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Opinion: Why Is Japan’s Discharge of Treated Radioactive Water Into the Sea a Democratic Crisis

In the wake of a devastating natural disaster, the spotlight often falls on the immediate physical destruction: the buried people, the collapsing houses, and the fractured infrastructure. This narrative was echoed on New Year’s Day, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck Japan, rekindling fears around nuclear meltdown as a nuclear power plant reported oil leakage. As we sift through the rubble of both the past and recent earthquakes, a less visible but equally destructive force emerges – the crumbling infrastructure of democracy. 

The aftermath of the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011, is not just a story of nature’s fury but also a testament to the consequences of ignoring the voices of those most affected by the disaster. The earthquake was unique as it was a confluence of natural and man-made catastrophes: the earthquake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear meltdown. The meltdown, which forced the evacuation of over 100,000 people from the surrounding area and workers to enter the reactor at the most dangerous times, writing wills for their families, could have been mitigated if people’s voices had been heard. Even before the meltdown, citizens protested against nuclear plants. An ex-worker of the teacher’s union I interviewed had protested at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) a year before the disaster but was not taken seriously.

Now, 12 years later, we witness a similar story – residents’ voices fighting against Japan’s discharge of treated radioactive water into the sea are being ignored. The still damaged plant produces contaminated water, with nearly 1,000 tons of wastewater accumulated in tanks. As a solution, the government decided to discharge the water into the sea, leading to bans and restrictions on Japanese seafood imports by China and Russia, severely reeling the industry.

People in Japan have long been victims of industrial activities. From the 1950s to the 1970s, as industrial activity increased, pollution-related damage to citizens became a serious issue. Diseases like Itai-Itai, Niigata Minamata, Yokkaichi asthma, and Kumamoto Minamata became known as the four major pollution-induced diseases, raising concerns about the government’s role in acting in the public’s best interest.

The discharge of the treated radioactive water into the sea itself is a broken promise by the government to the people. In 2015, the Japanese government and TEPCO assured the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations that they wouldn’t proceed with the discharge plan without mutual understanding from the “parties involved.” Despite never reaching this understanding, the water was still released.

The public discussion is often focused on whether the discharging water is safe or not. Is it actually drinkable? Would there even be impacts releasing tritium water into the vast ocean? Often people discuss as if science is the only issue of Japan’s discharge. But before all of these discussions, the fundamental issue is the voice of citizens was once again ignored, showing a collapsing democracy. 

More than ever, victims are in a vulnerable position to speak up. People opposed to the discharge are portrayed as opposing the country. On social media, protesters are criticized and villainized. When first-hand victim scallop producers expressed their concerns, many people online discussed how scallop producers had made enough money before the ban and it was their responsibility to find different selling avenues.

We are shifting away from the fundamental discussion we should be having. Instead, victim blaming is happening. When citizens are not given the opportunity to speak up, we can’t move forward as a nation to reach an optimal decision.

Trust still crumbles between the people and the government and TEPCO. Mistrust is one of the biggest reasons people oppose the discharge. TEPCO has tampered with data in the past. When we attended a conference in Fukushima on June 20 where citizens submitted a letter requesting not to discharge the treated radioactive water into the sea, Shigeru Ito, Nuclear Safety Division Manager of the Crisis Management Department, admitted TEPCO’s past of tampering and manipulating data. But he could not present a prevention plan that people could agree to.

Instead, it has been the government’s focus to promote safety assurance. In April 2021, the Reconstruction Agency published flyers and videos depicting the radioactive substance tritium as an animated character to promote the safety of the treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This approach is not what the victims want to see.

This is reminiscent of decades ago when students were taught that nuclear power plants were safe through their textbooks. A myth of absolute safety was spread for nuclear power plants.

When we visited Fukushima for our reporting trip, we couldn’t believe that such a nature-rich place was at the heart of the nuclear accident. On our bullet train from Tokyo to Fukushima, we saw the prefecture surrounded by green mountains with birds flying freely. When we got off the train, we immediately breathed in the smell of nature. But the beautiful land still contained radioactive materials from the nuclear accident that would need decades to decay. A place blessed with beautiful nature was just like that, destroyed by the nuclear accident.

We can’t go back in time to make everything right. But it should be the government’s priority to win the trust of the people and create an environment, where people don’t feel social pressure to speak up about their opinions.

But, we aren’t moving forward.

Just on December 27, 2023, Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority lifted the safety ban on the world’s biggest nuclear plant, TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture, allowing it to become operational again. 

In 2013, the law governing the operational period of nuclear power plants was extended to over 60 years from the previous limit of 40 years. As Japan is a country with many natural disasters, we need to be cautious with the decisions we make, by listening to the voice of the people.

Now, on the first day of this year, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck Ishikawa Prefecture. Tsunami warnings were issued for the surrounding areas, and Hokuriku Electric Power Company’s Shika nuclear power plant experienced an oil leakage.

As the Nankai Megathrust Earthquake and the Earthquake Directly Beneath the Capital can strike at any time, this might be our last chance to have a proper discussion to mitigate potential damage from the nuclear power plants across Japan.

The Nankai Megathrust Earthquake is expected to be of magnitude 8.0 to 9.0, striking Japan with a high possibility of causing tsunamis. It is expected to occur within 30 years with a 70 to 80 percent chance. The Earthquake Directly Beneath the Capital is expected to have a magnitude of 7.0, with an 80 percent chance of striking within 30 years. These are just two of the many earthquakes expected.

If another meltdown occurs, this time it might not only affect Japan.

There is not much time left for us to prepare for the next natural disaster. We need to move the conversation further to make workarounds for the concerns people have.

As we shape the history of our generation, it’s in our hands not to make the same mistakes. It’s our mission to set an example for the next generation.

The disaster of the nuclear power plant is a symbol of man-made collapsing democracy. And the right end can only be achieved by the right process.

“Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” said Abraham Lincoln.