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Is Japan going to dump nuclear contaminated water in the Pacific?

Published March 14, 2023
An aerial view shows the storage tanks for treated water at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. Photo: Reuters
An aerial view shows the storage tanks for treated water at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. Photo: Reuters

Reportedly, Japan's recent decision to dump over 1 million tonnes of “contaminated” water into the Pacific Ocean has caused a new wave of concern and disturbance around the globe. A little background perspective is in order.

On March 11, 2023, it will be twelve years since Japan suffered a powerful earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami, with 13–14-meter-high waves damaging the nuclear power plant's emergency diesel generators, leading to the Fukushima nuclear disaster – the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 – classified as level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

International sympathy for Japan and offers of support following the catastrophe were abundant but the Japanese public itself was incensed at what it perceived as "an official campaign to play down the scope of the accident and the potential health risks".

The nuclear authorities later admitted to lax standards and poor oversight. They were heavily criticised for their handling of the emergency and withholding and denying damaging information in an attempt to "limit the size of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and to avoid public questioning of the politically powerful nuclear industry".

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Independent investigations into the Fukushima disaster showed the man-made nature of the catastrophe and its roots in regulatory lapses shrouded in a "network of corruption, collusion, and nepotism." A New York Times report found that the Japanese nuclear regulatory system consistently sided with, and promoted, the nuclear industry based on the concept of amakudari ('descent from heaven'), in which senior regulators accepted high paying jobs at companies they once oversaw.

Nevertheless, a resilient Japanese nation rebuilt its lives but a decade down, in 2021, the world became outraged upon hearing the news that Japan intended to release more than one million tons of contaminated water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea. Global concern, anxiety and anger heightened, despite the Japanese government’s claims that the concentration of nuclear sewage discharged "aligned with current international good practices", since numerous scientists and environmental protection organizations expressed their doubts. Their reservations were based on the fact that due to the huge volume of nuclear sewage and limited existing technology, it is impossible to fully predict what potential harm the discharged sewage will cause to the marine environment and human safety.

Besides international angst, local apprehension was also high. Kanji Tachiya, who heads a local fisheries cooperative in Fukushima, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK that "They told us they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," prior to the announcement.

He opined that "if radioactive contaminated water is safe, they should pour it into Tokyo Bay."

In 2021, due to international pressure, Japan shelved the decision. It was hoped that being the world's third-largest economy, Japan would opt to build more tanks in Fukushima to permanently store the wastewater. 2022 dragged on but now reportedly, Japan has once again apparently made an imprudent decision to contaminate the Pacific Ocean, at the cost of the health of local residents and people in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Tokyo claims that it is running out of options, rationalizing that the volume of contaminated water is growing by 170 tons a day, storing it in tanks indefinitely isn’t viable, and the silos need to be cleared before the remnants of the Fukushima power plant can be cleaned up for good. Flushing it out to sea might be the best option.

Contrarily, the international community has expressed concern regarding what will happen with the radioactive waste fast accumulating at the Fukushima Daiichi facility and the potential for widespread marine pollution, as well as the safety of the people and the neighboring environs.

International experts have expressed apprehension regarding the Japanese decision, which is conflicting with their cogent observations; a few are reproduced here.

According to Amy Woodyatt and Yoko Wakatsuki of CNN: “Contaminated water that could soon be released into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant contains radioactive carbon with the potential to damage human DNA, environmental rights organization Greenpeace has warned.”

The environmental group claims that the 1.23 million metric tons of water stored at the plant – scene of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster – contains ‘dangerous’ levels of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and other ‘hazardous’ radionuclides, which it says will have ‘serious long-term consequences for communities and the environment’ if the water is released into the Pacific Ocean.

Japan to release treated Fukushima water into sea: reports

Additionally, the combination of the radioactive isotope tritium and isotope carbon-14 become a “major contributor to collective human radiation dose and has the potential to damage human DNA.”

The head of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies pointed out that the Japanese government's unilateral push to dump the water runs counter to international environmental laws and regulations. The head of the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, a South Korean non governmental environmental organization, said that the release of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea will set a very negative precedent if it goes ahead.

The lead researcher of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of Russian Academy of Sciences noted that the nuclear-contaminated water slated for release into the sea contains a large amount of radioactive material that cannot be thoroughly filtered through existing technology, and poses serious harm.

Secretary General Henry Puna of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) declared that the Japanese government had pledged to maintain communication with Pacific Island countries on the disposal of the nuclear-contaminated water and to provide all independent and verifiable scientific evidence on the issue. However, the Japanese government went against its promise to not go ahead with the discharge without Pacific leaders' approval.

Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular press briefing expressed that the marine environment concerns the interests of the international community as a whole, and the discharge of the nuclear-contaminated water is not a matter for Japan to decide alone. The Japanese government has pushed ahead with the plan despite widespread concerns and strong doubts expressed at home and abroad, Wang said, pointing out that such a self-serving move will certainly trigger dissatisfaction and criticism from all walks of life.

In Japan’s defence, Takeshi Ito, Minister/Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Japan in Pakistan, recently wrote an article titled ‘ALPS treated water: Japan’s efforts with IAEA and international community’ published in a local English daily. The Honourable Minister/Deputy Chief of Mission claims that Japan will never discharge “nuclear-contaminated water” that exceeds regulatory standards into the sea.

He elucidates that there are two different types of water on the Fukushima Daiichi site. One is “contaminated water” generated on the site, and the other is “ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) treated water,” which has almost all radioactive materials removed except tritium. Takeshi Ito asserts that Japan is planning to discharge “ALPS treated water” into the sea, not the “contaminated water”.

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The Japanese diplomat assures that an IAEA Task Force, comprising experts from the IAEA Secretariat and 11 internationally recognized including Japan’s neighboring countries appointed by the IAEA; Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Marshall Islands, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam, will conduct corroboration of monitoring by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Prima facie this may be reassuring but dissenting voices are being raised from within Japan, as mentioned in earlier paragraphs.

It is for the IAEA to ensure safety standards, while Japan, which expects other countries to fulfill their international responsibilities, should also pay heed to the concerns of its neighbours and erudite environmentalists to take a rational step.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst


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