Japan dumping of Fukushima treated radioactive waste into the sea sparks global outrage

By Nur Sa’adah Batrisyia

Imagine planning to dump radioactive wastes into the sea and claiming there will be no negative impact on human health, food safety or the marine environment. At least, that is what the Japanese government thinks.  

On 13 April, the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga had reached a conclusion to release the 1.7 million tonnes of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean by citing that “it is unavoidable” due to limited storage capacity for water tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi. Nuclear storage will run out of space, thus Japan needs to find an immediate solution which they opt for by dumping the contaminated water into the ocean. The dumping process will start next year and it will take 30 years to be gradually diluted and filtered to bring it down to a safe level of radioactivity.

Regardless of the specific countermeasures taken by the Japanese government by claiming they are treating the water using an advanced liquid processing system (ALPS), the human-technology cannot remove tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors. That being said, the water is still partially contaminated despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claiming the disposal process meets the global standards and it is a common way to release water at nuclear power plants. 

The incident that drives the Japanese government to make such a unilateral decision was an earthquake on 11 March 2011. The Fukushima earthquake was classified as a national catastrophe because it was so bad that it triggered a huge tsunami, killing over 18,000 people.

However, the incident that provokes the global community was the leaking nuclear power plant located at Fukushima, near the country’s east coast. It is beyond doubt the tsunami would hit the defensive sea wall and the plant. As a result, some nuclear reactors explode and release radioactive chemicals into the atmosphere. Despite there is no adverse health impact reported, to release the radioactive waste into the sea prompted a wave of public anger from NGOs (non-governmental organisations), citizen groups, and neighbouring countries. 

Neighbouring countries such as China and South Korea had protested about it and demanded transparency on the treatment process. They also demanded Japan to make prudent decisions after full consultation with them. Additionally, China had called the move “extremely irresponsible”. China’s foreign minister, Zhao Lijian expressed his dissatisfaction with Japan’s blatant ignorance towards the international community’s demand. 

“The Japanese side often asks other countries to fulfil their international responsibilities, and right now, the international society is looking at Japan – so Japan cannot turn a blind eye or turn a deaf ear,” he said in an interview with South China Morning Post. 

On the contrary, South Korea said this short-term plan was “totally unacceptable” and will file a complaint to Japan. 

Either way, the issue remains controversial to the fishing industry. Japan’s fishery is of great importance to the country due to its location near the ocean. This leads the Japanese fishermen to fear that consumers will shun Japanese seafood over safety concerns. To make matters worse, since the Fukushima disaster, 15 countries already banned Japanese agricultural and fishery products. In an interview with National Geographic, a Japanese farmer, Tsutomu Ueno confessed his sales had dropped rapidly due to the social stigma of consuming food from the radioactive area. 

“We were not protected from the stigma. I have gotten my fruits and rice tested every year since the disaster, and every year it has turned up safe. However, my sales have plummeted,” he said. 

Eventually, the Japanese government did opt to evaporate it into the atmosphere, but releasing the contaminated water to the sea was the most realistic, fastest and cheapest solution. Nevertheless, both options were intolerable to the environment. 

Kazue Suzuki from Greenpeace Japan, an environmental group, had criticised this decision by saying “rather than using the best available technology to minimise radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean.” 

On top of that, the environmentalists have raised their concerns on how this radioactive wastes may damage the ecosystem of the animals. In a separate event on 12 April 2021, scientists had confirmed the existence of massive toxic wastage at the Southern California sea which resulted in a serious disease to wild animals — cancer. This news triggered the environmentalists and biologists as exposure to tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is still contained in the treated radioactive water, can raise cancer risks.

Nuclear contamination not only pose a threat to animals but also to human DNA. If a human ingested tritium either in food or drink, it has a higher tendency to cause cancer than any other high-energy radiation such as gamma rays. Most importantly, what about other contaminants with longer radioactive lifetimes such as ruthenium that might slip through the ALPS process? Unfortunately, this information is only accessible to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which was responsible to handle the whole process, but a recent scandal of the company staff illegally accessing the control room, has raised public doubts on the company’s eligibility in handling radioactive materials. 

Meanwhile, social media users have raised concerns about Japan’s egregious action. One user commented, “If it is really safe, Japan would have dumped that water in their own territory. They are here trying to justify the action is safe. Its safety becomes very suspicious.” 

A perfect portrayal of how this nuclear wastage will affect other countries within
the Pacific Rim

(Pic: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA)

This man-made disaster should be handled wisely instead of risking the global ecology with a polluted ocean. Granted that the Pacific Ocean is the largest gyre* (a large system of swirling ocean currents) on Earth, the water current will eventually affect any countries in the Pacific Rim. This may lead to the global spread of nuclear radiation in oceanic currents. By way of contrast, no one can predict what will be the long-term effects to the human health. Japan should evaluate carefully its decision before making such a ruthless action. This would not only harm its image internationally but would influence investors’ decisions and global diplomacy towards the country.  

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Japan is fully responsible to protect and preserve the marine environment, including taking all necessary measures to prevent pollution. However, looking at the current scenario, it seems like Japan already breached its responsibilities. ***

(This article is written as part of the individual assignment series for Feature Writing class)

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