Our fragile oceans should not be a dumping ground for Fukushima’s radioactive waste water

Thousands of South Korean fishermen gather near the parliamentary building in Seoul on June 12 to protest against Japan’s waste water discharge plan. Photo: Xinhua

The Japanese government is adamant about discharging treated radioactive waste water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean this summer despite strong opposition in many countries, including China and South Korea, as well as fishing communities in the region.

This week, Tokyo’s decision was reinforced by an International Atomic Energy Agency report concluding that the discharge plan complies with international safety standards.

The government says Japan’s advanced liquid processing system (ALPS) reduces the presence of 62 of the 64 hazardous radioactive elements in the waste water to within regulatory limits.

More than 1.3 million tonnes of this waste water is stored in some 1,000 stainless steel tanks at the site after the nuclear accident occurred in March 2011. Several of the radioactive elements contained in the waste water, such as carbon-14, strontium-90, caesium-137 and tritium, are considered to have potential effects on human health.

The half-life (or time taken for half the atomic nuclei to decay) of radionuclides varies. While some have decayed since 2011, carbon-14, for example, has a half-life of more than 5,000 years, which means it remains radioactive in the environment for many generations after us.

Tokyo says it is confident the ALPS can process most of the radionuclides in the waste water, except for two: carbon-14 and tritium. So the treated waste water still needs to be diluted before discharge, to reduce the concentration of these elements to acceptable levels.

A work ship is seen offshore where Tokyo Electric Power Company said it has installed the last piece of an undersea tunnel to be used to discharge the treated waste water, during a media tour to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan on June 26. Photo: AP

The discharge process is expected to take around three decades. This is an extremely huge and long-term process requiring full-proof engineering- and nature-based solutions – more than 12 years after the nuclear disaster. Thankfully, many believe today’s nuclear plants are much safer to operate.

Some scientists believe Japan’s treatment system for the radioactive waste water and its subsequent dilution in our oceans will make it safe, but many other scientists remain doubtful. In Hong Kong, the administration continues to assess the risks of Japan’s discharge plan and has said it would introduce import controls on marine produce from Fukushima and other Japanese prefectures once the discharge starts.

Robert Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, is one of the scientists advising the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum on the Fukushima discharge plan. Earlier this year, he and others suggested that Japan delay its discharge plan, as they were not fully certain it would be safe enough for the ocean ecosystem and those who rely on it.

We ought to be aware of several important factors. Firstly, there are no physical boundaries in oceans and the pollution released in one will reach the rest. Secondly, the ability of any water body, even oceans, to dilute pollution is not limitless. Thirdly, oceans do not have the magic power to turn polluted water into clean water instantly. It takes a very long time to dilute pollution, and in the case of Fukushima, radioactive contaminants will continue to be released for decades.

Scientists are also concerned that the radionuclides can be captured by phytoplankton and other microscopic sea organisms that make up the bottom of the aquatic food chain. This could mean an eventual accumulation of radionuclides in fish and marine mammals.

According to a study published in the National Academy of Sciences Journal, tiny amounts of caesium-137 and caesium-134 were detected in 15 tuna caught near San Diego, California, just five months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Seafood is common in our diet. Even if the amount of contaminants found in seafood is really small, one can hardly rule out the dangers of their accumulation in our bodies.

Once again, we witness the selfishness and short-sightedness of political leaders. The ocean is not a dumping ground for anybody or any nation. It is a valuable resource – providing food, absorbing carbon dioxide and sustaining economic development.

I believe the countries of the world, if united, could halt Japan’s controversial discharge plan by providing more tanks for it to store its radioactive waste water, or by offering to help construct an artificial lake in Fukushima to store its treated waste water. We simply cannot afford to threaten the fragile ecosystem of our oceans.

An SCMP article contributed by Mr Edwin Lau,

Founder & Executive Director of The Green Earth

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