Hong Kong will ban food imports from 10 Japanese prefectures if the nation’s government proceeds with a plan to dump nuclear waste water into the sea, the city’s Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan has said.

Secretary for the Environment, Mr Tse Chin-wan.
Secretary for the Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan (middle).

Speaking at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, Tse said the Hong Kong government would immediately ban food imports from Tokyo, Fukushima, Chiba, Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Miyagi, Niigata, Nagano, and Saitama prefectures if the 1.33 million cubic metres of groundwater, rainwater and water used for cooling at the Fukushima site are released.

In March 2011, a 15-metre tsunami triggered by a earthquake disabled the power supply and cooling of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, causing a major nuclear accident.

Citing a precautionary principle in environmental law, which states that it is better to control activities that may have environmentally harmful consequences than to wait for incontrovertible scientific evidence, Tse said all seafood imports that are frozen, chilled, dried or stored in any other way will have to be banned, along with both processed and unprocessed seaweed products and sea salt.

Photo: Wikicommons.

He also said bans on fresh produce and milk from Fukushima and the neighbouring Chiba, Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma prefectures that took effect in the wake of the 2011 incident would remain in place.

Move not meant to curry favour

Tse’s remarks came as Naoto Nakahara, deputy consul general at the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong, told Nikkei the Hong Kong government was “trying to win brownie points from Beijing.”

Meanwhile, Japan has requested Hong Kong officials not to tighten restrictions on food imports from Japan. Tokyo’s foreign ministry in a Wednesday meeting with Hong Kong government officals explained its plans to discharge the treated water from the plant and assured the safety of Japanese food.

Inside the discharge tunnel at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station
Inside the discharge tunnel at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, in Japan, on April 26, 2023. Photo: TEPCO.

Tse denied that Hong Kong’s policy on Japan’s handling of the wastewater was meant to curry favour with Beijing, saying that the local government had considered Hongkongers’ health and safety in its decision.

A government statement also issued on Wednesday read: “Hong Kong is a free port and a separate customs territory. The government implements a food safety control system according to the situation and considerations of Hong Kong to ensure food safety and public health in Hong Kong.”

Tse said the wastewater had “different radioactive isotopes,” and that while Japan claimed to have treated the wastewater with a filtration system, the irradiated water could leak into the ocean if the system malfunctions.

“Authorities must monitor the water quality with scientific methods, and based on whether situation allows it, we may consider loosening restrictions on Japanese import bans,” Tse said.

Gov’t to review measures

The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which was responsible for operations at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, utilised a treatment system that the International Atomic Energy Agency — the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog — said removed 62 kinds of radionuclide isotopes, but not tritium, which can still be found in the treated water.

According to the watchdog, tritium cannot penetrate the body through human skin, and only presents a radiation hazard if inhaled or digested “in very large doses.” The isotope has a radioactive half-life of 12.32 years, meaning that only half of any given amount of tritium will remain after that period. Tritiated water has a biological half-life in the human body of 7 to 14 days.

IAEA visit to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
Members of the IAEA taskforce visit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, on June 2, 2023. Photo: TEPCO.

According to the government statement, authorities will monitor the situation after the discharge process begins to obtain more scientific data to “further examine the impact of the Fukushima nuclear wastewater discharge plan on food safety, and review relevant measures from time to time.”

“At the same time, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department will continue to strengthen the testing of food imported from Japan, and adjust relevant monitoring work in due course according to risk assessment results.”

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.