Hong Kong’s politicians have joined international condemnation of Tokyo’s decision to dump waste water from a nuclear plant into the sea, but they remain divided on whether the city should ban food imports from Japan.
They raised concerns on Thursday about food contamination from spillover effects from the wrecked Fukushima facility, after China accused the Japanese government of being “extremely irresponsible” over its plan to release 1 million tonnes of waste water into the Pacific Ocean in two years.
Japanese food – from strawberries to apples and sashimi – is popular among Hongkongers, with the city boasting one of the largest foreign concentrations of Japanese restaurants.
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The decision to release waste water comes a decade after a massive earthquake and the resulting tsunami ripped through northeastern Japan in 2011, crippling the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The waste water, which leaked into the reactors after core meltdowns, was enough to fill more than 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Japan’s decision has prompted fierce opposition from China’s fishing industry as well as neighbouring countries such as South Korea, and environmental groups. However, the United States said the approach was acceptable.
Some lawmakers have urged the Hong Kong government to be proactive in preventing a possible environmental and food crisis from spilling over to the city, warning it should consider steps to gradually ban the import of fresh produce, seafood and dairy products from Japan.
Legislator Steven Ho Chun-yin, representing the agriculture and fisheries sector, said the government should stop using a passive “wait-and-see” attitude.
“The government can’t just sit there, do nothing and wait for something really bad to happen two years later,” he said.
At present, dairy food can be imported from four affected districts in Japan with exporter certificates, while fresh produce and milk products from Fukushima are banned. Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety conducts radiation tests on food products from Japan.
According to the Japanese government’s latest statistics, the country exported 6.8 per cent fewer goods, worth 3.41 trillion yen (HK$243.5 billion), to the city last year, compared with 2019. A lion’s share of this comprised dairy products, fruits, vegetables and seafood.
Ho, of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), called for the government to ban some fresh produce, seafood and dairy products from Japan to gradually reduce the city’s reliance on food from the country.
“The government can’t put all its eggs in one basket,” he said. “It should start identifying certain high-risk food items from Japan and impose a partial ban to reduce the food sector’s reliance on Japanese products.”
Another DAB lawmaker Wong Ting-kwong, for the import and export industry, agreed, saying authorities should regularly conduct large-scale testing exercises on Japanese food.
He said when Japan starts dumping the water, the government should immediately ban imports and check food samples to see whether they were contaminated.
“If certain items are found to be meeting the safety standards, the government could gradually relax the ban on those products,” he said.
However, executive councillor and lawmaker Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, also chairman of the Liberal Party, said there was no need for Hong Kong to ban Japanese food imports.
“I agree that Japan should be condemned for this selfish act. It is utterly irresponsible,” he said. “But it is a totally different matter as to whether we should ban all Japanese food imports. I think it is unnecessary.”
He pointed out that Hong Kong had a very good surveillance system to ensure food products imported from Japan met required safety standards.
“The Japanese food we consume in Hong Kong is actually safer than that in Japan, as Hong Kong has a very good gatekeeping system,” he said. “To ease public concerns, the government could conduct more tests and increase the sample size.
“If Hongkongers don’t trust the government and feel worried, they could avoid eating any Japanese food.”
Simon Wong Kit-lung, the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Japanese Food and Cuisine Association, wrote to the consulate general of Japan in the city on Thursday to urge the country’s government to ditch the plan, which would stymie years of efforts to restore imports of agricultural products from Fukushima to the city.
“The unfortunate news like this will halt and destroy everything we have been working on,” he wrote.
Luk Bing-lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Nuclear Society, said if the Japanese government abided by its promise to discharge diluted tritium at one-seventh of the standard set by the World Health Organization for drinking water, any health impact on humans would be minimal.
“Psychologically, people may be deterred from eating Japanese seafood,” he said. “I am more worried about non-tritium radioactive contaminants, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, that may remain in the storage tanks at high levels. Those non-tritium radioactive contaminants can have far more of a health impact.”
The Food and Health Bureau said it would step up tests of radiation elements on imports and local fisheries products if needed, while demanding more information on the discharge.
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