While Japan faces international backlash over its decision to dump contaminated wastewater, Australia remains quiet due to its part in the Fukushima disaster, writes Dave Sweeney.
AGAINST A BACKDROP of runners carrying a small torch to light the Olympic flame for the July Tokyo Olympics, there are growing flames of discontent over the Japanese Government’s plan to release large volumes of contaminated wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant directly into the Pacific Ocean.
The dumping plan is a response to a growing management issue facing TEPCO and Japanese nuclear regulators. There are currently over 1,000 tanks at Fukushima being used for the interim storage of contaminated water. This water was used to cool the highly radioactive spent fuel at the site, fell as rainwater or moved as groundwater through the affected area.
Whatever the water's pathway, it is now polluted. And, with the volume growing each day, direct ocean disposal is the quickest and cheapest management option.
The aqua dump plan, set to start in two years and continue in stages for years to come, has attracted fierce domestic and international criticism.
In a rare moment of unity, Taiwan has condemned the move while China has described the plan as “extremely irresponsible”. South Korea has seen street protests and a move from President Moon Jae-in to explore legal options, including through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
A Philippines presidential spokesperson highlighted that “we are one ecosystem... we are interconnected” and three U.N. Human Rights rapporteurs specialising in food, toxics and the environment declared that the release ‘into the marine environment imposes considerable risks to the full enjoyment of the human rights of concerned populations in and beyond the borders of Japan’.
TEPCO has stated that the water will be treated before release using a system known as A.L.P.S. — the Advanced Liquid Processing System.
However, TEPCO’s assurances are cold comfort to many.
The company was caught out in 2018 having falsely claimed that earlier releases contained no radioactive materials. This time, TEPCO has changed its tune and acknowledges that radioactive tritium will be released along with the dumped water. Tritium is very difficult to separate from water as it is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that remains active for between 60-100 years.
Many observers also hold grave concerns that other longer-lived radioactive wastes including ruthenium, cobalt, strontium and plutonium could also be discharged into the Pacific given that not all are always captured by the A.L.P.S. process.
This concern has seen Pacific activists refer to the Japanese nuclear sector as a house without a toilet and the Pacific Islands Forum declare that:
‘...steps have not been sufficiently taken to address the potential harm to our Blue Pacific Continent, including possible environmental, health, and economic impacts. Our fisheries and oceans resources are critical to our Pacific livelihoods and must be protected.’
Japanese fishers share this concern. In April 2011, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, TEPCO did an emergency dump of over 10,000 tonnes of contaminated water. This generated strong opposition from the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations. In June 2020, this powerful national body adopted a position hostile to any direct release and is currently spearheading much of the domestic opposition to the plan.
Critics are concerned that the plan is not based on the best possible technology, but rather being driven by corner and cost-cutting.
Japanese and international groups and experts called for other options to be fully evaluated before direct release was approved. These include continued interim tank storage, enhanced evaporation and mortar solidification, where contaminated water is mixed with cement and sand and stored. This technique is used to manage liquid contaminants at other nuclear facilities, including Savannah River in the USA.
Some Australian environment groups have criticised the direct dumping plan and used the recent tenth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster to call on the Japanese Government to reconsider this approach.
To date, the Australian Government has made no comment or call. This is hardly surprising given that Australian uranium was inside the Fukushima reactors at the time of the meltdown. Since this time, successive Australian governments have avoided any comment or criticism and instead prioritised trying to find new markets for our flatlining uranium sector.
As an island nation steeped in coastal culture and salt-water stories, the deliberate degradation of our shared global waters should be a concern. The long-term protection of communities, cultures, creatures and currents needs to be given preference over short-term nuclear industry expedience.
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