The decision coincides with construction setbacks that would have postponed any discharge into the Pacific Ocean until spring or summer at the earliest.

Japan’s decision to postpone the release of treated nuclear wastewater into the ocean is giving Pacific nations and territories more time to push for other options.

But the company hired to dispose of the material is still moving ahead with preparations for the work, and told Civil Beat it expects to get the go-ahead in the coming months.

The wastewater is from the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, destroyed in March 2011 following the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami.

It was deemed one of the worst nuclear disasters on record.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida indicated that the nation would hold off the release until it was “verifiably safe to do so and based on a relationship built of trust and in the spirit of friendship,” according to the Pacific Islands Forum, an intergovernmental organization.

Release plans were made public in 2021 and the process was scheduled to begin early this year and continue over the course of 40 years.

Several months of negotiation and international inspections that reiterated safety concerns preceded the decision.

Workers at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant work among water storage pools in 2013. (Courtesy: Greg Webb / IAEA)

But Tokyo Electric Power Co. stated in an interview with Radio New Zealand that the water, treated with an Advanced Liquid Processing System, remains safe to be discharged.

The company continues to work under the premise it will begin releasing water in the coming months, a representative confirmed to Civil Beat.

After visiting Japan an independent panel assembled by PIF said there was insufficient evidence that the release would be safe.

The water has been treated to remove radioactive materials, though significant gaps in data remain and all alternative disposal options have not been fully considered, said PIF scientific panel member Robert Richmond, who was part of the delegation that visited last week. 

Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii Kewalo Marine Laboratory, has previously raised concerns about the potential interplay between lingering radioactive compounds and marine life in the Pacific, which could eventually make its way into the food system and fundamentally change the ecosystem.

Robert H. Richmond PhD holds experiments on music CD at the Kewalo UH facility. 12 june 2017
Robert Richmond holds experiments on music CD at the Kewalo UH facility. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

One of the compounds in the wastewater of most concern to Richmond is tritium, defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a “mildly radioactive isotope,” which is already released from operational nuclear power stations globally. 

Richmond says he was not entirely satisfied with the level of research and data Japan could provide to the panel, despite TEPCO experimenting with flounder to assess whether there had been a change in the fish. 

“When people try to trivialize the seriousness of that, that becomes very concerning for us,” Richmond said in an interview.

Company Moves Forward With Plan

Under the direction of the Japanese government, five methods of disposal were considered.

The final options were steam release, and discharging the treated water over time to dilute its contents. Releasing treated water into the ocean was selected and supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency

The scientific panel though has continually raised questions over the apparent rush to dispose of the wastewater, given fears over contamination. 

Tritium, the key radioactive compound in the liquid, has a half-life of 12.3 years, so encasing the treated water in concrete would deal with the issue without risking potential fallout in the Pacific. 

“I felt a sense of relief. That was very fleeting.” – Former CNMI Rep. Sheila Babauta

Richmond says science is developing faster than international standards and regulations, which means current standards may not reflect the best possible solution.

“If they can guarantee and swear that the water will be totally safe by all standards, then why are they still averse to keeping it on site, binding it up in concrete so that it can’t get into people and can’t get into oceanic organisms, rather than making it the transboundary issue it is?” Richmond said. 

TEPCO reiterated that it was following the basic policy set by the Japanese government in April 2021, and that it would “move forward with the construction of discharge facilities with the aim of commencing ocean discharge within approximately two years.”

The power company said construction delays mean the release may not happen until spring or summer, the Associated Press reported

Company officials took the media on a tour of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2013. (Joe Rubin/Civil Beat/2013)

Does Delay Still Mean Inevitable?

Japan has faced pushback from China and South Korea, as well as U.S. territorial governments in the Pacific, despite the U.S. Department of State’s statement that Japan had “been transparent about its decision,” in 2021. 

The House of Representatives in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands introduced a resolution six months later, opposing nuclear testing and waste storage or disposal in the Pacific. The U.S. Territory has its own history with Japan, which planned to dump 10,000 drums of nuclear waste near its waters in the 1970s.

Along with years of nuclear testing and still-lingering waste and pollution from World War II, such treatment of the Pacific region informs current misgivings.

Former CNMI Rep. Sheila Babauta. (Courtesy CNMI)

Former CNMI House Rep. Sheila Babauta, who introduced the resolution, says that cooperation and engagement with large international institutions such as the U.S. military, at least within Micronesia, have historically been opaque.

“I felt a sense of relief. That was very fleeting,” Babauta said in an interview. “We’ve engaged very much with the world around us and have been burned many times. And so it does come with trauma.”

The delay buys Pacific nations time to rally, organize and educate the region on the risks associated with the wastewater release, Babauta says.

But just how long they have is uncertain. 

The decision to delay has curried some favor however from the Federated States of Micronesia, who had voiced opposition to the Japanese plan in September.

Richard Clark, special advisor to the FSM President David Panuelo, said in an email statement that the country was buoyed by Japan’s decision to delay until other Pacific nations “attain the same level of trust in Japan’s intentions and capabilities.”

The Pacific Action Network on Globalisation, a Fiji-based regional watchdog, was concerned that Pacific nations would be in a difficult predicament because Japan is a major regional donor. 

But Joey Tau, deputy coordinator of PANG, says that conundrum pales in comparison to the environmental effects of releasing the wastewater into the Pacific, as forecast by the PIF scientific panel. 

“If Japan decides to go ahead, we will see it as a fundamental breach of human rights,” Tau said in an interview. “We really hope that all other options are exhausted.”

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