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TOKYO: Japan will start releasing treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, a plan that has drawn heavy criticism from China and seafood import bans.

Japan has maintained that the water release is safe. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, also greenlighted the plan in July saying it met international standards and the impact it would have on people and the environment was “negligible.”

Still, Japanese fishing groups said they feared the release would lead to reputational damage.

And despite such assurances, Hong Kong and Macau - both Chinese-ruled regions - said they will implement a ban on Japanese seafood from regions including the capital Tokyo and Fukushima starting Thursday.

China will also take necessary measures to protect marine environment, food safety and public health, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has called the move “extremely selfish”.

He said China was deeply concerned about the decision and had lodged a formal complaint.

South Korea’s majority opposition party and civic groups around the country stepped up protests on Wednesday against Japan’s plan.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has come under criticism for saying that its own assessment found no problems with the scientific and technical aspects of the release. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee called the discharge “irresponsible” and said the city would impose import controls covering live, frozen, refrigerated, dried seafood, as well as sea salt and seaweed.

Disaster legacy

The Fukushima plant was destroyed in March 2011 after a massive 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the Japanese coast generated powerful tsunami waves that caused the meltdowns of three of its reactors.

On Monday, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations Masanobu Sakamoto said that local fishing groups understood the release could be scientifically safe but still feared reputational damage.

“Being told something is scientifically safe and feeling reassured are two different things… Proof that the water release is scientifically safe may not remove reputational damage,” he said.

Japan says it will remove most radioactive elements from the water except for tritium, a hydrogen isotope that must be diluted because it is difficult to filter.

Fukushima power plant operator Tepco, having confirmed that the tritium concentration had successfully been diluted as expected, plans to release the treated water from around 1300 JST (0400 GMT), Japan’s NHK reported on Thursday morning.

The water will initially be released in smaller portions and with extra checks, with the first discharge totalling 7,800 cubic metres over about 17 days, Tepco said on Tuesday.

That water will contain about 190 becquerels of tritium per litre, below the World Health Organisation drinking water limit of 10,000 becquerels per litre, according to Tepco.

A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity.

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