluted before discharge to ensure that the remaining nuclide, tritium, is well below the levels of national standards and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for drinking-water quality

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) started the review of the safety of the discharge of ALPS treated water in 2021. It is also conducting testing of the ongoing water discharge to ensure transparency of the process. 

Addressing the need to raise public awareness, the government is sharing information about the process. TEPCO is also facilitating transparency by sharing data collected from the water discharge area. 

An IAEA Task Force is inspecting the ALPS treated water tanks. On June 2, 2023. (© TEPCO)

Disinformation in the Media

In Japan, a majority of opinion poll respondents have said they favor the discharge of ALPS treated and diluted water. 

Yet, some media have fuelled misconceptions. In June 2023, a Korean YouTube video alleged that Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) had paid the IAEA €1 million EUR (approximately $1.06 million USD) to come to an agreement about ALPS treated water discharge. 

MOFA responded by strongly denying the report. The ministry statement emphasized that the report had "no basis in fact" and criticized "the irresponsible dissemination of such false information." 

Other Neighbors 

China has challenged the discharge of ALPS treated water by imposing import restrictions on all Japanese marine products. Japan has condemned China's critique as "not based on scientific evidence." 

Nevertheless, the import restrictions have led to fear among the wider Chinese public. For example, a video of panic buying of sea salt in a supermarket in China went viral soon after ALPS treated water discharge began. Those in the video conveyed concern that Chinese sea salt would become radioactively contaminated because of the treated water discharge. "It wasn't even about a Japanese product," comments Sekiya. 

Public anger ensued with harassing phone calls from China to Fukushima businesses and institutions, such as the university and city hall, reminded Professor Sekiya. 

Conveying Scientifically Sound Information

To combat the misconceptions, Japan's MOFA has taken steps to disseminate transparent and scientifically-based information. These include video explanations of the safety of ALPS treated water process, why the process is appropriate compared to other alternatives, and whether it affects bioaccumulation in organisms

Embassy representatives from countries such as Australia and Italy have posted messages on X, formerly known as Twitter, showing "support for Japan's scientifically based methodology." On October 30, the United States Ambassador also announced that American bases in Japan would buy scallops from Hokkaido and other products affected by China's import ban.  

Professor Sekiya explains that looking at how information is conveyed abroad is key to understanding the gap in perceptions. 

Sekiya is a Professor at the Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research, Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at The University of Tokyo. His previous research includes an analysis of the impact of the 2011 earthquake on popular perception at home and abroad. 

"There is still a lot of misunderstanding abroad about the situation in Fukushima," he reports.

Professor Naoya Sekiya has extensively researched the impact of the 2011 earthquake on popular perception at home and abroad. (© Naoya Sekiya)

Online Survey Unveils Root of Misconceptions

Sekiya conducted an online survey of perceptions about Fukushima's agricultural and marine products with 3,000 respondents from large cities in ten countries. Five of the countries were in Asia while the others were split between Europe and the United States. He collected data twice, in 2017 and 2022. 

The survey data show that a majority of respondents were uneasy about buying products from Fukushima. Sekiya also found a higher level of uneasiness among respondents in Asian countries compared to their Western counterparts. 

Digging deeper, Sekiya found the cause of that perception lay in outdated information about the area's recovery. "Many were still under the impression that people could not live, swim, or drink water in Fukushima Prefecture. Their perceptions were frozen in time, at immediately after [the earthquake]," he explains, adding: "This [perception] is simply not true."

Quelling Fears With Transparency

Sekiya illustrated the importance of transparency and the dissemination of accurate information in calming fears among citizens. 

In the aftermath of the earthquake, he explains, local media and residents of Fukushima actively shared information about radiation mitigation and monitoring measures. Television and newspaper reports covered the details of monitoring radiation in the atmosphere, how local rice bags were screened, and the food safety testing of locally sourced fish and vegetables. In short, locals were well informed about the safety measures in place, even a decade after the earthquake. 

"If anything, the knowledge that their food was being regularly tested has made locals want to buy more Fukushima-sourced products," Sekiya highlights.  

Water tanks dominate the premises at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. (© TEPCO)

Perceptions in Japan and Beyond

Outside of Fukushima Prefecture, perceptions in Japan, in general, have also improved over time. Sekiya points to the yearly lead-up to the anniversary of the earthquake as an example. "In March every year, the media thoroughly reports on the progress since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Japanese are aware that the area has recovered," he explains. 

This, in turn, has reduced the level of uneasiness among the Japanese regarding safety in Fukushima. People are returning to visit the area and buy products from the region. 

Foreign media, however, have not updated their reports to the same extent. Sekiya points out that their stories often feature outdated news of the region's recovery. "This leads to a gap in perception between what people abroad think of Fukushima, and what is happening on the ground," he says. 

Changing Perceptions Everywhere 

To correct this trend, the professor advocates reporting the current situation in Fukushima from as many perspectives as possible. 

"The decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is the one main task which remains," he says, referring to the post-earthquake recovery. "That is why the [ALPS treated] water discharge is taking place." 

Sekiya is optimistic that perceptions will change. He doesn't see the misconceptions abroad as rooted in anti-Japanese sentiment. Rather, foreigners may simply be uneasy because they are not accessing correct information. 

Therefore, the professor explains, better information sharing could help correct misconceptions about Fukushima. 

He welcomed the Japanese government's timely information dissemination in the months leading up to ALPS treated water discharge. But going forward, he urges, "It is important to continue providing accurate explanations."

The best way to do this is for people to inform themselves by visiting Fukushima, he suggests. "It would be helpful if more people learned about the recovery in Fukushima Prefecture. If possible, I would encourage people who are interested to visit the area. They will understand the situation better."

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This article is published in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

Author: Arielle Busetto

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