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Japan should address wastewater concerns

By Alfred Romann | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-02-16 09:09
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An aerial view shows the storage tanks for treated water at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, Feb 13, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

It is difficult to avoid irony in international affairs. Japan's disparate messages over the past months on denuclearization and the potential impact of nuclear contaminated waste are a timely example.

The irony-even hypocrisylies in Japan's ongoing effort to dump thousands of tons of radioactive water into the ocean, even as it taps into its tragic credentials as the only victim of an atomic bombing to push for denuclearization.

Led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan is laying the groundwork for a 2023 visit to Hiroshima by the leaders of the G-7-Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States-which will hold their annual meeting in the country that year.

Kishida said in late January that a visit to Hiroshima, which, along with Nagasaki, was a target of the only historical use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict, could spur debate about denuclearization.

But just as Japan parades the leaders of nuclear states where nuclear devastation occurred, it plans to dump millions of tons of radioactive water, with potentially devastating effects for everyone on the planet.

The US decision to drop atomic bombs brought death and suffering to Japan, with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and decades of fallout.

Japan's plan to dump radioactive water could also have a devastating impact on the environment, entire industries and people around the world. Yet despite the objections of neighbors, governments, environmentalists and activists around the world, Japan is dead set on the move.

Unilaterally dumping contaminated water into the ocean without the consensus of the international community could inflict suffering on hundreds of millions of people.

It is hard to argue with the goal of denuclearization. Ultimately, a nuclear weapon's only purpose is massive and indiscriminate destruction and killing (if not to deter such destruction and killing, or serve as a negotiating tool backed by the same).

Nuclear technology itself, even if it has emerged as a source of clean and efficient power, has also proved controversial because of the potential for catastrophic disaster. Japan should know this more than most.

The 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were caused by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Pacific Ocean. Japan has been storing contaminated water used to cool down the reactors in 1,061 holding tanks. It now plans to dump the water into the ocean.

Rainwater and groundwater have continually mixed with the contaminated water, adding about 150 metric tons per day on average. By the end of January, the storage tanks were at 94 percent capacity and should be totally full this year.

Having treated the contaminated water, Japan says it is safe to dump. There is some research to back those claims, but also research suggesting a long-lasting, widespread negative impact.

Meanwhile, several governments, particularly in Asia, have objected to the move, as have industries both inside and outside Japan. China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, Russia and multiple Pacific nations have all objected to discharging the contaminated water into the ocean. The opposition comes from the practical reality that even the most stringent treatment cannot filter out tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope.

Environmentalists, the fishing industry and residents also oppose the plan.

The water would be released slowly over decades, through which the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Co are counting on the contaminated water being diluted in the ocean.

Japan says the water's radioactivity levels are quite low after years of treatment, but both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation have said such discharge could ultimately have a devastating effect on marine ecosystems, food safety and human health. Another study has said that within a decade, some level of nuclear contamination would spread globally from the discharge.

It would go a long way to eliminating the irony-or hypocrisy-if Japan were to address the many concerns of the international community and get global consensus before dumping its potentially toxic water.

A solution of some kind is needed, as there is already too much nuclear waste around the world, buried or in storage. Unilaterally inflicting nuclear waste and the inadvertent pain and suffering it could lead to is not the way to go.

The author is managing director of Bahati, an editorial services agency based in Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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