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Japan’s recent decision to dump over 1 million tons of “polluted” water into the Pacific Ocean has reportedly caused a new wave of concern and disruption around the world. A little background perspective is in order.
On March 11, 2023, it will be twelve years since Japan was hit by a powerful earthquake that caused a massive tsunami, with 13-14 meter high waves damaging the nuclear power plant’s emergency diesel generators and leading to the Fukushima nuclear disaster – the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl accident – classified as a level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
International sympathy for Japan and offers of support following the disaster were strong, but the Japanese public itself was outraged by what it saw as “a public campaign to downplay the scale of the accident and potential health risks”.
Nuclear officials later admitted to lax standards and poor oversight. They were heavily criticized for their handling of the emergency and withholding and denying damaging information in an attempt to “limit the scale of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and avoid public suspicion of the politically powerful nuclear industry”.
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Independent investigations into the Fukushima disaster revealed the man-made nature of the disaster and its roots in a lack of regulation, shrouded in a “web of corruption, collusion and nepotism”. A New York Times The report found that Japan’s nuclear regulatory system consistently supported and promoted a nuclear industry based on the concept of amakudari (“sent from heaven”), with senior regulators accepting high-paying jobs at companies they once supervised.
Nevertheless, a resilient Japanese people rebuilt their lives, but a decade later, in 2021, the world was outraged by the news that Japan planned to release more than one million tons of contaminated water from the ruined Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean. Global concern, anxiety and anger grew, despite claims by the Japanese government that the concentration of nuclear waste released was “in line with current international good practice”, with numerous scientists and environmental groups voicing their skepticism. Their reservations were based on the fact that, due to the large amount of nuclear waste and the limited technology available, it is impossible to fully predict the potential harm released waste will cause to marine life and human safety.
Apart from international anxiety, local fears were also high. Kanji Tachiya, who heads a local fishing cooperative in Fukushima, told Japan’s state broadcaster. NHK that “They told us that they would not release water into the sea without the support of fishermen,” before the announcement.
He said that “if radioactively contaminated water is safe, they should dump it in Tokyo Bay.”
In 2021, due to international pressure, Japan shelved the decision. It was hoped that Japan, the world’s third largest economy, would choose to build more tanks at Fukushima to store the wastewater permanently. The year 2022 dragged on, but now Japan seems to have once again made the irrational decision to pollute the Pacific Ocean, at the expense of local and Asia-Pacific health.
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Tokyo claims that it is running out of options, arguing that the amount of contaminated water is growing by 170 tons a day, that storing it in tanks indefinitely is not practical and that the silos for the remains of the Fukushima plant need to be cleaned up for good and everything. Washing it out to sea might be the best option.
On the other hand, the international community has expressed concern about what will happen to the rapidly accumulating radioactive waste at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the possibility of widespread contamination of the sea, as well as the safety of the population and the surrounding environment.
International experts have expressed fear over Japan’s decision, which contradicts their actual observations; some are posted here.
According to Amy Woodyatt and Yoko Wakatsuki from CNN: “Contaminated water that could soon be released into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant contains radioactive carbon that can damage human DNA, environmental group Greenpeace has warned.
The environmental group claims that 1.23 million tonnes of water stored at the plant – the site of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster – contains “dangerous” levels of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and other “dangerous” radioactive materials, 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
In addition, the combination of the radioactive isotope tritium and the isotope carbon-14 “will be a large component of the total human radiation dose and can damage human DNA.
The head of Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies pointed out that the Japanese government’s unilateral push to release the water is against international environmental laws and regulations. The head of the Korea Federation of Environmental Movements, a South Korean environmental protection organization, said the release of nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean will set a very negative precedent if it goes ahead.
The principal investigator of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanography of the Russian Academy of Sciences pointed out that the nuclear-contaminated water intended to be released into the sea contains a large amount of radioactive substances that cannot be thoroughly filtered with current technology and causes serious harm.
Executive Director Henry Puna of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) stated that the Japanese government had pledged to maintain communication with the Pacific Island countries on the disposal of nuclear-contaminated water and to provide all independent and verifiable scientific evidence on the matter. However, the Japanese government went against its pledge not to proceed with emissions without the approval of Pacific leaders.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stated at a regular press conference that the marine environment concerns the interests of the international community as a whole, and the release of nuclear-contaminated water is not a matter for Japan to decide on alone. The Japanese government has pushed ahead with the plan despite widespread concern and skepticism expressed at home and abroad, Wang said, noting that such self-serving efforts are sure to provoke discontent and criticism from all quarters.
In Japan’s defense, Takeshi Ito, Minister/Deputy Head of Embassy of Japan in Pakistan, recently wrote an article titled “ALPS treated water: Japan’s effort with IAEA and international community” which appeared in a local English newspaper. The Honorable Minister/Deputy Head of Embassy claims that Japan will never release “nuclear contaminated water” that exceeds regulatory standards into the ocean.
He explains that there are two different types of water in the Fukushima Daiichi area. One is “contaminated water” generated on site, and the other is “ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) treated water,” which has virtually all radioactive material removed except for tritium. Takeshi Ito insists that Japan plans to release “ALPS treated water” into the sea, not the “contaminated water”.
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The Japanese diplomat assures that the IAEA task force, which consists of experts from the IAEA office and 11 internationally recognized, including Japan’s neighboring countries appointed by the IAEA; Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Marshall Islands, Republic of Korea, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam, will be responsible for verification of inspection by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
At first this might be reassuring, but dissenting voices are being raised from within Japan, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
It is the IAEA to ensure safety standards, but Japan, which expects other countries to fulfill their international obligations, should also pay attention to the concerns of its neighbors and educated environmentalists to take a sensible step.
The article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Business Recorder or its owners