Pacific nations and territories aren’t yet convinced their people and waters will be safe when Japan discharges processed nuclear wastewater into the Pacific, as it recently announced it plans to do.
Despite briefings from Japan, and its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Pacific community has yet to fully understand what the ramifications of dropping 1 million tons of wastewater off Japan’s coast might be.
“Currently we are not satisfied there will be no harm to our Blue Pacific,” said Henry Puna, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, noting that even basic concerns had not yet been addressed.
Japan triggered immediate and strong opposition when it announced the plan in April, initially from neighboring nations South Korea and China, though countries and territories across the Pacific continue to express their dissatisfaction with Japan’s engagement with them thus far.
The wastewater, which contains debris from the Fukushima Daiichi power station destroyed during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, has been treated and many scientists believe the technology is safe.
But for countries in the Pacific, the nuclear legacy still endures and many have their reservations.
The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, an intergovernmental organization comprising 17 Pacific nations and territories, noted the serious concerns over Japan’s plans in a July meeting and, following a briefing on Tuesday, remains unconvinced.
Puna said one issue was the highly technical nature of the briefings. The former Cook Islands prime minister acknowledged Japan was “as committed as we are to having frank and open dialogue,” but the planned action is less than 18 months away.
Puna said a major issue was that the Pacific nations lacked the expertise to interpret the highly technical plans.
“I just want to note that, for us, the issue is very urgent but also requires very careful thinking,” said Puna. “When you have a major development partner explaining that the only way for it to get rid of more than a million cubic tons of treated, but still contaminated water, is to dump it into an ocean, where we share the same tides, current, and fish, it is a level up from urgent for us.”
An IAEA review of the waste disposal, agreed to on Sept. 9, would focus on safety, regulation and environmental monitoring, and a team of IAEA experts would review the process in a December visit. PIFs concerns have not been allayed, however, so it was in the process of bringing on three independent scientists to assess the plans.
“This is an area of the planet where people see the ocean as an extension of themselves,” Puna added.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands was subjected to 67 nuclear bombings between 1948 and 1956, and the legacy of nuclear testing endures. Islands were scarred or fully vaporized and people were forced from their homes. Across the Pacific, France and the United Kingdom also tested their nuclear prowess around the same time. The fallout has had generational effects.
A recently released study, conducted as part of ongoing collaboration between IAEA and RMI, found that Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. conducted the Castle Bravo test (a 15 megaton thermonuclear bomb) in 1954, is slowly healing from the test though radioactive material remains.
Given RMI’s nuclear history — even with IAEA’s involvement — Marshallese have maintained a “healthy distrust” of governments and agencies, said Giff Johnson, editor of The Marshall Islands Journal.
He said although Japan and Micronesian nations share a long history, and have enjoyed a healthy diplomatic relationship in more recent times, nuclear issues remain contentious. “That in itself is a big hurdle to get over,” Johnson said. “It makes it complicated, diplomatically.”
This is not the first time Japan has riled Pacific nations with nuclear waste. In 1979, Japanese plans to dump 10,000 drums of nuclear waste in the Marianas Trench were met with virulent opposition from political leaders and protests from citizens.
Given the multi-generational legacy of nuclear testing and waste disposal, young activists are also voicing their concerns. Youngsolwara Pacific, a regional collective of young activists, has condemned the Japanese government’s plans and lack of consultation.
According to Talei Luscia Mangioni, a Pasifika researcher at the Australian National University and Youngsolwara Pacific member, Japan’s nuclear behavior seemed to ignore the region’s ongoing Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement and the history of colonizers dumping nuclear waste and testing nuclear weapons.
“Pacific youth acknowledge that this is an act of transboundary harm and is part of a great legacy of where nuclear powers have treated the Pacific as a sacrifice zone,” said Mangioni. “I think that Japan needs to properly consult and engage with Pacific people and their own Japanese civil society instead of making an announcement that they are going to do this, given their history.”
Mangioni was similarly concerned by the proximity of Micronesian nations to the proposed dumping and emphasized that they “have been the vanguard for a lot of nuclear resistance.”
PIFS Secretary General Puna, however, said Micronesia remained part of the forum “family” and said it had endorsed Rhea Moss-Christian, chair of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission, as a representative of its interests on the IAEA safety task force.
Moss-Christian said she was unsure if her involvement with IAEA reassured the Marshallese, and her organization had not yet begun its outreach program in RMI.
Though Japan’s government had been working hard to assure the region’s concerns, whether its plans were robust enough remained to be seen and would be addressed by the task force.
“However, it is still difficult to accept that our backyard should be a dumping ground for our neighbor’s toxic waste, no matter how minimal the risk,” she said.
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