Just as all Americans remember 9/11, Japanese remember 3/11, the day in 2011 that an earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, destroying a town, poisoning a wide area around it, and raising questions about nuclear safety in much the same way as the Chernobyl nuclear accident had in 1986.
Now, 12 years later, on August 24 Japan started releasing into the Pacific Ocean more than one million metric tons of treated radioactive water from three of the Fukushima plants damaged reactors—water that has been cooling the reactor fuel. Many more releases will follow, possibly for the next 30-40 years, since the roughly 1000 water storage vessels in the three reactors are about to reach full capacity.
Discharging the water is a necessary step in the planned decommissioning of the plant, which is operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The release was approved two years ago by the Japanese government. The IAEA has given its approval, saying the radioactive cesium and strontium have been largely removed and the diluted tritium that remains is a “negligible” amount and therefore safe for humans and fish. The agency plans to continue monitoring the site.
Kan Naoto, who was prime minister at the time of the nuclear accident, testified that “Gorbachev said in his memoirs that the Chernobyl accident exposed the sicknesses of the Soviet system. The Fukushima accident did the same for Japan.” He was referring to what Jeff Kingston calls Japan’s “nuclear village,” that complex of government, private, and other special interests, such as TEPCO, that control the country’s nuclear energy policies.
It is this village that downplayed safety concerns before 3/11 and that sought to salvage Fukushima and nuclear power afterwards. Antinuclear advocates inside and outside Japan had hoped that the Fukushima disaster would doom Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy, but that did not happen. The disaster did awaken mistrust of government decision making, which certainly applies to the reassurances being given now about radioactive water.
The two countries most immediately affected by the discharged water, China and South Korea, had very different reactions. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the move “extremely selfish”; China lodged a formal complaint with Tokyo. Wang said China “will take all necessary measures to protect the marine environment, food safety, and public health,” and those measures have turned out to mean a complete ban Japanese seafood exports.
Hong Kong said the city would “immediately activate” import controls on Japanese seafood from the Fukushima area, and Macau did likewise. South Korea, careful not to criticize Japan right after the Camp David summit that produced a common regional security commitment, said it found nothing technically wrong with Japan’s plan but did not outright support it.
As in China, there have been public protests in Korea. Japan promised to keep South Korea aware of all future developments concerning Fukushima and will allow Korean experts to visit it the IAEA plant monitoring office. Nevertheless, Korea will maintain import restrictions on products from the Fukushima area.
Fishermen, worried about the harm to their industry from Fukushima’s reputation, are not entirely convinced of the water’s safety. And they shouldn’t be. As I’ve noted, leaks of thousands of gallons of contaminated water into the Pacific surely affected fishing in the Fukushima area and probably reached the west coasts of the US and Canada. The water just now being released will be less than one mile offshore from Japan.
A Dangerous Precedent
Azby Brown, an environmental researcher and long resident in Japan who has been covering Fukushima since the initial disaster, puts a finger on the real issues. They go beyond the major problems posed by decommissioning the three reactors and removing and finding a final resting place for the melted nuclear fuel. “The most important questions here,” he says, “may be the example being set.”
The Japanese government and Tepco made the decision to release the water after a process that has been neither fully transparent nor adequately inclusive of important stakeholders, both in Japan and abroad. This plants the seeds for what could be decades of mistrust and contention.
But perhaps even more worrying, Japan is setting a precedent for other governments that might be even less transparent. This is dangerous, particularly in Asia, where more than 140 nuclear power reactors are already in operation and, led by growth in China and India, dozens more are either being built, are in the planning stages or have been proposed.
If Japan can get away with dumping radioactive water, what’s to stop other countries?
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.