Japan tries to ease Chinese nuclear fears

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Guo Xiaohe

What influence will the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have on future energy policy in Japan? At a press conference held by the Japanese government in Beijing on April 21 (the first outside Japan) economic envoy Yamazaki Kazuyuki said that, following the earthquake, Japan’s thermal plants and some nuclear plants have been temporarily shut down, impacting industries that use electricity. As for energy sources, Japan relies on imports for its coal and oil, but the most pressing task now is to solve the nuclear issue, and then discuss the wider question of future energy policies.

This is the first press conference that the Japanese government has held abroad in the wake of the earthquake, and is seen as the first step in managing international public relations since the leakage of radioactive material occurred.

The head of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in Beijing said that, since the radiation leak, there has been a lot of groundless speculation about tourism in Japan and Japanese products. He said that, as Japan sees China as an important trading partner, it decided to hold its first overseas press conference in Beijing in order to address this. Envoy Yamazaki Kazuyuki said that Japan would focus all its efforts on communicating every scrap of information in order to help other countries understand the situation.

The most difficult task

Sato Tatsuo, vice president of the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), said that Japan was facing four major challenges: cooling the reactors, controlling the spread of radioactive material, carrying out strict and concentrated monitoring and ensuring the safety of food, drinking water, site personnel, industrial products, ports and airports.

The question of how to handle highly radioactive water is the most difficult issue facing Japan today. Sato outlined four ways of doing this: first, spraying composite materials; then, creating a “sea barrier” in affected waters to prevent the contamination from spreading; and lastly, moving highly radioactive water into a waste-processing facility, cycling it round to cool fuel rods after it has been cleaned.

Sato Tatsuo explained that, although the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident has been provisionally rated as level 7, the same as Chernobyl, the difference in the amount of radiation released is quite significant. At present, the Fukushima plant has released 370,000 to 630,000 TBq of radiation, while Chernobyl released 5,200,000 TBq.

Sato also said that none of the workers at Fukushima had been exposed to over 250 millisieverts of radiation, and the level of radiation posed no danger to human health.

Impact on food safety, aviation and shipping

Satake Kenji, counsellor at the Japanese embassy in China, said that as of April 19, Japan has conducted tests on over 1,800 kinds of foodstuff, and would forbid or restrict sales as soon as radiation above the legal limit was found. He said he hoped that people would not listen to rumours, and emphasised that any food in circulation was safe to eat.

Sato said that as of April 18, Japan has conducted tests on 112 specimens of seafood.  107 of these passed, while five were over the limit. Currently, Fukushima Prefecture has imposed a blanket ban on fishing, while Ibaraki Prefecture has banned fishing of young sandlance (as these absorb radioactive surface water).

Sato also said that there are currently no problems with the drinking water supply in Tokyo.

In addition, Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) has carried out tests at major airports, and reports that the dose of radiation is at levels that do not pose a danger to human health. Hirohito Tada, a senior official at the Japanese embassy in China said that the International Civil Aviation Association updated the “Current situation for travel and transport to and from Japan” on April 14, saying that “current radiation levels do not present health or transportation safety hazards to passengers and crew.”

No choice

Sato Tatsuo said that Japan had no choice but to release contaminated radioactive water into the surrounding sea. Mr Yamazaki added that the release of contaminated water was carried out in accordance with international law, and admitted that the Chinese government was notified after the fact. When asked if neighbouring countries would receive compensation, Yamazaki Kazuyuki said that economic issues were being discussed in Japan and that international law would be followed.

In answer to the conspiracy theory claiming that nuclear weapons are hidden in the Fukushima plant, Yamazaki said that the Japanese government has always called for an end to nuclear weapons, and would never develop them.