It may be recalled that after Japan alarmingly announced in April 2021 its plan to start releasing around 1.3 million metric tons of contaminated wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, countries in the rest of eastern Asia and the Pacific region protested. Environmental groups and even the Japanese people opposed it.
Yet earlier this year, the Japanese government announced that it is pressing ahead with its unilateral decision to release the radioactive wastewater from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean, starting this spring or summer.
Japan’s mulishness is disquieting and perplexing.
Those opposed to the dumping say it would be hazardous to the marine ecosystem and resources and affect the fishing industries of countries in East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region, such as the Philippines and Fiji. If Japan pushes ahead, the planned dumping will not only cause serious damage to the marine ecosystem and resources, but will also have an adverse impact on international public health and safety and the vital interests of the Asia-Pacific region and its people.
Nevertheless, what’s disquieting is the fact that, thus far, there has never been any precedent in the world or actual practice of discharging such a massive volume of nuclear wastewater into the sea, which makes it hard to assess the long-term effects of such planned dumping of radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean. According to some reports, no independent testing of the wastewater has been allowed or conducted thus far, which makes this whole venture a pretty risky gamble for the Japanese government.
What’s even more worrisome is the fact that Tokyo Electric Power Co, which owns the power station, claims the International Atomic Energy Agency has given the green light to proceed with the planned discharge.
Accordingly, in a briefing on Jan 20, the IAEA nuclear safety official Gustavo Caruso, who heads a special agency task force on Fukushima, said Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has procedures in place to ensure that the discharge meets international safety standards. This is rather a dreadful statement from the IAEA, given that it has no relevant experience or even a concrete study on the possible adverse impact of such dumping.
Marine scientists and opposition groups are challenging the IAEA’s attitude. Robert Richmond, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said that Japan’s planned release of contaminated nuclear wastewater would set a dire precedent. Richmond also said that “there is a strong consensus internationally that continued use of the ocean for dumping waste is simply not sustainable”.
The United States has not openly opposed Japan’s unilateral decision, although imports of many sea products from Japan reportedly are banned. Washington seems willing to sacrifice the welfare of the wider Asia-Pacific region to prioritize its geopolitical and geostrategic interests in cahoots with the Japanese government by turning a blind eye to the risks and dangers posed by Japan’s move.
No doubt, given the uncertainty regarding adverse impacts on and risks to the marine environment, the Japanese government as an act of courtesy should at least conduct comprehensive and sufficient consultations with countries in the region to further discuss the issue and possible alternative solutions.
The unilateral plan of the Japanese government to begin dumping millions of tons of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean needs to be reconsidered.
Moreover, the Japanese government’s plan to discharge the wastewater is akin to disregarding international law on the protection of the environment–principles that aim to curb pollution and the depletion of natural resources. The spirit and principles of international environmental law purport that we are one ecosystem, that we are interconnected and that the polluter must pay.
It should be noted that bodies of water in Asia are very much connected, and pollutants originating from the Fukushima nuclear wastewater will no doubt reach nearby areas, affecting local marine and coastal environments and people’s health. Thus, if Japan is indeed a responsible member of the community of nations, it should think twice before proceeding with its plan and prudently consult with countries that would be directly affected by such a decision.
However, Japan might not heed the call of its neighbors, probably because it has the backing of the U.S. But if something goes wrong with the plan, developing countries like the Philippines will undoubtedly be adversely affected and left alone to suffer the negative consequences.
We depend on our natural environment. When we destroy our environment, we all suffer. We should remember that environmental problems and issues alike, including the planned dumping of Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, threaten humanity and all species and warrant serious attention.
Hence, Asia-Pacific countries must talk about and oppose this critical environmental issue, which might soon cause marine pollution in the Pacific Ocean and beyond.
Anna Malindog-Uy is vice-chair of the Award for Promoting Philippines-China Understanding 2022 Committee and a political and geopolitical analyst at Philippine-BRICS Strategic Studies.