Radioactive Fukushima Mascot Prompts Backlash and Apology

Amid criticism at home and abroad over plans to release treated water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean, Japan’s officials turned to a familiar playbook: use a cute character to explain the safety of the move.

Within just a day, the big-nosed, tadpole-like character called Tritium -- which looks a bit like a Pokemon and is named after the radioactive element that the government plans to dilute and release into the ocean -- was scrapped and an apology issued.

As part of promotional material released after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Japan would begin releasing more than a million cubic meters of water into the ocean in two years, the character was intended to explain to locals that the water isn’t hazardous. But after a wave of criticism on social media and in parliament, the Reconstruction Agency said it would temporarily retire and redesign the character on Wednesday.

The episode highlights the struggles Tokyo faces in convincing not just its neighbors but also the public that it can safely release the tritium-tainted water into the ocean. Some 57% of Fukushima prefecture residents oppose the release, according to a poll from February.

The move has also been loudly criticized by China, South Korea and Taiwan. “Since some politicians in Japan are so desperate to prove that nuclear-waste water is safe, then they can as well use it to drink, cook, wash clothes and for irrigation,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a regular briefing Thursday in Beijing.

The materials were created by advertising giant Dentsu Inc., an official told parliament on Wednesday, as part of a nearly $3 million budget for educating the public about radiation.

These kinds of comic characters, known as “yuru-chara,” are used all across Japan as mascots for everything from regional sports teams to the police force. Tepco, the utility at the center of the Fukushima disaster, starting using a chubby bunny as its mascot in 2018 to help rehabilitate its image.

Tritium is a form of hydrogen that has two extra neutrons, making it weakly radioactive. It is naturally produced in the upper atmosphere and is also a common byproduct of nuclear power generation. It is a common and safe practice for the world’s nuclear power plants to discharge small amounts of tritium and other radioactive material into rivers and oceans, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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