Image: Fish from the Pacific Ocean sold at Suva Fish Market in Fiji. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne - Photo: 2023

Pacific Islanders Want Japan to Stop Dumping Nuclear Waste into Their Ocean

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SUVA, Fiji 6 March 2023 (IDN) — Alarmed at Japan’s plans to dump nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean regional leaders are calling upon the Japanese government to immediately call a stop to such plans.

Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources, Jelta Wong, said on Monday (6 March) “there is little doubt that this nuclear wastewater will find its way into ecosystems and food chains, so contaminating people and also harming Pacific fisheries industries”.

He added that “if this nuclear wastewater is discharged, it will be the ‘Pacific Chernobyl’ causing harm to our people for decades to come”.

Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister Manoa Kamikamica said that Fiji has been on very high alert after Japan said they planned to discharge the Fukushima nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. He asked if the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) treated water is so safe, “why not re-use it in Japan for alternative purposes, in manufacturing and agriculture for instance?”.

The fears of an imminent Japanese spilling of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean comes high on the heels of a historic deal reached on 4 March at the UN in New York on a treaty to protect the high seas, which was two decades in the making. The historic treaty is crucial for enforcing the 30×30 pledge made by countries at the UN biodiversity conference in December to protect a third of the sea (and land) by 2030.

It is in this context the Japanese action may seem even more irresponsible. “Pacific Island Countries are close friends with Japan, and together we say with respect that we cannot accept this release of nuclear fission products that will spread around our seas,” Wong told PNG’s Post Courier.

He pointed out that the risks to the lives of Pacific Islanders and to the health of the consumers of fish and other marine products around the world are too high, so the discharge of nuclear wastewater must not go ahead.

While it is expected that the nuclear waste water would be treated to a certain extent, Wong noted that the Japanese company that owns the contaminated nuclear site, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has agreed in 2018 with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the filtering process is not perfect and doesn’t completely remove all of the heavy radioactive elements, and that around 70 per cent of the stored Fukushima wastewater may still carry original nuclear fission nuclei.

“We are talking about more than one million tonnes of nuclear wastewater following along ocean currents, causing the mutation of human cells in muscles, bones and thyroid, leading to cancer and birth defects in future generations. The release of radioactive waste into the ocean is not acceptable to people of the Pacific, and we call on our friends and counterparts in Japan to reconsider their plans,” Minister Wong told PNG Courier.

Fiji’s Kamikamica stressed in an interview with China’s Xinhua that the health of the Pacific Ocean is vitally important for Fijians, as it is a source of livelihood to many, it holds the only healthy stock of tuna in the world, and it forms a key part of the Pacific Islands Forum’s (PIF) 2050 Strategy which emphasises the preservation, protection and security of the ocean and the people. He pointed out that the planned release by Japan will have transboundary impacts across the Pacific, and it is important that they reach a shared understanding of the implications of this release before they move ahead.

The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), whose membership includes most of the independent South Pacific Islands, has established a scientific experts panel to study the issue, and they have not reached an agreement with the Japanese nor the IAEA on the safety of the nuclear-contaminated water released into the Pacific Ocean.

PIF Secretary General Henry Puna said recently that it is absolutely important for the Pacific that Japan does not go ahead with the release. But, the Japanese government, which said in January that the controversial plan to release radioactive wastewater into the Pacific will start in spring or summer, has not indicated if they are rethinking the strategy.

Other QUAD members, such as the United States and Australia (which is also a member of the PIF) have so far been quiet about the issue.

The issue was top of the agenda when a high-level delegation from the PIF travelled to Tokyo to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last month. The delegation was headed by Mark Brown, the prime minister of the Cook Islands and incoming chair of the PIF, and included Kitlang Kabua, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, and Henry Puna. At the meeting on 6 February, the Japanese agreed to “intensive dialogue” on the issue, and two members of the PIF scientific panel visited Fukushima for high-level technical discussions with TEPCO experts.

According to a report by Pacific Island Times and Pacnews, for nearly 12 years, water that is pumped onto the reactor vessels to keep them cool has been building up in hundreds of steel tanks at the site. The water was initially contaminated with as many as 63 radioactive materials, including strontium and ruthenium, but Japanese authorities insist the ALPS that has been installed at the plant is able to reduce levels of 62 of the nuclides to below stipulated regulatory standards. Thus, Japanese experts have told the delegation that it poses virtually no danger to the environment or human health.

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has told the delegations that all measures are being taken to ensure the water poses no threat to human life or the environment. The report also says that Japan has been keen to point out that releasing water with low levels of radiation is an accepted practice around the world, with the amount of highly diluted tritium scheduled to be released from the Fukushima facility far lower than other nuclear plants.

A statement by Pacific Elders Voice (PEV)—an independent voice of former leaders of Pacific Island nations—says Japan has failed to consult with affected coastal countries, especially northern Pacific Island States.

 “The climate and biodiversity emergencies we currently face are already presenting severe threats to our waters, and so a decision by any government to deliberately contaminate the Pacific with radioactivity because it is the most cost-effective option seems perverse”, says the Pacific elders.

Moreover, the PEV stresses that “consultation does not necessarily mean permission, and there is a need for greater sensitivity to the culture, traditions and the unique relationship Pacific peoples have to the environment”. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: Fish from the Pacific Ocean sold at Suva Fish Market in Fiji. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

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