Japan is standing its ground over the planned discharge of treated radioactive waste from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean in 2023 despite strong opposition from Pacific leaders.
The country said in April that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) would discharge more than 1 million tons of contaminated water in stages after treatment and dilution, starting around spring 2023.
The contaminated water is a product of the devastating 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that affected the north-east of Japan the most.
The announcement provoked concerns at the time from local fishermen and there were objections from China and South Korea.
Now, calls for TEPCO to hit pause are growing louder with an emerging alliance urging the New Zealand Government to take Japan to court over the matter.
Hiroshima survivor Toshiko Tanaka backs the group’s call.
“We share one water on the earth and what leaks from Japan will leak everywhere,” Tanaka said.
“I think it’s very bad and it’s got to stop. All the wastewater has to be kept on land and not be released into the ocean. I don’t know about the scientific things but there are ways it can be kept on land,” she said.
Nuclear issues are important to Toshiko Tanaka because on August 6, 1945, when she was walking to school, her whole class was killed by an atomic bomb.
The six-year-old’s hair, skin and clothes were burnt. She cried all the way home, and her mother could not even recognize her.
The now 84-year-old has only just started sharing her story because it was too traumatising.
“Please make friends from other countries, when you are moving the world towards peace,” she said.
She flew to New Zealand with her daughter to speak at last month’s Nuclear Connections Across Oceania conference in Dunedin, where the call to halt the waste water discharge was drafted.
But the new group’s call for New Zealand to take court action against Japan has already been dismissed.
“This issue is complex and relates to nuclear safety rather than nuclear weapons or nuclear disarmament. Japan is talking to Pacific partners in light of their concerns about the release of treated water from Fukushima and Aotearoa New Zealand supports the continuation of this dialogue,” a spokesperson for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said.
“There is also an important role for the global expert authority on nuclear safety issues, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which Japan has invited to review and monitor its plans. Aotearoa New Zealand is following the reports released by the IAEA Task Force closely and has full confidence in its advice,” an MFAT spokesperson said.
The lobby group was formed following the Nuclear Connections Across Oceania conference and they have since issued a statement demanding TEPCO immediately halt the work.
“People may be surprised to learn the Japanese government has approved Tokyo Electric Power Company discharging more than 1.3 million tonnes of radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean,” said conference co-organizer and Otago University Center for Sustainability researcher, Karly Burch.
“The statement is really pointing out there has been a lack of rigorous scientific assessment and a lack of sufficient data of back-up claims on the purported safety of the radioactive wastewater discharge.
“Japan has not adequately considered other possible onland storage methods despite evidence from predictive models that radioactive particles released into the ocean will spread to the northern Pacific,” Dr Burch said.
‘Water is not contaminated’
The Japanese Embassy in New Zealand has responded to the group’s claims by saying there is no danger to health from the nuclear waste.
Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Japan in Wellington, Nishioka Tatsushi said the Multi-nuclide Removal Equipment (ALPS) treating the water to be discharged into the ocean has found that it is not contaminated.
“Treated water is not contaminated water because that is water from which most of the radioactive material has been removed,” Tatsushi said.
He said he is not against people who are opposed to the use of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
“Their activities are valuable, essential and needed for the future of our children and our planet, and I respect and further admire their activities.
“However, even those who argue against nuclear power and nuclear weapons, would not believe that we should not or cannot deal with an accident that has already happened. If the methods we are trying to take are not good enough, then what is the alternative ?” he said.
“We are trying to implement carefully what we believe to be the safest way, mobilizing the highest level of wisdom and science available,” Tatsushi said.
TEPCO has also stated that it has no fears about the safety of the release.
“The water to be discharged will be treated using multiple types of equipment, such as Multi-nuclide Removal Equipment (ALPS), and then will be diluted so that it meets the Japanese government’s regulatory standards,” TEPCO spokesperson Ryo Terada said.
“In particular, the water to be discharged will be purified and diluted in two stages.”
“If we understand nuclear colonialism to be the targeting of Indigenous peoples, their lands and waters to maintain nuclear production processes-such as those required to maintain TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi. Then TEPCO and the Japanese government’s plan to discharge radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean against the will of Pacific peoples is an act of nuclear colonialism,” Dr Karly Burch said.
“With that understanding, the statement argues that TEPCO and the Japanese government’s plans to handle its nuclear waste problems by discharging the waste into the Pacific Ocean show direct disregard for the sovereignty and self-determination of Pacific peoples and the ocean their livelihoods depend upon.
“These necessary questions about sovereignty and self-determination can be completely obfuscated in debates about what is and is not ‘safe’ according to dominant nuclear science which even scientists are not allowed to rigorously question or debate,” Dr Burch said.
‘It’s a real concern’: Fisheries boss
The executive director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, also known as the Pacific Tuna Commission, Rhea Moss-Christian is deeply concerned, particularly at the timeframe with the treated waste expected to be released in early 2023.
“It’s a real concern and I just wish they would take a bit more time to think more carefully about this.
“I understand that there are some emergencies because of the logistics and the storage of this wastewater. But this is a massive release and a big, big potential disaster if it’s not handled properly.
“If we could just continue on that and not make any hasty decisions. I think that would really go a long way, not just for the partnership, but for also protecting our fisheries,” Moss-Christian said.
“There are a number of outstanding questions that have yet to be fully answered. They have focused a lot on one particular radionuclide and not very much on others that are also present in the wastewater.”
Nishioka Tatsushi said nuclear power plants all over the world are discharging water with tritium because it is safe to do so.
He said the concentration of tritium in the treated water to be discharged from Fukushima is lower than that of the water being discharged from plants, in the UK, France, Japan, China and South Korea.
Tatsushi said he hears the concerns but Japan believes it is trying to move forward in what it believes to be the safest way.
“This is the conclusion that we reached after six years of very careful discussion, mobilizing the highest level of wisdom and science available,” he said.