Pacific Islanders, marine scientists, urge Japan not to dump Fukushima radioactive water into ocean
By Linda Pentz Gunter
The nuclear power industry has a long history of disproportionately impacting people of color, Indigenous communities and those living in the Global South. As Japan prepares to dump more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from its stricken Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant site into the Pacific Ocean some time this year, history is about to repeat itself.
To remind us of that — and to warn against this reckless and entirely unnecessary action (Japan could and should expand the cask storage pad on site and keep storing the radioactive water there) — the leader of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has spoken out.
In a recent column in the UK daily newspaper, The Guardian, Henry Puna wrote that “continuing with ocean discharge plans at this time is simply inconceivable”, given how directly it once again discriminates against — and will likely seriously harm the health of — the peoples of the Pacific. Puna took care to remind readers “that the majority of our Pacific peoples are coastal peoples, and that the ocean continues to be an integral part of their subsistence living.”
Going forward with the dump without further study and serious consideration of viable alternatives, would, Puna said, mean that “the region will once again be headed towards a major nuclear contamination disaster at the hands of others.” Victims of years of atomic testing, Pacific Islanders are rightly not ready to be dumped on yet again.
Tepco and the lapdog Japanese government announced last May that they would release around 1.3 million tonnes of radioactive waste water from the Fukushima site next spring. Recently, authorities suggested the dump could be delayed until the summer but seem undeterred by the loud chorus of opposition from multiple quarters.
The plant produces 100 cubic metres of contaminated water daily, a combination of groundwater, seawater and water used to keep the reactors cool. The water is theoretically filtered to remove most harmful isotopes, other than tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen and cannot be separated from water. It is then stored in casks on site where authorities claim they are running out of space. However, independent watchdogs are not convinced that the filter system has successfully removed other dangerous radioactive isotopes from the waste water.
Most recently, the 100-member American group, the National Association of Marine Laboratories (NAML), expressed its fervent opposition in a strongly worded position paper released last month. Their opposition, they wrote, “is based on the fact that there is a lack of adequate and accurate scientific data supporting Japan’s assertion of safety. Furthermore, there is an abundance of data demonstrating serious concerns about releasing radioactively contaminated water.”
The report went on: “The proposed release of this contaminated water is a transboundary and transgenerational issue of concern for the health of marine ecosystems and those whose lives and livelihoods depend on them. We are concerned about the absence of critical data on the radionuclide content of each tank, the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which is used to remove radionuclides, and the assumption that upon the release of the contaminated wastewater, ‘dilution is the solution to pollution.’”
The scientists accused Japan of ignoring the inevitable processes of bioaccumulation and bioconcentration, which contradict the dilution contention. The Association also called out what it saw as shoddy or incorrect science conducted by Tepco and the Japanese government, including “flaws in sampling protocols, statistical design, sample analyses, and assumptions, which in turn lead to flaws in the conclusion of safety and prevent a more thorough evaluation of better alternative approaches to disposal.”
Japan has consistently rejected on-going onsite storage — presumably due to the expense, given the land space is there and more casks could be provided. In the view of some, the eagerness to dump the water— largely contaminated with tritium (a form of radioactive hydrogen that cannot be separated from water) and likely other undeclared radionuclides — is a public relations exercise to make the problem “go away” and restore normal optics to the site. The site cannot also be fully decommissioned so long as the tanks are there.
Japan has also benefited from the (inevitable) support of the (nuclear power-promoting) International Atomic Energy Agency, an organization that never met a nuclear danger it couldn’t downplay. The agency has described the proposed discharges as “far below the Japanese regulatory limits,” in a statement last April.
After sending in a task force and several earlier reports, the IAEA released a new report in December in which it said “the IAEA will conduct its own independent checks of the radiological contents of the water stored in the tanks and how it will analyse environmental samples (for example seawater and fish) from the surrounding environment.” However, the IAEA has not expressed opposition to the dumping of the radioactive water even now and instead indicates that its safety reviews will continue “before, during, and after the discharges of ALPS treated water.”
Japan has faced down opposition from fishermen and environmentalists, particularly from those in the Marshall Islands who have suffered decades of horrific health issues, especially birth defects, after enduring 67 US atomic tests there. A Pacific region collective advocacy group, Youngsolwara Pacific, expressed dismay that the Japanese, of all people, would not empathize with them and condemn the Fukushima water dump.
“How can the Japanese government, who has experienced the same brutal experiences of nuclear weapons in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wish to further pollute our Pacific with nuclear waste?” they asked in a statement quoted in a New York Times article in December. “To us, this irresponsible act of trans-boundary harm is just the same as waging nuclear war on us as Pacific peoples and our islands.”
Pacific Islanders are naturally suspicious, having been lied to before. It took two days before the by then radiologically contaminated people of Rongelap were evacuated subsequent to the massive Castle Bravo atomic test, America’s biggest bomb that devastated Bikini Atoll. Marshall Islanders were treated as guinea pigs in the aftermath of the tests there, as the US government examined the impact on people living in a radiologically contaminated environment — even as the true dangers were hidden from them. Consequently, claims by the Japanese government that their Advanced Liquid Processing System had removed the worst of the radionuclides from the waste water to be dumped, have been met with skepticism at best.
Now, their concerns are supported by marine scientists.
“The effectiveness of the Advanced Liquid Processing System in almost completely removing the over 60 different radionuclides present in the affected wastewater—some of which have an affinity to target specific tissues, glands, organs, and metabolic pathways in living organisms, including people—remains a serious concern due to the absence of critical data,” said the statement from NAML.
Those are precisely some of the agonizing health effects already endured by the bombed peoples of the Marshall Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific. They are not ready to be dosed again.
“You feel this deep sorrow,” Bedi Racule, President of the Marshall Islands Students Association, told the New York Times. “Why were we not good enough to be treated like human beings?”
In an August 2022 statement on the Youngsolwara Pacific homepage, Racule added: “The impact of the nuclear testing legacy in the Pacific continues to affect our islands and people, and we cannot afford another scenario such as Fukushima’s dumping plan. Scientists are already warning that the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to not only tritium but also other isotopes on the environment and humans is still unknown and that release of the wastewater is premature.”
Now NAML, the PIF and a vociferous alliance of Japanese fishermen and anti-nuclear activists, are raising their voices a little louder in what might be a last ditch attempt to prevent the Pacific Ocean from becoming, once again, a nuclear dustbin.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
Headline photo of the Pacific Ocean by Seattle.Roamer/Creative Commons.