By Cyril Ip

Beijing submitted a searing working paper to the United Nations opposing Tokyo’s plans to release treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, which could begin as soon as the end of August.

“If the so-called treated water is really safe and harmless, why does Japan not dispose of it within its own territory or use it for industrial and agricultural purposes?” said the paper, which was submitted on Tuesday.

Japan plans to dump more than 1 million tonnes of water from the nuclear plant, where three reactors suffered meltdowns after an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

While the Japanese public has been largely swayed by Tokyo’s assurances that the move is safe, people in South Korea, the Pacific islands and elsewhere in the region have taken to the streets to protest the controversial arrangement.

But Beijing and Moscow are so far the only governments to voice objections at the state level.

Beijing’s question echoed criticism that has been brewing since the earlier days of the debate.

In 2021, Vanuatu stateswoman Motarilavoa Hilda Lini said: “If it is safe, dump it in Tokyo, test it in Paris, and store it in Washington, but keep our Pacific nuclear-free.”

China said the move would be “at the expense of the natural environment and human health”. But Tokyo accused Beijing of ignoring what it insists is sound science behind the plan and being guilty of more egregious releases from its own nuclear plants.

“There is no precedent of artificially discharging nuclear contaminated water into the ocean and no internationally recognised disposal standards,” China argued in the document, which appeared at the ongoing session of the preparatory committee for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in 2026. The talks will wrap up on Friday.

It urged Japan to halt its discharge plan, consult neighbouring countries and other stakeholders, subject itself to “rigorous international oversight”, and handle nuclear-contaminated water safely, transparently and scientifically.

Koji Haraguchi, a political science lecturer at Japan’s Yamanashi Gakuin University, said China’s working paper was a “direct response” to remarks made in July by top Japanese government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno, who urged China to have “discussions based on scientific evidence”.

While Beijing and Moscow jointly demanded clarification on three lists of technical questions about the procedure, Haraguchi said these requests may make a halt or postponement even more unlikely for Tokyo, which “does not want to appear to bend its decision because of pressure from China and Russia”.

In a two-year review released in early July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN agency, determined that Japan’s plans were consistent with their safety standards.

China said in the statement that Japan should not use the report as a “shield” or “green light” for the discharge.

“The IAEA conducted its review and assessment solely based on the data and information provided by Japan, and carried out inter-laboratory comparative analyses of only a small number of nuclear contaminated water samples collected by Japan,” it said, adding that the data and information used for the report were “unverified”, making its conclusion “not sufficiently persuasive”.

According to Zhang Chi, a postdoctoral researcher in international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the working paper’s potential influence “remains limited”, given the relatively modest consideration of the discharge’s implications beyond the shores of Japan’s immediate neighbours.

“While the NPT plays a key role in the containment of nuclear weapons and technology proliferation, its efficacy in dictating a nation’s course of action concerning nuclear waste water management is inherently restrained,” Zhang said. “It lacks robust enforcement measures to compel states into alignment.”

Zhang said there was a “compelling need” to establish platforms to allow deeper integration between scientific evaluations and diplomatic negotiations, with the solutions balancing public safety, environmental concerns and regional considerations.

“An ideal scenario would involve neighbouring nations mobilising their own panel of experts to collaboratively assist Japan in formulating alternative strategies to the proposed discharge plan, or a monitoring framework to ensure radiation safety for the entire discharge process,” Zhang said.

China said Japan “did not conduct thorough study of all disposal options” – which also include releasing vapour and hydrogen gas, ground injection and underground burial – and insisted on ocean discharge, which bears the lowest economic cost.

Andy Mok, senior research fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation, a non-governmental think tank in Beijing, said that while it was uncertain whether the document would influence Japan’s approach, it reflected the concerns shared by many in the region.

“A pivotal query raised by China is Japan’s reluctance to utilise the treated water domestically for industrial or agricultural purposes, and this might very well be one the UN mandates Tokyo to address,” Mok said. “The conundrum arises: who holds the ultimate authority, both scientifically and diplomatically, on the release of treated water?”

He said the positions taken by countries in the region were affected by factors beyond public health and the environment.

“The muted response from regional governments is perplexing, but some nations have openly opposed the decision, and understanding their motivations is crucial,” Mok said.

“The backing of the U.S and Australia for Japan’s plan could be perceived as a manifestation of their alliance and the prevailing geopolitical landscape – this support might further strain China’s already tense relations with the West.”

Haraguchi said governments held different positions for political reasons.

“The US can support Japan’s plan given the much lower environmental concerns for American citizens at home, [their acceptance of] the IAEA’s credentials, as well as Washington’s position as Japan’s ally,” Haraguchi said.

“Both China and Russia have high or enough public health concerns – because of their geographical proximity to Japan – and low or limited diplomatic and security concerns about opposing Tokyo’s decisions.”

Haraguchi said the South Korean public was “deeply divided” on the issue, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s agreement with Tokyo despite domestic opposition reflected Seoul’s need to “rebuild closer security and economic ties with Japan to face the challenges from North Korea”.

Polls suggest eight out of 10 South Koreans oppose Japan’s water release plan.

Zhang noted that Seoul’s stance was inconsistent with its continued bans on food and seafood products from the Fukushima region, but the position of Western nations was expected.

“Historically, the disposal of nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean has been a practice observed by entities such as the U.S and Europe,” Zhang said. “The absence of opposition within the G7 also underscores the ascendancy of geopolitical factors over environmental concerns.