Japanese and South Korean officials held hourslong talks into early Saturday and agreed on a visit later this month by South Korean experts to the Fukushima nuclear plant before it begins the controversial release of treated but radioactive water into the sea. The safety of the water is a major sticking point as the two sides work to improve long-strained ties.
Discussions were held Friday in Seoul and online, in which the Japanese government also provided an update on the status of the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Officials are preparing to release the water, saying it's an unavoidable step for the decommissioning process.
Japan's Foreign Ministry, after a nearly 12-hour meeting that ran past midnight, issued a statement early Saturday saying the two sides agreed to have a four-day visit by a South Korean delegation to Japan that includes a Fukushima nuclear plant tour, and that “further details, including its program” need to be finalized.
The government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, say the water release will begin between spring and summer and take decades to finish.
A massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and release large amounts of radiation. Water used to cool the three damaged reactor cores, which remain highly radioactive, leaks into the basements of the reactor buildings and is collected, treated and stored in about 1,000 tanks that now cover much of the plant.
The government and TEPCO say the tanks must be removed to make room to build facilities for the plant’s decommissioning and to minimize the risk of leaks in case of another major disaster. The tanks are expected to reach their capacity of 1.37 million tons in early 2024.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, during his May 7-8 visit to Seoul for a summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, announced that Japan would receive a team of experts at the plant later in May to address South Korea's concerns in a show of his desire to further improve relations.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday the two sides held “in-depth discussions” on what the South Korean experts would see and do at the plant and that further consultations were planned to finalize the details.
Seoul wants to send some 20 government experts to visit the Fukushima Daiichi plant on May 23-24, although the group’s actual size will be determined after further talks with Japan, Park Ku-yeon, first vice minister of South Korea’s Office for Government Policy Coordination, said Friday.
Park said the plant visit is aimed at “reviewing the safety of the entire ocean discharge process,” including Japan's water treatment facility and its operation and technologies to measure contamination levels in treated water.
Asked whether Seoul would consider lifting its import ban on seafood from Fukushima if it determines Japan’s water release plan is safe, Park replied “absolutely not,” citing South Korean public concerns and a need for deeper investigations into the environmental impact of the 2011 disaster.
Japanese officials said the Korean delegation's plant visit is not an inspection and does not involve a safety assessment, review or evaluation of the water discharge plan, because it's already under review by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Japan has been assisted by the IAEA for credibility and transparency.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Thursday the visit would not affect the timing of a planned release of the water and that Japan continues to provide explanations about safety measures to aid understanding.
Japanese officials say the water will be safely filtered to below releasable levels by international standards and further diluted by large amounts of seawater before release, making it harmless to human health or marine life.
The plan has faced fierce protests from local fishing communities concerned about safety and reputational damage. Neighboring countries, including South Korea, China and the Pacific Island nations, have also raised safety concerns. South Korea and China ban food imports from around Fukushima and describe the water as “contaminated" instead of “treated” despite the Japanese government's repeated protests.
Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to tritium and other radionuclides on the environment and humans is still unknown and the release should be delayed.
Historical disputes have strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul — most recently over the compensation of wartime Korean forced laborers during Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. But their relationship has thawed rapidly since March, when Yoon's government announced a local fund to compensate some of the former laborers. Tokyo and Seoul, under pressure from Washington, share a sense of urgency to mend ties amid growing security threats in the region.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.