Protesters with their banners and plycards during their march from Flea Market through Victoria Parade to Albert Park on Friday, August 25, 2023. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU - Photo: 2023

Fiji: Outrage at Japan Dumping Fukushima Waters into the Pacific Ocean

By Ravindra Singh Prasad

SUVA, Fiji. 26 Aug 2023 (IDN) — With Japan announcing that they will start the process of dumping the contaminated waters from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean starting 24 August, island nations in the Pacific are gripped with fear and outrage with a nation that was seen as a friend of the region.

Hundreds of people—including former Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama—marched in the Fijian capital, Suva, on 25 August, while leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting in Vanuatu expressed growing concern and “regret” at Japan’s actions.

The group consisting of Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, in a statement, said that it is regrettable Japan went ahead with a decision to dump the contaminated water in the Pacific Ocean before a scientific team from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) have come back with their assessment of the “scientific” recommendation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the waters were safe for dumping into the ocean.

One of the marchers, Lavetanalagi Seru of the Alliance of Future Generations, summed up the feelings of the young Pacific islanders. “This is the voice from the people from across Fiji because this is an issue we are concerned with,” he said, “from history, we know that the nuclear testing done in the Pacific in the past was also ‘safe,’ but look at the impact the people are living with today”.

Pacific Conference of Churches general secretary James Bhagwan noted that the large turnout for the protest march was evidence of how Fijians from all demographics were passionate about protecting the ocean. “We ask parliament to listen to us, we ask the government to listen to us,” he said.

Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has been widely criticized here after he released a video statement on his website two weeks ago agreeing with IAEA’s “scientific” assessment that the Fukushima waters were safe to be released into the ocean. He admitted after the MSG meeting that there was dissent even within his party caucus and the Cabinet. Now, he is attempting to draw away from that statement.

Fundamental right to healthh

The chairperson of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission in Fiji, Pravesh Sharma, also called on the Pacific Island leaders to stand in solidarity to oppose the dumping of nuclear waste in their waters.

“The right to a clean and healthy environment is linked to other fundamental human rights like the right to life, health, food, water, sanitation, among others,” Sharma argued in a statement released to the media. “It must be noted that the UN General Assembly has already adopted a resolution declaring that the right to a healthy, clean, and sustainable environment is a universal human right that is now enshrined in our Constitution. It is the duty of everyone to protect that right,” he added.

In a veiled reference to his Prime Minister’s stand on the Fukushima issue, Sharma noted that the crucial strides taken by state actors, civil society groups, environmental associates, and stakeholders over the years to promote and protect the healthy environment around us was being undermined by those supporting the disposal of treated nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean.

The Fukushima saga goes back to 2011 when a major tsunami damaged the nuclear power plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), leading to three reactor meltdowns and the release of radioactive isotopes into the air. The operators had to pour water directly onto the melting reactors instead of circulating it from outside to cool it down.

This resulted in heavy contamination of the water, and some 1.3 million tonnes of water has since accumulated, which TEPCO says they cannot store at the site anymore. The IAEA says the water has since been treated, and it contains very low levels of nuclear contamination that is safe to be released onto the ocean.

Rabuka made the statement approving the dumping after a meeting at the Japanese embassy here, which has led to accusations by civil society groups that Japan is involved in debt-trap diplomacy to divide the Pacific.

Debt trap diplomacy

Vani Catanasiga, executive director of the Fiji Council of Social Services, alleged that the PM’s comments reflect the fact that it is influenced by the level of debt Fiji owes to the Japanese government and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

“You look at our economy, and you look at who we owe our debts to, who we owe money to in terms of our debt level,” she noted in an interview with Fiji Times. “Look at our debt composition,, and then you can figure out something. We owe money to JICA, we owe money to the European Investment Bank, you do the maths”.

Catanasiga said that the battle is more than just stopping the dumping of wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. But it is about the paradigm the “global North” has about the Pacific Ocean that can be used as a dumping ground. “It would be good to have leaders who understand that we are fighting a paradigm that sees the Pacific islanders as much less deserving of dignity. We are not a dumping ground, and that has to be communicated from the highest office,” she added.

Echoing the same sentiment, Pacific Network on Globalisation Nuclear Justice Campaigner Epeli Lesuma pointed to the Treaty of Rarotonga—adopted by PIF in 1985—which bans the dumping of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean. Fiji, as a leading member of the PIF, should be leading the way in protecting this rules-based order. But she maintained that it is no secret that the Japanese government has aggressively pursued bilateral arrangements with Pacific Island countries using Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) as a leverage to soften and fracture regional solidarity against Fukushima water dumping.

“It’s come as a bit of concern for those of us in the civil society sector to have also observed Japan’s bilateral engagement with Fiji (government),” Lesuma told the Fiji Times. “Visits by high-level ministers of Japan and engagement by the Japanese embassy, which in our view would have, in some way, shaped the view and the statement of the PM.”

Trust shattered

Writing in Fiji Times, prominent lawyer Vijay Naidu noted that over the past 60 years,, Japan has successfully portrayed itself as a friend of the Pacific Island countries, such as through its Pacific Leaders Meetings at the highest levels. “However, its discharge of radioactive wastewater has shattered the trust (with Pacific leaders and the people),” he declared, adding, “UN itself has exposed itself to question and distrust as well.”

Naidu finds it “highly irresponsible” for the IAEA to leave monitoring the water’s safety to TEPCO. “Those who approved the dumping of the radioactive water—TEPCO, Japanese government officials, and IAEA scientists—will not be around to account for the potential cumulative negative effect of the contamination of the Pacific Ocean,” he noted. “No one really knows the harmful effects of this nuclear pollution on the current and the future generations of Oceania.”

Naidu adds: “It is for this reason that the peoples of the Pacific are saying in the strongest possible terms ‘No’ to the dumping”. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Protesters with their banners and placards during their march from Flea Market through Victoria Parade to Albert Park on 25 August 2023. Credit: Jonacani Lalakobau | The Fiji Times

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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