Japan's dumping of its nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean despite protests may lead to the biggest marine disaster of the century.
September 1 denotes a special place in Japan’s calendar and this year, the day was observed even more intensely, being the centenary of a massive earthquake. The Great Kanto Earthquake struck the Kanto Plain on Honshu Island in 1923, killing over 100,000 people and wiping out more than a third of Japan’s gross national product at that time.
Since then, the day is observed as Japan’s Disaster Prevention Day, with the cabinet of ministers taking part in disaster drills and a nationwide drive to build more quake-resistant infrastructure.
It’s rather ironic, given that less than a fortnight earlier, Japan initiated what could be the biggest marine disaster of the century. It began to release radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, a move it said will continue over three decades, despite widespread protests.
People gather to protest the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) decision on releasing nuclear-contaminated wastewater in front of the headquarters of the TEPCO in Tokyo, Japan, Aug. 24, 2023. (Xinhua/Yang Guang)
What Happened Before
The problem started with a 9.0-magnitude earthquake pounding Japan in March 2011. The quake triggered a devastating tsunami that flooded the reactors of the nuclear power plant in the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture, leading to a nuclear meltdown. It is regarded as the highest nuclear disaster after the one in Chernobyl in the then Soviet Union in 1986. The Fukushima catastrophe had a new dimension added to it when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Japanese nuclear power plant, announced it would dispose of the radioactive water generated while cooling down the reactors into the Pacific.
TEPCO says the wastewater, whose total volume exceeds the contents of 500 Olympic pools, has been chemically treated to make it safe. Therefore its impact on the environment, marine organisms and people would be “minuscule.” The Japanese government, toying with the idea of an ocean release for nearly two years, received a shot in the arm this July when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) endorsed the plan, saying the treated wastewater meets international standards and would have negligible impact.
Emboldened by this international backing, TEPCO began dumping the water into the Pacific from August 24 despite protests by neighboring countries and widespread scientific concerns.
Why do the protests and concerns remain despite TEPCO’s assertions and the IAEA’s apparent backing? A key reason is TEPCO’s past history and lack of transparency. After the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s legislature formed an investigation commission, which reported that the causes of the catastrophe were foreseeable and TEPCO failed to meet certain basic safety requirements. TEPCO admitted its dereliction, saying it was due to fears about facing lawsuits and public protests.
At that time, the IAEA criticized Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, saying it had shown lax oversight. Also, the ministry acted as both the regulator as well as promoter of the nuclear power industry; therefore, there was a conflict of interests.
Before TEPCO began releasing the nuclear-contaminated wastewater, it promised it would conduct safety analysis “every day over the next one month.” But after the first day, there has been no media reports on any data-supported findings. On the other hand, in May, much before the discharge started, there were reports that fishes caught near the power plant contained radioactive elements exceeding the national safety limit.
China, which had been urging for other ways to dispose of the radioactive wastewater, banned the import of all Japanese aquatic items on the mainland. Hong Kong banned such imports from 10 Japanese regions. Together, the two Chinese regions used to comprise the biggest market for seafood imports from Japan.
Japan’s response to the legitimate concerns of its neighboring countries has been one of deflection and diversion. First, it alleged that it was receiving thousands of harassing phone calls from China and stones were thrown at the Japanese Embassy and consulates in China as well as Japanese schools. However, the allegations haven’t been backed by any evidence.
Also, as part of the propaganda, an official video showed Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reportedly eating fish from Fukushima to allay fears that it was unsafe. Then in a show of political support, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, was shown visiting Fukushima and reportedly lunching on local seafood with Japanese officials.
That’s a classic example of the saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. Japan portrays itself as the victim of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, thereby deflecting attention from the atrocities it perpetrated during the war. Ironically, the nuclear bombing was done by the U.S. to avenge the attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese, but the historical enmity has been apparently forgotten for the sake of political expediency.
The U.S. envoy called the Chinese ban “political” and compared Japan’s handling of the wastewater issue to China’s handling of COVID-19, calling the Japanese plan scientific and transparent.
