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Tridge Analysis

Japan’s Nuclear Wastewater Disposal to Disrupt Seafood Industry

Updated Apr 21, 2021
The global seafood industry was swept by waves of concerns and objections over the Japanese government’s decision on April 13 to release more than 1.2 million MT of nuclear wastewater into the sea. This decision is anticipated to not only affect Japan's seafood exports but also its neighboring countries' such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The global seafood industry was swept by waves of concerns and objections over the Japanese government’s decision on April 13 to release more than 1.2 million MT of nuclear wastewater into the sea. After the 2011 tsunami disaster that left the country with a devastating nuclear plant meltdown, Japan has been storing contaminated groundwater and water used to cool the nuclear plant in massive storage tanks managed by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO). However, these tanks are expected to reach their full capacity in two years, hence the Japanese government’s decision to discharge these treated wastewaters into the Pacific Ocean in two years’ time. The Japanese government explains that its decision adheres to internationally accepted nuclear safety standards, taking into consideration all other options. Moreover, Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister of Japan, has once described the treated water to be potable.

Neighboring countries’ reactions

Dating back to the 2011 Fukushima incident, the contamination of bodies of water has tremendously affected the seafood industry of Japan. South Korea, previously the largest importer of fish from Japan, drastically reduced its seafood imports from Japan from around 81.5 thousand MT in 2010 to 29 thousand MT in 2019.

Sources: Statista, Tridge

Similarly, the recent announcement of the Japanese government has sparked backlashes from related countries and its domestic seafood suppliers. Among the international markets, the Chinese government has expressed strong disapproval of Japan’s decision and urged the country to reach a consensus from all pertinent countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before pushing through with its plan. South Korean government expressed similar sentiments, expressing strong objection towards Japan’s decision, with its citizens holding protests around the Japanese embassy based in South Korea. This decision seems to have greatly deterred the recovery of diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Japan, which was previously damaged by Taiwan’s import ban on Japanese food after the 2011 nuclear disaster.

According to Shelly Chen and Tommy Lee, Tridge Engagement Managers based in Taiwan, although the announcement has not yet directly affected domestic consumption or export market demands, suppliers have generally expressed deep concerns over the impact of Japan’s decision 3-5 years down the line.

NGOs such as Greenpeace East Asia have raised objections towards the Japanese government’s decision. Moreover, Fukushima’s fishing unions criticized the decision saying it undermines the efforts placed into upkeep the Japanese fishing industry’s reputation over the years. On the other hand, the US has been overwhelmingly supportive of Japan’s decision, which China has criticized as a politically motivated agenda to create strategic adherence with Japan. John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has expressed firm belief and confidence in Japan’s transparency and depth of consultancy with the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

Impact on the fisheries sector

In terms of global trade, the key importers of fish products from Japan were China (24.3%), the US (20.4%), South Korea (17.5%), Hong Kong (13.6%), and Taiwan (7.4%), based on 2019 export volume data. With most of its key partners showing sharp criticisms and oppositions over the issue, the Japanese fisheries export market is walking on a thin line. Although the fishery industry only accounts for around 3% of Japan’s economy, the decision is perceived as a harsh treatment for the fishermen and other employees of the industry who were slowly recovering from the 2011 nuclear disaster.

A more concerning factor would be the potential impact of the Japanese government’s decision on the fisheries industries of countries along the Pacific ocean. For instance, China is a country in proximity that exported USD 22.7 billion worth of fish and fishery products in 2019, being the second-largest fish and fishery product exporter in the world after the EU. The country’s top fish exports are salmon (USD 8,901 thousand), eels (USD 4,644 thousand), and cod (USD 2,135 thousand) which are mainly exported to Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea. With Taiwan and South Korea already raising concerns over health hazards from the consumption of potentially contaminated fish, there is major uncertainty looming in the Chinese fishery market, one of the largest in the world. 


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