Seoul, South Korea – Lee Jae-seok, owner of a grilled eel restaurant in Seongdong, Seoul, is worried.
After suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee’s livelihood is once again in the line of fire after Japan’s decision to release treated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Despite the scientific consensus that Japan’s plan poses no danger to the public, many South Koreans are not convinced that seafood and fish are safe.
In a recent survey by Consumer Korea, 92.4 percent of respondents said they would reduce their seafood consumption after the release.
“Of course I’m worried,” Lee told Al Jazeera.
“It is not only about my work; “It’s about the entire seafood industry,” he said.
“Negative perceptions could lead to lower consumption of seafood across the board. This would hit us all hard. I am concerned about the ripple effect this issue could have on the entire market.
On Thursday, the first day of the discharge of treated water in Japan, the Noryangjin wholesale fish market in Seoul, South Korea’s largest seafood hub, was agitated.
Outside the market, signs have sought to assuage consumer concerns with messages such as “Our seafood is safe!” Consume with confidence! and “false rumors cause public anxiety; This cannot be tolerated anymore!
The merchants contacted by Al Jazeera were reluctant to deal with the media, with more than a dozen vendors refusing to be interviewed.
One trader, who asked not to be identified, expressed frustration with the media’s portrayal of the situation, which she believes exacerbated challenges her business was already facing.
“Positive or negative, it doesn’t matter. All this noise is bad for business. We just want to get over this,” she told Al Jazeera.
At the Fukushima plant, about 1.34 million metric tons of treated water used to cool the facility’s reactors is stored in about 1,000 tanks. The water removal process, which is expected to take decades, is a key part of decommissioning the facility, which was crippled by the 2011 tsunami.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has supported the plan, finding it “compliant with relevant international safety standards” with “negligible” impact on people and the environment.
While Japan removes most of the radioactive material from the wastewater, some tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, will remain.
To counter this, the water is diluted to reduce tritium levels to at least one-seventh of the World Health Organization’s threshold for safe drinking water. According to live monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency websiteHowever, current tritium levels are 50 times lower than the WHO limit of 10,000 becquerels per liter.
Operating nuclear plants, including those in South Korea, release much higher levels of the hydrogen isotope. The Kure nuclear plant in South Korea discharged effluent containing 47.35 trillion becquerels of tritium in 2022, according to an official. data. Japan said the Fukushima plant would release up to 22 trillion becquerels annually.
Scientists around the world, including South Korea, have supported Japan’s plan.
South Korea’s official analysis has found that the plan meets international standards, and government officials have stressed in recent days that they see “no scientific or technical problems” with it.
However, the government warned of legal action if the discharge was below acceptable standards and promised to maintain import restrictions on fish products from eight Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima.
In Seoul, the city authorities said they will conduct daily tests on all kinds of seafood sold in the city’s main wholesale markets, regardless of the country of origin. Over the weekend, tests in waters around South Korea revealed radiation far below World Health Organization standards.
To help support the local seafood industry, the South Korean government is considering requiring catering companies to use more seafood as a way to boost consumption and ease customer concerns about safety.
Scientific consensus and precautionary measures were not enough to mollify critics of Japan’s moves.
Greenpeace said the radiation risks “have not been fully assessed”. The Korea Federation of Environmental Movements claimed the discharges would have “adverse effects on marine and human ecosystems”.
Many South Korean consumers are also concerned.
“I find myself wondering if consuming seafood is really safe now,” Kim Jun-hyun, an office worker in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s hard to ignore concerns, even if experts claim it’s safe,” Kang, a mother of two who asked to be identified by her last name, told Al Jazeera. “And I don’t trust what the Japanese government says.”
In recent weeks, hoarding of sea salt has become common, while local supermarkets have reported an increase in sales of dried seafood products.
The opposition Democratic Party, which has traditionally taken a hard line on South Korea’s former colony Japan, used the issue to attack the conservative administration of President Yoon Sok-yul.
Last week, party leader Lee Jae-myung, who is embroiled in a number of corruption scandals, likened Japan’s move to an “act of terrorism” and World War II. Over the weekend, thousands of protesters swarmed Seoul with Lee and other senior members of left-wing parties.
On social media, former President Moon Jae-in, whose administration previously said it would accept the IAEA’s recommendations, voiced his opposition to the plan and accused the Yoon government of “doing the wrong thing.”
Yoon, who has suffered from low approval ratings for much of his presidency, has spent a great deal of his political capital on improving relations with Japan in recent months, leaving him vulnerable to a pro-Japanese accusation.
Jo Yang-hyun, head of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said the opposition is using the Fukushima issue as “ammunition” to criticize the government ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
“Some political forces are opportunistically exploiting the public’s concerns about food safety,” Jo told Al Jazeera.
Ju said the politically charged atmosphere in South Korea ensured that the Fukushima affair revolved around perceptions rather than “facts”, “thus hampering the government’s efforts to ease people’s concern about food safety, and causing a deep divide in public opinion.”
“The anti-Japanese sentiment in Korean society is actually the most convenient tool for opportunistic politicians to garner support,” he said.
Seafood merchants were already suffering from declining sales in the wake of the pandemic. At the Busan Cooperative Fish Market, the average price of fish per kilogram was 1,970 won ($1.49) in July, down 34 percent from the same period a year earlier.
With safety concerns showing no signs of abating, the Jeju Research Institute estimated that losses for the domestic industry could reach 3.72 trillion won ($3.02 billion).
For me, the restaurateur, doubts about the future loom.
“My biggest concern is the long-term impact,” he said. “Even if radiation levels are within safe limits, will customers still be reluctant to order seafood?”