Twelve years after the Fukushima disaster, Japanese authorities have started pumping wastewater from the plant into the ocean. They insist there’s no danger to public health, but Japan’s neighbors are up in arms about the controversial plan.

An official demonstrates equipment for sampling water to analyze the concentration of radioactive tritium before discharging diluted treated water, as part of the process for releasing the treated water of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, on August 27, 2023. (Japan Pool / Jiji Press / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2011, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, roughly 250 kilometers north of Tokyo, was hit by a magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami. Three reactors stopped immediately, but the loss of electricity supply led over the following days and months 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.

The legacy of the Fukushima disaster is still being dealt with today. This month, the Japanese authorities pushed ahead with a controversial plan to dump the wastewater from the plant in the ocean. It has provoked an angry response from Japan’s neighbors. In South Korea, protesters occupied the Japanese embassy with a banner that carried the slogan “The Sea is Not Japan’s Trash Bin.”

The Half-Life of Catastrophe

The flow of water to cool the debris polluted with various forms of radioactivity has had to be maintained to this day. Over the past twelve years, some 1.34 million tons of water have accumulated and is being held in a vast array of more than one thousand tanks along the coast of Fukushima prefecture.

Some 1.34 million tons of water have accumulated and is being held in a vast array of tanks along the coast of Fukushima prefecture.

Those tanks are now about 98 percent full, but the flow of contaminated water will have to be continued for at least the next three decades, or until such time as the site can be cleaned up. Nobody today can say with any confidence when that might be.

The polluted waters contain sixty-four radioactive elements, or radionuclides, the ones of greatest concern being carbon-14, iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60, and hydrogen-3, also known as tritium. Some have a short life and might already have ended, but others take longer to decay, with a half-life of more than five thousand years in the case of carbon-14.

Tritium, which receives the 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 ninety 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 Japanese future, the country’s government and bureaucracy are increasingly open about their determination to pursue just such a goal.

The Cheapest Option

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 seafront — there seemed to be three options: ocean discharge, atmospheric discharge, and underground burial. The estimated cost was 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.

Anxiety, alarm, and increasingly anger have been spreading, both within Japan itself and on the part of Japan’s Pacific neighbor states.

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

Anxiety, alarm, and increasingly anger have been spreading, both within Japan itself (and especially in the Fukushima vicinity that bore the brunt of the initial 2011 disaster) and on the part of Japan’s Pacific neighbor states: China (including Hong Kong), Korea (both north and south), Russia, the Philippines, and the mini-states of the South Pacific, with eighteen countries and regions. In Japan, just 44 percent of people said they had “no worries” over the release, while about 75 percent said the government had not properly explained what it was doing.

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

“Under Control”

True, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has provided helpful cover for the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) by taking the view that the environmental impact of the discharge would be “negligible.” That judgment, however, is neither surprising nor decisive.

The IAEA, founded in 1957, is an organization devoted to the propagation of “safe” civil nuclear energy. 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 it has received little attention in media coverage of the problem, a small but significant body of scientific opinion has begun to express severe criticism of the IAEA for failing to apply its own fundamental principles. One paper accused the agency of being in some important respects “at least 10,000 times in error,” neglecting to give proper consideration to the nondumping solutions, and “grossly overstating well-known facts” in its “eagerness to assure the public that harm will be ‘negligible.’”

When Japan’s then prime minister Abe Shinzo told the world in September 2013 that Fukushima was ‘under control,’ he lied.

According to the paper’s author, Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a very different approach is required:

The IAEA should, starting with Japan, provide guidance to nuclear power-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 Japan’s then prime minister Abe Shinzo told the world in September 2013 that Fukushima was “under control,” he lied. Until 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.

However, knowing the location is just 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 four and five thousand workers are mobilized each day to perform various high-risk tasks in the disaster zone.

People of the Ocean

The peoples of the small states of the Pacific have been serial victims of waves of nuclear testing, first American, then French. For them, the blow coming from Japan, a country that was itself the victim of nuclear warfare, was especially bitter. The shock and harm caused by the initial massive radioactivity release of 2011 has now been combined with the deliberate, premeditated dumping of nuclear waste from 2023.

The peoples of the small states of the Pacific have been serial victims of waves of nuclear testing, first American, then French.

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 Japan does likewise, engaging in intense propaganda efforts to line up regional states to endorse its wastewater dumping campaign.

Japan’s word today rings as hollow to Pacific Island peoples as that of the United States or France once did. Even the Japanese people themselves have “little trust in TEPCO or the Japanese Government” when it comes to Fukushima wastewater dumping, according to Suzuki Tatsujiro, former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

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 August 24. The support given to Japan’s ocean dumping by prominent Western industrial countries strikes Pacific Islanders as hypocritical. Motarilavoa Hilda Lini is chief of the Turaga nation of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, and an activist with the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement. She put it this way:

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.

She stressed their feelings of responsibility: “We are people of the ocean. We must stand up and protect it.”

Brushing aside the pleas of neighbor states, especially those of the long-suffering peoples of the Pacific Islands, Japan is pressing ahead with the plan to dump its nuclear waste into the ocean, ensuring that in due course a third wave of nuclear pollution will wash over Pacific shores. Radioactive pollution, as Makhijani observes, “will be added to the Pacific Ocean even as the oceans of the world are already overburdened with pollutants and ecological destruction, which is being compounded by climate change.”

This article is copublished with Pearls and Irritations: A Public Policy Journal.

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