The Guardian • Issue #1958

Silence over the Pacific

Japan’s radioactive dumping ground

Ten years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s government prepares to release radioactive wastewater from the power plant into the Pacific Ocean. While the West remains problematically quiet on this matter of international environmental concern, countries in the region such as China, South Korea, North Korea, as well as notable international environmental organisation Greenpeace, have strongly condemned the decision. Many Japanese citizens have taken to the streets with concerns not only for the short and long-term environmental effects but also for the local fisheries industry.

In March, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Protection Agency (ARPANSA) marked the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima accident. However, it has been completely silent on the announcement of the toxic water being released. Nothing has been reported from the Morrison government on the issue, and barely a word from the Murdoch press.

This stands in strong contrast to the condemnation of environmental issues in neighbouring China, such as smog from factories polluting major cities. And although China has been reliant on coal to provide electricity to its immense population, the push towards sustainable alternatives has been exceedingly effective and significantly reduced its carbon footprint. Global Times columnist Li Qingqing argues that “for many Western elites, their so-called environmental concern … is just an ideological tool for them to suppress rival countries.”

Curiously, Western institutions would ignore the dumping of 1.23mil tonnes of water with radioactive properties, particularly Carbon-14, which has been linked to causing physical and mental defects as well as stillbirths and childhood deaths – and has a half-life of 5700 years. Li explains that “Japan’s radioactive wastewater may remain dangerous for thousands of years and may even cause human DNA changes.” It will also affect marine life across the Pacific, even as far as the coasts of the United State and Canada.

Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at the University of Alaska, Rick Steiner has expressed his embarrassment as an American and an environmental scientist that his government has not stepped up and weighed in on this issue, warning that “we are all downstream.” The move to dump it in the Pacific Ocean will not only affect Japan, and so should be of concern for nations across the world.

The private company at the forefront of this issue is the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which constructed and operated the Fukushima nuclear plant which exploded after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami and flooded the reactors in 2011.

Steiner described that although some may argue it was just an accident, engineers should have been able to envision a potential hazard by the location of the auxiliary generators. When the generators were down, they were unable to pump the cooling water, which led to the explosion and the leaking of radioactive materials, and the evacuation of more than 150,000 people.

Regardless of the extremely dire consequences of poor engineering, including the spending of trillions of dollars, and tremendous environmental impacts, TEPCO has remained responsible for the clean up. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has made a statement that “the water disposal method is both technically feasible and in line with international practice.” According to Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, the treated radioactive water is “okay to drink.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has responded, “As for [his] remarks that the water is okay to drink, why doesn’t he take a sip first?” Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China, Ma Jun, insists that TEPCO has lost its credibility and does not deserve the public trust.

It is concerning that the reason for the release is related to running out of storage space, rather than adequate data provided to the international community. The research on the water quality is based on studies conducted through TEPCO, however Sun Yuliang, a nuclear expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, suggested that the decision should depend on an authoritative scientific assessment to determine whether the processed radioactive water meets international standards for release.

TEPCO continues to pay reparations to Japanese workers in the fishing industry, although the move to dump this wastewater will again affect the already tainted reputation of their produce, as consumers will be unlikely to choose to buy seafood from around Fukushima. Concerned citizens are fighting back by taking to the streets and petitioning to stop the release. According to a poll of 31,035 on Yahoo Japan, 41.5 per cent disagreed with the plan.

As Australia is a nation with a vested interest in a clean Pacific, it is irresponsible to remain silent on this issue. It may take the rest of the century to deal with the Fukushima disaster, but the alternative could be much worse. If Australia remains critical of environmental problems elsewhere, it makes no sense to ignore this decision purely because Japan is consistent with Western political views.

Steiner believes that the global community can no longer afford to dump waste in the oceans in the same way they did in the 20th century. He suggests “we need to set aside geo-political arguments and come together to find realistic decisions as an international community” and that “we all have a collective responsibility for a global raising-of-our-standards for reducing pollution and reducing climate change.”

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