Scientists: Japan’s plan to dump nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean may not be safe

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Independent scientists are questioning Japan’s plans to dump just over a million tonnes of nuclear waste water into the Pacific Ocean, following a review of available evidence.

The multidisciplinary group of scientists, hired by the Pacific Islands Intergovernmental Forum, found no conclusive evidence that the discharge would be entirely safe, and one marine biologist fears the contamination could affect the food system.

Last year, Japan announced that wastewater from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroyed in March 2011 following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, would be discharged into the Pacific in 2023.

The announcement caused immediate concern among nations and territories in the Asia-Pacific region and led the Pacific Islands Forum to hire a panel of five independent experts to review the plan.

A member of the International Atomic Energy Agency investigation team examines a reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in May 2011. Courtesy of Greg Webb/IAEA

Previously, it was widely believed that dumping sewage into the ocean would be safe, given that it had been treated with “advanced liquid treatment system” technology, which removes radioactive materials from contaminated water. .

But panel scientist Robert Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, says the panel unanimously believes there remain critical information gaps.

Previous discussions about the safety of Japan’s plans have focused on the chemistry of the release, but not how it might interact with marine life, he said.

“If the ocean was a sterile glass vessel, that would be one thing,” Richmond said. “But it’s not, you know, there’s a lot of biology involved.”

Director Kewalo Marine Lab Robert Richmond PhD2.  June 20, 2016
The director of the Kewalo marine laboratory at the University of Hawaii, Robert Richmond, is concerned about the discharge of sewage on marine life. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Richmond is particularly concerned about the potential for uptake of tritium – a compound of concern – into the food system, as the radioactive isotope can bind to phytoplankton.

Through phytoplankton, Richmond says, the radioactive element could then work its way into the larger food system, as the microscopic plants are eaten by molluscs and small fish, which are then eaten by other fish and eventually fish. humans.

“Things like mercury in fish are now an international concern. The radionuclides will be the same,” Richmond said.

The situation is also dynamic, as climate change affects water temperatures and weather patterns change.

As temperatures increase, many chemicals become more interactive, they become a little bit different in terms of breaking down,” he said. “So those are all the things we have to consider.”

Confuse the masses

The Pacific Islands Forum brought together its panel of experts – specializing in policy and different scientific disciplines – due to the highly technical nature of the Japanese plan.

The PIF did not respond to an interview request for this story.

But Forum Secretary General Henry Puna said while Japan was open and candid in several briefings held with the Forum, it wanted to bring in its own group of experts to review the data and advise them. .

“I just want to note that, for us, the matter is very urgent but also requires very careful thought,” Puna said in September.

A team in Fukushima was part of an IAEA mission in 2015 to review Japan’s plans and work to decommission the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Courtesy of Susanna Loof/IAEA

Since Japan announced it would dump the treated water into the Pacific, it has been working with the International Atomic Energy Association to ensure its plans are safe. In February, the IAEA conducted its first assessment and recently completed a second assessment at the end of March.

The IAEA is expected to provide reports on its site visits over the next two months, according to its website, and would release a full report before any water is released.

Richmond said the group wanted to work with Japan and the IAEA to ensure the best results.

Still, information seen by the panel showed less than 1% of sewage tanks had been treated and less than 20% had been adequately sampled, Richmond says.

“Based on these numbers alone, we’re uncomfortable making any predictions about where things will end up,” Richmond said.

The Pacific perspective

Community groups and environmental organizations were quick to react to the news last year, raising concerns about the long-term effects on their region, with its legacy of nuclear testing and its fallout. And coastal communities and fishermen in Japan have also raised concerns.

The United States expressed support for the plan in April last year, which has since been criticized by US territories and affiliated states.

Representative Sheila Babauta of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands introduced a resolution in the CNMI House of Representatives opposing any nuclear testing, storage or disposal of waste in the Pacific.

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands representative Sheila Babauta opposes testing, storage or disposal of nuclear waste in the Pacific. Facebook/Rep. Sheila J. Babauta

It was passed in December, months after the United States declared its position and after other Pacific groups and governments condemned the move.

“I am really disappointed with the lack of commitment, the lack of information and the lack of free, prior and informed consent,” said Babauta, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee.

The mistrust held by many in the Pacific dates back to American nuclear testing in the Republic of the Marshall Islands after World War II, British testing in Kiribati, and French testing in French Polynesia, which had environmental and long-term. health of Pacific people. And in 1979, Japan caused a backlash when it revealed plans to dump 10,000 barrels of nuclear waste into the Mariana Trench.

Babauta says she introduced the resolution as a sign of solidarity with the rest of the Pacific.

“The ocean is our oldest ancestor. The ocean is our heritage,” Babauta said. “That’s what we’re going to leave to our children.”

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