Safeguarding The Blue Pacific from Any Further Nuclear Contamination

By Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY (IDN) — The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the region’s leading political and economic policy organisation, has appointed a panel of global experts on nuclear issues to provide independent scientific and technical advice to Pacific nations in their discussions with Japan over its intentions to discharge treated nuclear wastewater from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Island countries, in the past, have been unwilling victims of nuclear weapons testing by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. This has made them staunch opponents of any nuclear-related activities in the region. Fishing and coastal communities are worried about the impact the release of wastewater perceived as “contaminated” will have on the ocean, which is the main source of their livelihood and subsistence.

The PIF Secretary General Henry Puna said in a media release, “Our ultimate goal is to safeguard the Blue Pacific—our ocean, our environment, and our peoples—from any further nuclear contamination. This is the legacy we must leave for our children”.

The PIF leaders, at the Ninth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting, in July last year had highlighted the priority of “ensuring international consultation, international law, and independent and verifiable scientific assessments with regards to Japan’s announcement”.

Claiming that it is safe to do so, Japan had announced in April 2021 its intentions to commence discharge of 1.28 million tonnes of the so-called Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean from 2023 until the mid-2050s.

Japan’s claims, that radioactive elements in the water will be treated and diluted to safe levels before releasing, have been supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States.

Controlled water discharges into the sea are routinely used by operating nuclear power plants in the world and in the region under specific regulatory authorisations based on safety and environmental impact assessments, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has said.

On March 28, 2022, Japan provided the IAEA with a copy of a report on the discharge record and the seawater monitoring results at the Plant during February. A third aspect of the IAEA Task Force’s review, in addition to the technical and regulatory aspects, is the independent sampling and analysis of the treated water to corroborate TEPCO data, both for the treated water stored in the tanks and for the marine environment, according to an IAEA media release.

Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck the Plant site, sending three nuclear reactors into meltdown and triggering the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, radioactive water has accumulated at the Plant, including liquid used for cooling, and rain and groundwater that has seeped in.

The contaminated water has been treated with ALPS, an extensive pumping and filtration system, to remove most of the radioactive isotopes. The Plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) has stored some 1.25 million tonnes of treated water in more than 1000 tanks at the Plant site.

The Japanese government has said that it needs to release the water because the onsite tanks will reach full capacity by later this year and the long-term management of the treated water is necessary to pave the way for   further decommissioning of the Plant.

But the proposal has been met with strong opposition. The Pacific Islander communities, who have been affected by the radioactive fallout from some 300 nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific by the US, the UK and France from 1946 to 1996, continue to experience long-term health disorders and congenital abnormalities.

“The legacy of nuclear testing throughout the Pacific, in particular with respect to the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Kiribati and elsewhere, has never been effectively remedied or addressed. Pacific peoples have suffered greatly from the destructive programs of militarized colonial powers during the 20th century, continuing into the 21st,” said Maureen Penjueli, coordinator for the Fiji-based Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a regional non-governmental organisation that focuses on promoting the rights of Pacific Island peoples to be self-determined.

“The consequences of detonating hundreds of nuclear bombs of a much greater destructive power than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs are still being felt today by Indigenous islanders—manifesting in, among other impacts, debilitating health and intergenerational maladies. This legacy continues to threaten not just Pacific islanders and the Pacific Ocean, but the health and wellbeing of all the planet’s oceans and the people who depend upon them,” Penjueli told IDN.

She elaborated that for instance, radioactive materials currently contained in Runit Dome on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands are leaking into the surrounding ocean and groundwater. 

“The Runit Dome was a haphazard attempt by the U.S. military to contain 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste in an unlined crater. It was never replaced by a safe, permanent structure and instead it is currently cracking and polluting the local surroundings,” she added. “Such manifestly inadequate measures in place of effective environmental clean-up, damage payouts, and aid transfers continue to imperil efforts to address the legacy of nuclear testing and achieve sustainable ocean goals.”

The Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) is amongst many civil society organisations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond calling on the Japanese Government to cease plans to discharge radioactive wastewater into the ocean.

“We fully support the Pacific Island nations’ efforts to prevent further radioactive contamination of their waters and lands,” says Dr Sue Wareham, National President of MAPW (Australia). “The hundreds of nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific during the Cold War has left both a radioactive legacy of health problems and a well-placed mistrust of safety assurances. As the old saying goes: If it is safe, dump it in Tokyo, but keep our Pacific nuclear-free.”

The Japanese Government plans to release 22 trillion becquerels of tritium per year into the ocean. Before the nuclear accident, the amount of tritium released into the ocean from the Plant was 1.5-2 trillion becquerels per year. That means releasing about 10 times that amount of tritium into the ocean for several 10 years, according to a Friends of the Earth (FoE) Japan statement issued in April 2021.

Amongst the many reasons cited to oppose releasing contaminated water into the ocean, Executive Director of FoE Japan and Deputy Chairperson of Citizen’s Commission on Nuclear Energy (CCNE), Kanna Mitsuta, said, “The main reason is that we should not diffuse radioactive materials into the environment. Treated contaminated water is said to contain 860 trillion becquerels of tritium. In addition, radioactive materials such as cesium, strontium and iodine remain in the water”.

“Although the Japanese government and TEPCO had said that they would not take any action without the understanding of the people concerned, they decided to release the treated contaminated water into the ocean despite many objections. This is a breach of promise,” Mitsuta told IDN.

“CCNE has proposed alternatives, such as storage in large, sturdy tanks and solidification of mortar, but these have not been fully examined,” Mitsuta added.

In a report published in 2020, Greenpeace had argued that “the only acceptable solution” was for Japan to continue the long term storage and processing of the contaminated water.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is also calling for terrestrial storage and management of all Fukushima waste pending further independent and international review of the full suite of management options.

“Given that it was Australian uranium that was in the Fukushima plant at the time of the tsunami and meltdown, we have been urging our members and supporters to write to Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, about this matter”, said ACF’s nuclear and uranium campaigner, Dave Sweeney.

“Our oceans are not industrial disposal sites. They are vital life systems we all rely on. We are concerned that releasing radioactive wastewater into the Pacific could result in the bio-accumulation of radio-nuclides in the marine environment and aquatic food chain; and it would also have a significant cultural impact,” Sweeney told IDN.

The Pacific Collective on Nuclear Issues, a group of Pacific civil society organisations, made a thorough submission to the Japanese Government in December 2021. It strongly opposed the discharge of radioactive water into the ocean and emphasised that the Pacific is not and must not become the dumping ground for nuclear wastes.

It urged the Japanese Government and TEPCO to explore “alternative options for safe containment, storage as well as identification of technologies that can safely treat radioactive material including the radioactive wastewater…”.

The Collective is calling upon the Japanese Government and TEPCO to do a comprehensive reassessment of their entire decommissioning plan. It recommended an ocean-wide independent Environmental Impact Assessment and Radiological Impact Assessment before such large volumes of radioactive wastewater is permitted to be discharged in the ocean.

Japan’s nearest geographical neighbours, especially the Republic of Korea, have also opposed the discharge of the contaminated water.

The proposal also contravenes nuclear-free Pacific international laws and Treaties, such as the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty 1985 (Treaty of Rarotonga), which prohibits the testing and use of nuclear explosive devices and the dumping of radioactive wastes in the sea by member states, including Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island nations. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 April 2022]

Image source: Blue Pacific

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

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 12 April 2022.

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