That too is steeped in irony because both the U.S. and Japan are maestros when it comes to politicization to appear as the victims instead of the aggressors. The Great Kanto Earthquake is a sobering example. According to Japanese media reports, the victims of the disaster also included Koreans and Chinese, who were “killed by the military, police and vigilante groups amid false rumors that they planned to stage an uprising or, in the case of Koreans, that they were poisoning wells.” But the Japanese government, true to its conduct, has neither compensated the victims’ kin nor apologized for the brutality, citing “lack of records.” It’s the same excuse it trotted out to wriggle out of its responsibility for the suffering and humiliation of the so-called “comfort women” of World War II.
Meanwhile, there are also reactions to the radioactive water dumping different from the pro-Japan ones. Marine biologist Bob Richmond at the University of Hawaii told U.S. radio station NPR that Japan’s response has been “everything from deflection to denial.” He said the site around the Fukushima factory could have been used to dump the radioactive water: “We need to step away from continuing to use the ocean as the ultimate dumping ground for everything we don't want on land.”
Regarding the IAEA clean chit, Richmond said he and his colleagues remain unconvinced: “We are saying because we're scientists and data-driven, that there are insufficient data to be able to demonstrate the feeling that this is going to be safe. The IAEA’s job is to see that their plan adheres to standards, and adhering to standards is not the same thing as guaranteeing safety.”
Some of his specific concerns are that the radioactive water would not stay in Japan's territory but spread throughout the Pacific via ocean currents and organisms: “We're assuming everything is going to go well. If you look at the history of how we got here, I think the assumption that everything is going to go to plan is one that has to be clearly evaluated.”
Regarding China’s ban, he called it a valid action despite Japan’s hinted threat that it will take the issue to the World Trade Organization. “I'm data driven,” Richmond said. “This is supposed to go on for over 30 years. And so not only is this a transboundary issue, but it's a transgenerational issue. That's a concern because many of the problems won't show up immediately. And once it does show up, you're not going to get the genie back in the bottle. So, should there be concern? Absolutely… As an environmental biologist, I strongly adhere to what's called the precautionary principle. In the absence of data showing something is safe, you don't assume that it's safe. You rather put in those protective measures to be very conservative.”
A recent report by Chinese think tank Global Governance Institution says Japan’s action will have an impact on the health and environment of all. It is proposing to see if Japan can be prosecuted on the charge of ecocide.
This is not the first time Japan’s actions have raised widespread environmental concerns. In the past, over 200 groups and individuals from more than 45 countries came together to protest against what they called Japan’s bid to establish “waste colonies” in Asia by importing its toxic waste under bilateral trade and investment treaties promising development assistance and investment.
China’s environment actions are a study in contrast. The Chinese path to modernization has detailed plans for creating an ecological civilization, which will ensure harmony between humanity and nature. The guideline says specifically about pollution: “We should resolutely not repeat the mistakes of ‘polluting first and treating later’ of Western countries in industrialization. We will protect nature and the environment as we do our own lives and ensure the sustainable development of the Chinese nation.”
The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) includes a "Beautiful Bay" initiative as part of the marine ecology and environment protection drive. It says by 2035, the over 1,400 bays in China will be protected, cleaned and beautified.
That’s not an empty promise. The data reported by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in August indicated considerable improvement in China’s marine ecosystem and general seawater quality in 2022. Over 97 percent of the area under China’s jurisdiction reported category I seawater quality, the top grade in a four-grade measuring system.
China’s concerns over Japan’s wastewater dumping have a legitimate reason besides the fact that it is a neighboring country. In 2018, China signed a unique ocean partnership agreement with the European Union, whose goals include fighting marine pollution.
It is remarkable that the UN hasn’t weighed in on Japan’s action yet since the dumping is being done during the UN-proclaimed “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development” to reverse the decline in ocean health, which will continue till 2030.
SUDESHNA SARKAR is a journalist and editor based in Beijing. A former commentator for a regional program of Deutsche Welle Radio, she follows China’s development, culture, and international links.