5 questions for Japan on its plan to dump Fukushima nuclear plant waste water into the sea
Japan’s disposal of waste water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant is a matter that concerns the global marine environment and public health – not a private, domestic matter.
Its insistence on going ahead with plans to discharge that radioactive waste water into the sea, in disregard of international concerns – and Japanese people’s protests – has attracted criticism that Tokyo is selfishly and harmfully trampling on its obligations under international law, an accusation it denies.
But as concerns and condemnations grow, there are some serious questions the Japanese government should answer.
Question one: is the waste water really harmless? The Japanese government has talked up the safety of the waste water once it is sufficiently treated, and prefers to refer to it as “treated water”, possibly to distance it from any potential harm in the eyes of the public.
In fact, the waste water used to directly cool the reactor core that melted in the nuclear accident 12 years ago contains more than 60 radionuclides that require careful and extensive treatment. If harmful long-lived radionuclides are allowed to spread with the ocean currents, the damage to the marine environment and human health would be inestimable.
Earlier this month, based on a report by the Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), China Global Television Network (CGTN) concluded that fish caught in the failed nuclear plant’s harbour contained levels of radioactive caesium 180 times that of Japan’s legal standard.
If the treated waste water is truly safe and completely harmless, why not discharge it right off Japanese shores? Why bother building a seabed tunnel to release it?
Question two: how reliable is Japan’s advanced liquid processing system (ALPS)? In recent years, there have been reports of faulty air filters attached to the water treatment equipment, which are key to preventing radioactive pollution. The facility has also battled water leaks.
Tepco data released last year showed that, due to facility trouble, the concentration of radionuclides in more than 70 per cent of the treated water stored in tanks exceeded the regulatory standards for discharge. In response, Tepco committed to repeating the purification process “as many times as necessary”.
Critics have accused Japan of failing to come up with a systematic and comprehensive monitoring plan for the discharge of treated waste water into the sea, making it difficult to detect anomalies such as excessive discharge in time. In response, Tepco has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to review the safety of its plan.
As recently as in April, former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama warned that the waste water should not be discharged into the sea until the treatment technology is improved.
Question three: is sea discharge the only choice? Japanese experts have proposed various options, including evaporating the waste water into the atmosphere, injecting it into deep geosphere layers and burying it underground. Sea discharge is by no means the optimal solution, only, it seems, the most economical. Third-party experts have also pointed out that sea discharge is neither the best technical option nor an ethical choice.
By insisting on this option, it seems to me that Japan is being extremely selfish and irresponsible, not only threatening the health and safety of all mankind but also hurting its own credibility in the process.
Question four: has Japan fully fulfilled its international obligations? In accordance with international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Japan is obliged to protect and preserve the marine environment, taking all necessary measures to ensure its activities do not cause pollution to other countries and their environment, doing this through, for instance, a full consultation, assessment and the monitoring of any environmental impact.
Japan’s neighbours, including China, Russia and several Pacific island nations, have expressed concerns about the discharge plan. Last April, a global poll by CGTN Think Tank found that over 90 per cent of respondents did not trust the statements put out by the Japanese government or Tepco, with 86 per cent criticising Japan’s handling of the Fukushima waste water as neither scientific nor open and transparent.
Question five: has Japan shown sincerity to stakeholders and the international community? Japan formally approved the sea discharge plan in July last year and has since declared it would not postpone it. This stubbornness suggests to me that Japan has never genuinely engaged in goodwill consultations with stakeholders or attached much importance to the role of international organisations such as the IAEA.
If Japan is sincere about addressing the concerns and unhappiness surrounding its discharge plan, it should conduct exchanges without predetermined results, accept reasonable supervision from stakeholders and other relevant international institutions, and work to increase trust and dispel doubt with more facts and data.
As an old Chinese saying goes: “A man of virtue understands and observes what is morally right; a petty man only has his eye on personal gain”. The ocean is the treasury of all mankind – not Japan’s sewer.
Japan should look to faithfully fulfil all its international obligations, seriously address the concerns of all parties, stop promoting the sea discharge plan, effectively dispose of the Fukushima waste water in a scientific, safe and transparent manner, and accept international supervision to minimise the impact of the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident on future generations. We shall see if Tokyo will show a greater sense of responsibility to the international community.