The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands says there is a viable alternative to Japan’s plan to dump more than a million tonnes of treated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, and that it requires urgent examination.
The sewage is the product of efforts to cool Fukushima’s nuclear reactors that were badly damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The Northern Mariana Islands, a territory of the United States with a population of approximately 51,659 people, are located just 2,500 km (1,553 miles) southeast of Japan. Island leaders have said Japan’s plan, officially announced last year, is unacceptable.
“The discharge is not expected to take place until 2023. It is time to reverse this decision,” Sheila J Babauta, a member of the House of Representatives for the Northern Mariana Islands, told Al Jazeera in an interview last month. In December, his government passed a joint resolution opposing any nation’s decision to dispose of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean.
“The effort that went into creating the joint resolution revealed research and reports from Greenpeace East Asia highlighting alternatives for the storage of Japanese nuclear waste, including the only acceptable option, long-term storage. term and treatment using the best available technology”, Babauta mentioned.
Currently, Japan intends to dispose of all sewage, which will be treated, over a period of about 30 years.
Anxiety is high among local Japanese fishermen and coastal communities. And his plan has faced fierce opposition from neighboring countries, including China, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as Pacific island nations and the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s intergovernmental organization.
“This water adds to the ocean already polluted by nuclear power. This threatens the lives and livelihoods of islanders heavily dependent on marine resources. These include inshore fishing as well as pelagic fish such as tuna. The former provides daily subsistence and food security, and the latter is in dire need of foreign exchange via fishing licenses for national distant water fishing fleets,” Vijay Naidu, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, told Al Jazeera.
It was the use of the Pacific Islands for nuclear weapons testing by the United States, United Kingdom and France from the 1940s to the end of the last century that sparked strong opposition among islanders to any nuclear-related activity in the region.
Radioactive contamination from more than 300 atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests rendered many locations, especially in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia, uninhabitable and led to irreversible long-term health disorders in affected communities.
Satyendra Prasad, the Chair of Pacific Islands Forum Ambassadors at the United Nations, reminded the world in September last year of the Pacific’s “ongoing struggle with the legacy of nuclear testing from the transboundary contamination of homes and habitats to higher numbers of birth defects and cancers”.
In 1985, regional leaders established the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, prohibiting the testing and use of nuclear explosive devices and the dumping of radioactive wastes in the sea by member states, including Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island nations.
“For us in the Pacific, the Pacific Ocean has become a proving ground, a theatre of war, a highway for nuclear submarines and waste. The Pacific is not a dumping ground for radioactive waste water,” Maureen Penjueli, Co-ordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, added.
Running out of space
When the earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima power plant, three nuclear reactors went into meltdown.
The process of decommissioning the disaster-hit site, which could take up to four decades, includes pumping cooling water through the affected infrastructure to prevent overheating. About 170 cubic metres of treated wastewater is accumulating every day and now fills at least 1,000 tanks around the site.
The Japanese government says it needs to release the water because it is running out of space to store it all.
It says it consulted with other countries in the region after announcing its plan in April last year, conducting briefings with Pacific Island Forum countries and the organisation’s secretariat. It adds that it will cooperate with the international community and adhere to relevant international standards.
“In November last year, experts from laboratories of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], France, Germany and the Republic of Korea traveled to Japan to collect samples such as fish. These samples will be divided and sent to these laboratories for analysis,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“The surveillance of the maritime area will be reinforced from one year before the discharge, which should start in spring 2022 under the current plan. Measurement of the concentration of legally regulated nuclides, including tritium and carbon-14, will be measured prior to discharge at sea, and reports of the results will be made public.
Last year, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, expressed his support for Japan’s decision.
“We will work closely with Japan before, during and after the water spill,” Grossi said. “Our cooperation and presence will help build confidence, in Japan and beyond, that water disposal is carried out without negative impact on human health and the environment.”
The United States also lent its support to Japan.
Babauta believes storage space is available at the Fukushima Daiichi site and nearby land in Japan’s Futaba and Okuma districts.
In a 2020 report, Greenpeace argued that “the only acceptable solution” was for Japan to continue long-term storage and treatment of contaminated water.
“It is logistically possible and will allow time to deploy more efficient treatment technology while allowing the threat of radioactive tritium to naturally diminish,” the environmental group said. Greenpeace said that while the Japanese government had considered allocating land for storage in Okuma and Futaba, dumping at sea was considered easier and less time-consuming.
The option of storing wastewater is also favored by the expert civil society organization, the Citizens Committee on Nuclear Energy (CCNE), supported by Tilman Ruff, associate professor at the Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
“Their [CCNE’s] recommendation for water management is that the first thing to do would be to store it in large, properly constructed, secure and long-lived reservoirs, similar to those that Japan uses for its national oil and petroleum reserves… The point they make, which I think is really very valid, is that if this water hasn’t been stored for an indefinite period, but even for a period of about 50 to 60 years , so by then the tritium will have decayed to a tiny fraction of what it is today and will hardly be a problem,” Ruff told Al Jazeera.
The Japanese government insists that the effect of radiation on human health as a result of the discharge is small, stating that it will amount to 0.00081 mSv/year (millisievert of radiation per year), a fraction the level of exposure to natural radiation, estimated at 2.1 mSv/year. But medical experts are seriously concerned about the huge volume of wastewater and the potential fallout of even small amounts of tritium, a radioactive isotope that will not be removed during treatment.
“Tritium is a normal contaminant of discharges, cooling water from normal reactor operations, but that equates to several centuries of normal tritium production that’s in that water, so it’s a very large amount,” he said. said Ruff.
“The government says it will dilute the water so it doesn’t exceed regulated concentration limits… It might allow you to tick off a regulatory requirement, but it doesn’t actually reduce the amount of radioactivity that enters the environment and the amount of radioactivity released here is really critical,” added Ruff, Nobel laureate and co-chair of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
He says the human and environmental consequences of even very low levels of radiation exposure cannot be ignored.
“Obviously, the higher the level of exposure [to radiation], the greater the risk, but there is no level below which there is no effect,” Ruff said. “It’s now been proven quite conclusively, because over the last decade there have been impressive, very large studies of large numbers of people exposed to low doses of radiation. At levels even a fraction from those we receive from the normal fund [radiation] exposure of rocks, cosmic radiation. Even at these very low levels, harmful effects have been demonstrated.
For Babauta and other Pacific Islanders, any effect is unsustainable.
For now, she said, it is vital that the Northern Mariana Islands have “a place at the decision-making table. Major decisions like these impact at the heart of our lives as Pacific Islanders, impacting the future of our children and generations to come.