TOKYO — The specter of radioactive sushi on menus at the Tokyo Olympics is a new front in an increasingly vindictive spat between South Korea and Japan, two U.S. allies that can’t seem to get along.
With tensions between the neighbors the highest in decades, South Korea’s delegation to Japan’s 2020 Games raised concerns this week about radiation at Olympic venues near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant and the risk that athletes might consume contaminated food.
The protest formed part of a three-pronged attack that suggested South Korea is using the tsunami-induced 2011 nuclear meltdown as another stick with which to poke Japan. The two sides’ dispute over trade and compensation for wartime forced labor escalated Thursday when Seoul scrapped a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact.
On Monday, South Korea said it had summoned a Japanese diplomat to express concerns about the possibility that treated radioactive groundwater stored at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant might someday be released into the ocean — although Japan says the meeting came at its request. A day later, South Korea’s Olympics delegation raised worries about radiation at an international meeting with Tokyo Games organizers, while on Wednesday, Seoul’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said it would double the radiation testing of some Japanese food imports because of contamination fears.
The Korean Sport and Olympic Committee has operated separate cafeterias for its athletes at past Olympics and is considering expanding that operation in Japan due to concerns about food safety, spokeswoman Lee Mi-jin said.
In doing so, Seoul has struck at what it knows is a tender spot. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set great personal store in a successful Olympics and wants to use the Games as a symbol of hope and recovery after the Fukushima disaster.
Six Olympic softball games and a baseball game will be held in Fukushima, the prefecture’s capital city. The Olympic torch relay will start from there, too.
Japan’s government says the fears are groundless, with Foreign Minister Taro Kono saying he had “thoroughly explained” the safety of Japanese foods based on scientific evidence when he met his counterparts from South Korea and China on Wednesday.
Radiation levels in Fukushima city are comparable with safe readings in Hong Kong and Seoul, while Tokyo’s readings are even lower, in line with Paris and London, government data shows. Food from the region is tested intensively for safety.
The radiation cloud generated by explosions at the Fukushima reactors spread over thousands of square miles of northern Japan, causing 165,000 people to flee their homes. But officials have been engaged in a massive cleanup since, removing or treating swaths of topsoil to remove radioactive cesium and prevent it from entering vegetation.
Tokyo has stringent limits on the amount of cesium allowed in food, setting a maximum of just one-twelfth the levels permitted in the United States or the European Union. Agriculture and fish testing centers in Fukushima prefecture have analyzed hundreds of thousands of food samples from the danger zone, as well as samples of every ocean catch.
With the exception of a handful of samples of wild mushrooms and freshwater fish, and one skate caught in the ocean in January, none of the samples has exceeded radiation limits in the past three years, officials say.
Although exports of agriculture, forestry and fisheries products from Fukushima have recovered beyond pre-disaster levels, at least 24 countries and territories ban some produce from Fukushima, while Taiwan, South Korea and China maintain a total ban on food from the prefecture.
In April, South Korea won the bulk of an appeal at the World Trade Organization supporting its right to ban and test seafood from Japan, although the judgment was based on WTO rules rather than the levels of contaminants in Japanese food or what the right level of consumer protection should be.
In justifying its move to step up testing, Seoul’s Food Ministry said trace amounts of radiation were detected in about 20 tons out of more than 200,000 tons of total food imports from Japan over the past five years, although its statement noted levels below even Japan’s strict limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram.
South Korea’s qualms about contaminated food at the Olympics fell on deaf ears, according to Japanese media reports, with the organizers saying thorough inspections of Olympic sites had already been carried out and other countries failing to support South Korea’s position.
That’s not to say there are no grounds for concern about a million tons of treated radioactive groundwater stored at the nuclear power plant, environmental groups say.
This month, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, said the tanks at the site would be full by the summer of 2022, as fresh groundwater continues to seep in and become contaminated.
That announcement raised concerns that Tepco may push ahead with a proposal to dilute the treated water and gradually release it into the ocean.
Although many scientists say it is safe to release properly treated water, public trust is low, with Tepco forced to acknowledge last year that the treatment system had so far failed to remove dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium-90.
Local fishermen also oppose releasing the water, arguing such a move would destroy public confidence in marine produce from Fukushima. Japan says no decision has been reached.
Ironically, rice from Fukushima was on the menu at a working lunch during the Group of 20 meeting in Japan in June attended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But Moon left before the rice was served, the presidential office in Seoul said Friday.
Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed to this report.