China announced Thursday it was banning all seafood from Japan in response to Tokyo’s decision to begin releasing treated radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant, dramatically escalating an already tense feud between the two neighbors.
The release is part of a controversial plan that has met fierce objections from many consumers as well as some regional countries, with Beijing leading that criticism.
The start of the release on Thursday afternoon sparked a fiery tirade from China which described the operation as a “selfish and irresponsible act.”
China’s customs department then announced it would stop importing all aquatic products originating from Japan – meaning the ban could potentially limit other oceanic products besides seafood such as sea salt and seaweed.
The move was aimed at preventing “the risk of radioactive contamination of food safety caused by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear contaminated water discharge,” and to protect the health of Chinese consumers, the customs department said in its statement.
Japan has argued throughout the building controversy that discharging the treated water is safe and urgently needed to free up space at the crippled nuclear power plant.
The discharge began 1 p.m. local time (midnight ET), according to state-owned electricity firm Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
The company said it expects to discharge only around 200 or 210 cubic meters of treated wastewater. From Friday, it plans to then continuously release 456 cubic meters of treated wastewater over a 24-hour period and a total of 7,800 cubic meters over a 17-day period.
TEPCO said that the operation would be suspended immediately and an investigation conducted if any abnormalities are detected in the discharge equipment or the dilution levels of the treated wastewater.
It will send a boat later Thursday into the harbor to collect samples to monitor and ensure the discharged treated wastewater meets international safety standards.
Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused water within the Fukushima nuclear plant to be contaminated with highly radioactive material. Since then, new water has been pumped in to cool fuel debris in the reactors, while ground and rainwater have leaked in, creating more radioactive wastewater.
The plan to release the water has been in the works for years, with authorities warning in 2019 that space was running out to store the material and they had “no other options” but to release it in a treated and highly diluted form.
While some governments have expressed support for Japan, others have strongly opposed the wastewater release, with many consumers in Asia hoarding salt and seafood amid fears of future contamination.
The US has backed Japan, and Taiwan has agreed that the amount of tritium being released should have “minimal” impact.
However, China and the Pacific Islands have been vocal in their opposition, arguing the release could have broad regional and international impact, and potentially threaten human health and the marine environment.
Before China announced the seafood ban on Thursday, its foreign affairs ministry said the wastewater release would “pass on the risks to the whole world and extend the pain to future generations of humankind.”
Chinese social media was also awash in anger and dismay on Thursday, with a hashtag about the release gaining more than 800 million views on Weibo in just a few hours.
Many users supported the seafood ban, while others called on authorities to take it a step further. “We should ban all Japanese products,” read one top comment.
Many people in China continue to hold ambivalent feelings toward Japan. Despite the popularity of Japanese products and culture in China, calls to boycott all things Japanese are not uncommon whenever old grievances, triggered by current bilateral disputes, re-emerge.
In 2012, a series of anti-Japanese protests in cities across China turned violent after Japan decided to nationalize a group of islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.
The total ban on Japanese aquatic products and seafood expands on previous regulations that had already halted imports from Fukushima and nine other regions of Japan. Earlier this week, Hong Kong announced a similar ban on food imported from parts of Japan.
Both places – mainland China and Hong Kong – represent Japan’s top two biggest export markets for seafood, according to Japanese custom data, spelling potential trouble for the Japanese fishing industry.
Despite the backlash, Japanese authorities and their international supporters, including the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, argue the release is safe.
Over the years, the wastewater has been continually treated to filter out all the removable harmful elements, then stored in tanks. Much of the water is treated a second time, according to TEPCO.
When the wastewater is finally released, it will be heavily diluted with clean water so it has only very low concentrations of radioactive material. It will travel through an undersea tunnel about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) off the coast, into the Pacific Ocean.
Third parties will monitor the discharge during and after its release – including the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA has staff stationed in a newly-opened Fukushima office and will monitor the situation for years to come, it said.