China has banned seafood imports from Japan, citing concerns about potential radioactive contamination. The decision comes following the discharge of approximately 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean.

China’s response to the Fukushima discharge is marked by strong criticism. Scientists point out that the country’s own nuclear power plants release wastewater containing higher levels of tritium compared to the levels discharged from the Fukushima plant. Scientists also point out that the levels of radiation in seafood are too low to pose a risk.

Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, initiated pumping water containing radioactive tritium into the ocean on 24 August. The plan gained approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Japanese government. The gradual discharge of this radioactive wastewater is projected to extend over at least 30 years.

Tepco also conducted rapid tests on samples taken from the initial batch of released radioactive wastewater. The results of the tests indicated that the levels of radioactivity were well within safe limits. A spokesperson for Tepco, Keisuke Matsuo, pointed out that the analysed radioactivity value was consistent with calculated concentrations and notably remained below 1,500 becquerels per litre. This value is significantly lower than Japan’s national safety standard of 60,000 becquerels per litre.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, utilised diplomatic channels to formally request China to lift the seafood ban. He underscored the importance of expert discussions grounded in scientific rationale.

China’s stance on the matter hinges on a distinction regarding the origin of tritium releases. Admitting that China’s Fuqing nuclear power plant releases significantly more tritium compared to the planned Fukushima discharge, Beijing’s argument revolves around the differentiation between accidental nuclear disaster releases and those from routine nuclear plant operations.

This distinction was highlighted by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin. He emphasised that the nature, source, and handling sophistication of the Fukushima disaster water and that released by operational nuclear power plants are fundamentally different.

Authorities in Hong Kong also defended their ban on Japanese seafood imports, citing concerns about the potential presence of additional radioactive substances alongside tritium. This highlights the complexity of evaluating safety concerns within the broader context of radioactive water discharge.

South Korea’s initial criticism of the Fukushima discharge shifted as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved the plan following a safety report. The Kori nuclear power plant in Busan, South Korea, releases a similar amount of tritium into the Pacific Ocean as China’s Fuqing plant.

Many scientists align with the IAEA’s assessment that the release of radioactive water from Fukushima is unlikely to have a significant impact on both people and the environment. Dr David Krofcheck, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, explained that the discharge of filtered cooling water containing tritium is not expected to cause harmful effects. Tritium is naturally present in background radiation and enters the oceans through various natural processes, including rain and rivers.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace expressed reservations about the Fukushima situation, contending that radiological risks had not been comprehensively assessed. The organisation raised concerns about potential biological impacts resulting from various radioactive substances. Greenpeace pointedly mentioned tritium, carbon-14, strontium-90, and iodine-129, the latter two of which are expected to be released into the water.

Tepco and the Japanese government asserted that the filtration process would effectively remove strontium-90 and iodine-129. Additionally, reports indicate that carbon-14 concentrations in the contaminated water fall below regulatory discharge standards.

Critics, including the Japan-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre, argue that there is no sufficient knowledge about the long-term consequences of releasing tritium into the sea.

The fallout from the seafood ban has left Chinese fish dealers grappling with empty shelves. Japanese seafood, often perceived as of higher quality, had been a staple in Chinese markets.

Some Chinese supermarkets experienced an unexpected surge in demand for salt, due to rumours that iodine in salt offers protection against radiation poisoning. The China National Salt Industry Corporation reassured consumers that their products were free from Japanese nuclear pollution.