Old Version

Dishonorable Discharge

Japan’s plan to dump nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean as early as this spring has raised alarm bells over irreversible damage to the environment

By Yu Xiaodong Updated May.1

People in Fukushima, Japan protest the Japanese government’s decision to release nuclear contaminated water into the ocean, April 13, 2021 (Photo by VCG)

Despite strong domestic protests and opposition from neighboring countries, the Japanese government announced on January 13 that it would proceed with its plan to dump more than 1.3 million tons of contaminated water stored in over 1,000 tanks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean this coming “spring or summer.”  

Japan’s nuclear wastewater crisis started 12 years ago when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit the country on March 11, 2011, causing a devastating tsunami that struck the Fukushima plant.  

The earthquake caused hydrogen explosions that destroyed the reactor buildings, while the tsunami knocked out the reactors’ cooling systems, causing a meltdown. Since then, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner and operator of the plant, has been pumping water through the wrecked reactors to cool the nuclear fuel and prevent catastrophe. 

‘Irresponsible’ Plan 
As nuclear wastewater has accumulated over time, the Japanese government announced in April 2021 that it had approved a plan to release it into the ocean. The decision led to an immediate outcry from Japan’s fishing industry, neighboring countries including China and South Korea, and environmental groups.  

At a press conference on March 10, Mao Ning, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said Japan’s disposal plan is extremely irresponsible. “Japan must not start discharging nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean before reaching consensus through full consultation with neighboring countries and other stakeholders, as well as relevant international agencies,” Mao said.  

According to TEPCO, after diluting and treating the radioactive water through a liquid processing system that removes most of the radioactive elements, radiation levels are lower than those set for drinking water. Although some radioactive elements would remain, including tritium, they are harmful to humans only in very large doses, the company said.  

But critics argue that the contamination risk posed by the nuclear wastewater is far more complicated than Tokyo admits. In a report released by Greenpeace in November 2020, Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with the environmental group, stressed that some radionuclides cannot be removed, including strontium-90, plutonium-239 and iodine-129. 
Burnie said that one of the most hazardous of all radionuclides in the contaminated water is carbon-14. With a half-life of 5,730 years, it is a major contributor to the global collective dose, or dose to the exposed human population.  

Supporters of the plan argue that discharging treated wastewater into the ocean is common practice for nuclear plants, but critics stress there are fundamental differences between the two. First, the volume of the wastewater stored at the Fukushima plant totals over 1.37 million tons, an unprecedented amount.  

When Russia dumped 900 tons of liquid and solid nuclear waste into international waters off the coast of Vladivostok near Japan in 1993, Tokyo voiced strong objections. Three decades later, Japan is touting the same reason Moscow did – storage space is running out.  

Second, experts said that the Fukushima plant’s contaminated water differs from wastewater discharged during the normal operation of a nuclear power plant. Its water has come into contact with melted nuclear fuel, meaning that the radioactive substances in the water are extremely complex.  

According to a panel of independent scientists formed in March 2022 by the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), an intergovernmental organization made up of 18 Pacific Island countries including New Zealand and Fiji, TEPCO tested only nine radioactive materials among 64. 

‘Unreliable’ Data 
The panel also called the reliability of data from the Japanese government into question. For example, Japan’s data is based on measurements of a 30-liter sample out of more than 1 million tons of water, which the panel said is not enough to gauge the actual composition and concentration levels of the wastewater.  

Measurement of one particular material, tellurium-127, alarmed scientists. With a half-life of only 9.4 hours, the element should have broken down long ago. But the radionuclide measurements are unusually high, which means TEPCO’s measurement data is flawed and unreliable.  

TEPCO has a long history of data falsification and disaster cover-up. In 2007, the company admitted that it falsified data from the Fukushima plant to cover up problems during government inspections on 199 occasions between 1977 and 2002.  

“The data provided by Japan to the forum is incomplete, inadequate, inconsistent and biased, making it unsuitable for making any decisions,” said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, an adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey, California and head of the panel of scientists in a debate held at South Korea’s National Assembly on January 26, according to a report by The Korea Times.  

The US-based National Association of Marine Laboratories also opposes the plans, on the same grounds that there is “a lack of adequate and accurate scientific data supporting Japan’s assertion of safety.” 

Silence of the West 
In contrast to the opposition of neighboring countries and environmental groups, the US appears to back Japan’s plan. Following Japan’s initial announcement on April 11, 2021, high-level US officials rushed to applaud the decision.  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on April 13, 2021 that “we thank Japan for its transparent efforts in its decision to dispose of the treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi site.”  

On April 18, 2021, US Envoy for Climate John Kerry told South Korean media that the US is confident that “Japan has weighed all the options and the effects” and has been “transparent about the decision and the process.”  

Japan’s plan was endorsed by Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The same day Blinken thanked Japan for its decision, Grossi made a statement that called Japan’s decision a “milestone” that will help pave the way for decommissioning the Fukushima plant. It is “technically feasible and in line with international practice,” Grossi said.  

The IAEA later formed a task force and released three reports. But it has not yet completed its assessment or drawn specific conclusions on Japan’s disposal plan.  

Most Western countries have been quiet on the issue. On February 22, The Japan Times reported that Tokyo will seek the endorsement of G7 countries when it hosts a meeting of the group’s energy ministers in April.  

Citing an unnamed source inside the Japanese government, the report said Tokyo is seeking to include a phrase that says G7 members “welcome” its “transparent” approach toward the disposal plan in a joint statement to be released after the gathering in Sapporo, Japan in mid-April. The report said that some G7 countries are against such a statement.  

It remains unclear whether G7 countries will openly support Japan’s disposal plan as a group. But it appears that Japan has the backing of the US, Britain and France.  

All three countries supported Japan when Tokyo blocked a proposal for international scientific assessment of alternatives to discharging the Fukushima radioactive water at a meeting of the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) in October 2021.  

These three countries are also the three nuclear powers of the G7, all of which have a long history of contaminating the ocean with nuclear materials. Between the 1940s and 1990s, these countries conducted several hundred nuclear tests in the South Pacific that caused serious contamination.  

For many analysts in China, Washington’s vocal support and the relatively blanket silence from the West over the issue stems from geopolitical considerations as the US seeks to strengthen its military ties to counter China.  

Citing Chinese experts, an article published by Chinese State-media outlet the Global Times on April 13, 2021 described the US’s backing of Japan’s plan as a “political deal” in exchange for Japan’s closer strategic adherence.  

Japan’s announcement that it will release the nuclear wastewater came just two days after Japan signed a military pact with the UK and upgraded its security alliance with the US.
As Japan’s dumping of nuclear wastewater appears to be imminent, outrage is growing among regional countries, especially in the South Pacific, a region with a long history of being used as the world’s nuclear waste dumping ground.  

Motarilavoa Hilda Lini, a prominent politician and activist in Vanuatu, said: “We need to remind Japan and other nuclear states of our Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement slogan: ‘If it’s safe, dump it in Tokyo, test it in Paris and store it in Washington, but keep our Pacific nuclear-free.’”  

In an op-ed for the Guardian on January 4, 2023, Henry Puna, Secretary General of the PIF, called on Japan to hold off on any disposal plans.  

“The decision for any ocean release is not and should not only be a domestic matter for Japan, but a global and transnational issue,” Puna wrote.  

He called on Japan to work with regional countries to find a solution. “Our collective future and that of our future generations depends on it,” he added. 

An aerial view of damaged reactors and tanks storing treated radioactive water at Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO)’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Fukushima, January 19, 2023 (Photo by VCG)