Brink of catastrophe: Japan as Pacific polluter

Aug 30, 2023
Fukushima Japan Map.

In 2011, Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, roughly 250 kilometres north of Tokyo, was hit by a magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami. Three reactors stopped immediately but the loss of electricity supply led in the days and months that followed to breakdown of the cooling system and to a series of hydrogen explosions and meltdowns of the cores of Reactors 1 to 3.

Prime Minster Kan Naoto feared for the worst. He faced the possible need to evacuate the whole Kanto region, including the Tokyo metropolitan area. Japan itself, its state and society, stood on the brink of catastrophe. That fate was only narrowly averted.

To this day the flow of water to cool the debris polluted with various forms of radioactivity has had to be maintained. Over the past twelve years some 1.34 million tons of water has accumulated and is being held in a vast array of over 1000 tanks along the coast of Fukushima prefecture. Those tanks are about 98 per cent full, but the flow of contaminated water will have to be continued for at least the next three decades, or till such time as the site can be cleaned up. Nobody today can say with any confidence when that might be.

The polluted waters contain 64 radioactive elements, or radionuclides, of greatest concern being carbon-14, iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60 and hydrogen-3, also known as tritium. Some have short life and might already have ended, but others take longer to decay, with a half-life of more than 5,000 years in the case of carbon-14 (Nature, 29 June 2023). Tritium, which focuses most attention, has a half-life of 12.3 years. Its concentrations may be low, but one hundred years will have to pass before its threat to humans and the ocean becomes truly negligible.

The government has yet to find additional sites for expansion, and each day it has to put about 90 tons of newly polluted water somewhere. And, while the people of Japan remain steadfast in opposing any return to the pre-2011 vision of a nuclear-powered, energy self-reliant, superpower Japan future, government and bureaucracy are increasingly open about their determination to pursue just such a goal.

In 2016, the Japanese government considered multiple methods of treating the water. Ruling out simple continuation of the status quo – more and more tanks along an already crowded sea-front – there seemed to be three options: ocean discharge, atmospheric discharge, and underground burial. The cost differential was estimated at 34.9 billion yen to release the problem materials as gas into the atmosphere, 24.3 billion to dig a deep hole and bury it, but just 3.4 billion to pour it out gradually into the sea.

The logic of such math was inescapable. The chosen option was the one that was cheaper by a factor of 7 or more. Time, and the recuperative, regenerative powers of the sea, would come to humanity’s rescue. The materials would be released into the ocean (channelled by giant pipes to a point about one kilometre offshore). That process began on 24 August 2023.

Anxiety, alarm, and increasingly anger, spread, both within Japan (and especially in the Fukushima vicinity that bore the brunt of the initial 2011 disaster) and on the part of Japan’s Pacific neighbour states – China (including Hong Kong), Korea (north and south), Russia, Philippines,  and the mini-states of the South Pacific (its 18 countries and regions). In Japan just 44 per cent of people said they had “no worries” over the release, but about 75 per cent said the government had not properly explained what it was doing.

The Japanese government, having promised it would take no step without duly consulting all concerned parties, proceeded to ignore that principle both in regard to its own citizenry (especially those employed in its once vibrant fishing industry) and its Pacific neighbours, whose shores are washed by the same Pacific waters.

True, the IAEA (the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency) has provided helpful cover for the Government of Japan (and the TEPCO power company) by taking the view that the environmental impact of discharge of polluted (but “processed” to remove most of the major radio-active materials) cooling water would be “negligible.” That, however, is neither surprising nor decisive. The IAEA, founded in 1957, is an organisation devoted to the propagation of “safe” civil nuclear energy; the state of Japan is its third largest source of its funds; and the future of the global nuclear industry depends on there being seen to be a “final solution” to the problems posed by Fukushima.

Though given little attention in media coverage of the problem, a small but significant body of scientific opinion has begun to express severe criticism of IAEA for its failure to apply its own fundamental principles, being in some important respects “at least 10,000 times in error,” neglecting to give proper consideration to the non-dumping solutions, “grossly over-stating” well known facts in its “eagerness to assure the public that harm will be ‘negligible’.” (Arjun Makhijani, “TEPCO’s ALPS-treated Radioactive Water Dumping Plan Violates Essential Provisions of IAEA’s General Safety Guide No. 8 and Corresponding Requirements in Other IAEA Documents, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research [IEER], 28 June 2023.

In this view, the IAEA should, starting with Japan, provide assistance to nuclear-possessing countries to stop dumping so that the oceans that have been much abused in so many ways for so long can at least have a chance to begin recovering.

When then Prime Minster Abe Shinzo told the world in September 2013 that Fukushima was “under control,” he lied. Till 2018, all attempts to locate the missing reactor cores, let alone to place them “under control,” had failed. Only in 2021 did it become possible at least to locate the debris in one reactor. But knowing the location is but the start. Now we know where it is, we are no closer to knowing how to deal with it. The recovery effort for two of the reactors will not commence until 2024. If they succeed in locating the debris, estimated to be about 880 tons, it will then have to be extracted, gram-by-gram. Meanwhile, as of 2023, between 4,000 and 5,000 workers are mobilised each day to perform various (high-risk) tasks in the disaster zone.

To the peoples of the small states of the Pacific, serial victims of waves of nuclear testing, first American, then French, the blow coming from nuclear-victim country Japan was especially bitter. To the shock and harm caused by the initial massive radioactivity release of 2011 has now to be added that of the deliberate, premeditated dumping of nuclear wastes from 2023. The “great powers” in the past had given Island peoples repeated assurances that there would be no risk to health or environment from testing or dumping. Those peoples watch sadly now as nuclear victim country Japan does likewise, engaging in intense propaganda efforts to line up regional states to endorse its wastewater dumping campaign.

Japanese words today rings as hollow to Pacific Island peoples as did once American or French words. Even the Japanese people themselves, when it comes to Fukushima wastewater dumping “have little trust in TEPCO or the Japanese Government.” (Suzuki Tatsujiro, former Vice-Chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, quoted in Makhijani, p. 3)

Japanese governments far into the future are to be bound now by the decisions taken by the current administration and by the process launched on 24 August. The support given Japan’s ocean dumping by prominent Western industrial countries strikes Pacific Islanders as hypocritical (Kalinga Seneviratne, “To the Pacific islands, the West’s support for Japan’s Fukushima nuclear waste ocean dumping is hypocrisy,” South China Morning Post, 20 July 2023,) Motarilavoa Hilda Lini, chief of the Turaga nation of Pentacost Island, Vanuatu, and activist of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement, puts it this way, “We are people of the ocean. We must stand up and protect it.” She went on,

“We need to remind Japan and other nuclear states of our Nuclear Free and independent Pacific movement slogan: if it is safe, dump it in Tokyo, test it in Paris, and store it in Washington, but keep our Pacific nuclear-free.” (Guardian, 26 April 2023).

Brushing aside the pleas of neighbour states, especially those of the long-suffering peoples of the Pacific Islands, Japan has pressed ahead to dump its nuclear wastes into the ocean, ensuring that in due course a third wave of nuclear pollution will wash over Pacific shores.


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