Japan’s decision to release its nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean goes against hard-fought international laws and norms regarding the ocean dumping of nuclear waste, setting a dangerous precedent.
We can and should do something about this. New Zealand played an important role in ending French atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific by taking a case against France before the International Court of Justice. So there is precedent for taking legal action to prevent nuclear pollution of the Pacific.
I would argue that we have a responsibility to draw on that precedent to stop the ongoing release of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific and prevent nuclear waste ocean dumping from becoming a normal practice again. New Zealand could, for instance, pass a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly or file a case against Japan before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice.
What is happening with Japan’s nuclear wastewater release?
Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO) began releasing more than 1.3 million tons of nuclear wastewater from Fukushima Daiichi into the Pacific Ocean on August 24, a process that will take at least 30 years. The water is nuclear waste (some of it has been used to cool molten nuclear fuel), which means Japan is legally responsible for managing it.
Japan first announced its plans to release the nuclear wastewater in April 2021, and received legal approval from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in July 2023. The IAEA is an important but compromised organisation because of its conflicting responsibilities to both promote and regulate nuclear energy.
Ocean dumping was one of the earliest methods of nuclear waste disposal—even in New Zealand—and largely ended with the implementation of international agreements such as the 1975 London Convention, the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga, and the 1990 Noumea Convention
Legal thresholds vs. safety thresholds
There is a scientific consensus that there is no safety threshold for exposure to ionising radiation—the type of radiation emitted by nuclear waste which has the ability to damage living cells. This consensus is represented in the linear no-threshold (LNT) model, which has been adopted by the IAEA and other nuclear regulators as a means of, in the words of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “minimizing the risk of unnecessary radiation exposure to both members of the public and radiation workers”. Since nuclear waste always has the potential to cause biological harm, dumping nuclear waste into the ocean requires legal justification.
The IAEA’s standards represent the amount of nuclear waste that industry and governments can legally expose people to, based on the assumed benefits of exposure outweighing the assumed biological harm.
This is why official statements about TEPCO’s wastewater discharge don’t refer to it as “safe”, but state there will be a “negligible radiological impact to people and the environment”. The IAEA’s legal standards are also extremely narrow in their ability to assess biological harm, focused on questions related to chemistry (what radioactive particles are measured or assumed to be present in the nuclear wastewater) and radiation dose (how much ionising radiation people might be exposed to according to these measurements and assumptions).
Outstanding scientific questions
In March 2022, the Pacific Islands Forum gathered an expert panel of independent scientists to review Japan’s plan. The panel began raising serious scientific concerns to TEPCO and the IAEA as early as August 2022.
In its August 2022 report, members of the Forum’s expert panel said the plan’s underlying assumption, that “dilution is the solution to pollution”, was both “scientifically outdated” and “ecologically inappropriate”. During an online seminar, the scientists described TEPCO’s data (the basis of its legal and scientific claims) as “inadequate, incomplete, inconsistent and biased”.
In a June 2023 report, the expert panel argued the IAEA did not follow its own standards. If it did, TEPCO would have been required to demonstrate benefits to countries beyond Japan, and that any benefits would outweigh any possible harm. The scientists contended that, since there are no benefits, the IAEA should not approve the plan.
In that same report, the scientists noted TEPCO has options to store its nuclear wastewater on land, including using the wastewater to create concrete that could contribute to remedial work at Fukushima Daiichi. Japan has not taken up the plan, possibly because, under Japanese law, the concrete would be classified as nuclear waste.
This suggests the IAEA’s legal standards promote an ongoing trend of nuclear colonialism in the Pacific, where Pacific peoples and their lands and waters can be legally targeted as the waste repositories to sustain Japan’s nuclear energy industry.
Ocean dumping was one of the earliest methods of nuclear waste disposal—even in New Zealand—and largely ended with the implementation of international agreements such as the 1975 London Convention, the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga, and the 1990 Noumea Convention (which was a result of Pacific states’ powerful and principled opposition to Japan’s 1979 plan to dump nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean). Other international agreements such as the 1994 Convention on the Law of the Sea created legal mechanisms to hold states accountable for polluting the high seas.
While some have been conflating TEPCO’s nuclear wastewater with tritiated water regularly discharged from nuclear facilities, it is a form of nuclear waste containing more than just tritium. Even then, the regular discharge of tritium into waterways is not evidence that it is safe; recent observations indicate the biological consequences of tritium are likely greater than what is assumed within dominant nuclear safety standards.
Standing alongside Pacific partners
Back in November 2022, I joined others from the Nuclear Connections Across Oceania conference to encourage the New Zealand Government to take Japan to court to stop TEPCO’s wastewater plan. The response was that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had “full confidence” in the IAEA.
Former Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta reiterated her confidence in the IAEA’s “science-based approach” after the agency’s approval of TEPCO’s plan in July 2023. She also said “New Zealand continues to stand alongside Pacific partners to ensure their concerns are adequately taken on board”.
Unfortunately the New Zealand Government’s words contradicted its actions. It claimed to follow a science-based approach to TEPCO’s wastewater release, but chose to disregard serious concerns raised by prominent scientists, including those working with its partners in the Pacific. It said it was standing alongside its Pacific partners, but chose to move ahead, voicing support for the IAEA and framing the concerns of Pacific peoples as somehow being non-evidence-based or unscientific.
If the new New Zealand government wants to follow a science-based approach, it should publicly respond to the outstanding scientific questions raised by the Pacific Islands Forum’s independent panel of scientific experts about the reliability of TEPCO’s data, the appropriateness of TEPCO’s scientific assumptions, and the IAEA’s misapplication of its own legal standards.
The Government should also stay true to its commitment to standing alongside its Pacific partners, by prioritising its relationship with the Pacific Islands Forum and upholding its regional commitments to a nuclear-free Pacific.
Dr Karly Burch is a lecturer in sociology in the Faculty of Arts and has spent the past decade studying food safety governance in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.
This article was first published on Newsroom, NZ should rethink stance on Japan’s nuclear wastewater, 7 Nov, 2023