In many supermarkets across South Korea, one item has conspicuously vanished from shelves: salt.
For the past month, the country has struggled with severe sea salt shortages as shoppers snap it up in bulk, reflecting heightened public anxiety ahead of the planned release of treated radioactive water from Fukushima, Japan.
Japanese authorities and the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency have insisted that the plan is safe, meets international standards and matches what nuclear plants do around the world, including those in the United States. The treated contaminated water will be highly diluted and released gradually into the Pacific Ocean over many years.
The move is necessary to finally decommission the Fukushima nuclear plant, which melted down in 2011 following Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, authorities say. The government has said the wastewater release will begin this summer, though it has not specified a date.
But these assurances have so far failed to alleviate concerns in neighboring nations like South Korea, where fishermen say their livelihoods are at risk and residents are stockpiling food items for fear of contamination, and China, which has banned food imports from some regions in Japan.
When CNN visited a supermarket in the South Korean capital Seoul, the shelves are well-stocked with seasonings ranging from garlic powder to chili paste — except for an empty gap where salt used to sit. A sign nearby read: “Salt out of stock. There’s been a delay in getting salt due to our partners’ situation. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Shoppers have even started hoarding other sea-based dietary staples like seaweed and anchovies, Reuters reported in June, citing Korean social media.
The shortages were so acute that the government was forced to release sea salt from its official reserves to stabilize salt prices, which have soared more than 40% since April, according to the country’s salt manufacturing association. The government also claims poor weather has impacted salt production and played a role in the price jump.
“The public doesn’t have to worry about the sea salt supply as the amount of salt provided for June and July will be about 120,000 tons, which is above the average annual production,” the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said last month. “We ask the public to purchase only the amount you need when buying sea salt.”
These anxieties were on display at Seoul’s largest fish market last week, where officials with radiation detectors tested fresh produce at various stalls in a bid to soothe worried shoppers, Reuters reported.
South Korea has banned Japanese seafood imports from the Fukushima area since 2013, and said recently it planned to keep the order in place.
But the ban hasn’t reassured Korean shoppers who fear the treated wastewater could impact marine life far beyond Japanese waters.
An investigator from the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives checks for radioactivity in sea bream from Japan at the Noryangjin fish market in Seoul on July 5, 2023.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
A Gallup Korea survey from June shows 78% of those polled said they were very or somewhat worried about contamination of seafood. When asked, some shoppers at fish markets told Korean media outlets and CNN affiliates that they might stop eating seafood once the wastewater is released.
Other countries are also taking action. On Friday, China announced it was banning imported food from 10 Japanese prefectures including Fukushima and stepping up its inspection and monitoring processes for food from other parts of the country.
This measure aims to “prevent radioactive contaminated Japanese food from being exported to China,” the customs authority wrote in an online statement.
The public alarm is bad news for Japanese fishermen.
Many Japanese fishermen had to suspend operations for years after the meltdown and barely managed to keep their businesses afloat.
Before the disaster, Fukushima’s coastal fishing industry landed catches worth around $69 million in 2010.
By 2018, that figure had dwindled to little more than $17 million. By last year, while it had recovered somewhat to around $26 million, it was still just a fraction of what it once was.
The wastewater release could be the final blow, some say.
A fishmonger arranges seafood at the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in Seoul on July 6, 2023.Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean fishermen who operate off the country’s southeast coast, close to Japan, could also feel the impact.
“Now that more than 80% of the public are saying that they’re going to eat less seafood, that’s very worrying,” said Lee Gi-sam, a fisherman in the port city Tongyeong. “If the public avoids seafood, we’ll face a crisis of bankruptcy.”
He doesn’t believe the authorities’ insistence that the plan is safe — reflecting widespread skepticism despite Japan receiving approval from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Even if I eat it, I’m not confident I can let my children eat it,” Lee said.
The IAEA has tried to alleviate concerns. After a thorough safety review, it concluded in a report last week that the wastewater release would have “negligible” impact on people or the environment.
In an interview with CNN last week, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said public fears were understandable and “very logical” — but insisted he is “completely convinced of the sound basis of our conclusions.”
Some international skeptics, including Chinese officials and South Korean opposition party members, have cast doubt on the IAEA’s findings and its stance on the issue — which IAEA leaders reject, claiming its investigation has been carried out fairly and transparently.
The South Korean government said last week it would respect the IAEA’s findings. But this hasn’t convinced many residents, with hundreds taking part in a protest on Saturday in Seoul during Grossi’s visit to the capital.
Photos show protesters holding banners that lambasted the IAEA and the Japanese government and condemned the wastewater release.
If the plan goes ahead, “I’ll have to catch fish somewhere else in the water without radiation,” said Lee, even if that means losing income.
“I started my career in the sea and I’ve been doing this work for 30 years,” he said. “I don’t have any other skills … I’ve lived my entire life catching fish so I can’t try doing anything else.”