In 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan and triggered a tsunami that flooded the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The Fukushima incident remains the second worst nuclear disaster behind Chernobyl and sparked serious health concerns across East Asia, with the wastewater from the reactors stored in large tanks. However, the news that Japan would be releasing the Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific Ocean in August caused outrage throughout East Asia with large protests in China, South Korea, and Taiwan. By November, Japan had released its third release of wastewater. 

The release of wastewater raises important questions regarding nuclear energy like means of waste disposal and the follow-up measures for the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. South Korea has 25 active nuclear plants that provide about one-third of South Korea's electricity. Nuclear energy in South Korea is growing in importance as the country seeks to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. This policy goal has not stopped public outcry over the Fukushima wastewater release, despite both the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA)and a South Korean team confirming the Fukushima water was safe and found the tritium levels were much lower than the amount released annually by South Korean nuclear plants.  

This apparent double standard raises questions over whether this recent outrage is truly over nuclear wastewater or if this is specifically against Japan and playing into broader anti-Japanese sentiment. For example, the amount of tritium released by Fukushima’s treated wastewater plan is around half as much as that which both Chinese and South Korean plants release annually. 

Our research team looks into what drives this outrage towards the Japanese government’s use of nuclear energy, and whether it truly has to do with concerns of nuclear waste.

Nuclear energy has been a big talking point in politics as the last South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, promised a policy aimed at reducing and removing nuclear energy from South Korea, while the current president Yoon Suk Yeol scrapped this and promised to increase nuclear energy use. So, what do the South Korean people feel about the release of nuclear wastewater in Korea compared to the Fukushima release?

To address this, we conducted a national web survey from September 27 to October 11, 2023, of 1,300 South Koreans via quota sampling on gender, age, and region, administered via the survey company Macromill Embrain. We randomly assigned responses to one of two nuclear plant questions to see whether the public treats the two similarly.

Version 1: How concerned are you about wastewater from South Korea’s nuclear plants?

Version 2: How concerned are you about wastewater from Japan's Fukushima plant?

We find unequivocally that respondents worried more about Fukushima and were less concerned about domestic wastewater. On the domestic version, 54.81% of respondents stated they were moderately or extremely worried, compared to 71.94% when the focus was on Fukushima. 

We also see clear differences among supporters of the two largest parties. Supporters of the liberal Democratic Party (DP) were far more concerned about Japan’s wastewater than that from their own country (V1: 69.2% vs. V2: 91.2% moderately or extremely worried), while supporters of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) were slightly more concerned about domestic wastewater discharged from nuclear plants in the country. (V1: 36.13% vs. V2: 35.92%). 

Focusing just on those without a party identification mirrored that of the sample overall (V1: 54.95% vs. V2: 76.14%). Across all age cohorts (18-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60+), respondents were more likely to be moderately or extremely worried when receiving the Fukushima version. Moreover, regression analysis further shows that even after controlling for gender, age, education, household income, political ideology, and views on Japan, those people that received the question of Fukushima version claimed to be more worried.

The results suggest one of two things. First, respondents may be more worried about Fukushima, regardless of knowledge of the specific issues with wastewater, due to simply being aware of the 2011 meltdown, in contrast to the absence of such a high-profile and immense accident resulting fromSouth Korea’s nuclear  plants. In other words, respondents may be comparing something they knew to have occurred versus potential risks yet unseen. Secondly, respondents may not be considering the actual risks at all, with the Fukushima Version simply priming anti-Japanese sentiment. Both views suggest a public that has not fully considered how a similar situation could occur domestically. This may also suggest that South Korean pundits have latched onto Fukushima due to the salience of anti-Japanese sentiment, rather than acknowledging that a similar issue could be possible in South Korea without expanded safety protocols.

What are the implications of the Korean public outcry? The outrage is clearly not from general concern over nuclear energy. The outcry was also not the result of scapegoating by the South Korean government since they sent a team who confirmed it was safe and expressed their support for the release. However, the Yoon administration has done little to allay public concerns, especially among those supportive of other parties. Similarly, the South Korean government did not organize protests, in contrast to China where state-run media published dozens of articles, art, and news criticizing the Fukushima release. However, the Yoon administration faces a dilemma in that if it attempts to deemphasize concerns about Fukushima it may also encourage the public not to fully consider the risks of such wastewater management domestically at a time where the government should learn from the neighbor.

Timothy S. Rich is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL) at Western Kentucky University. His research interests cover domestic and international politics of East Asian countries.

Konnor Groemling is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University. His majors include International Affairs and History.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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