An ocean dump could lead to a global ecological disaster
An image of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, including storage tanks for contaminated water, taken by Greenpeace campaigner and Swedish photographer Christian Aslund on Oct. 16, 2018.
December 1, 2019
As the possibility of Japan dumping contaminated water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean has been raised, concerns are being voiced on the Korean Peninsula and through various international organizations. Obviously, it is South Korea that is leading the efforts at international coordination in organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Maritime Organization (IMO), and World Health Organization (WHO).
The biggest issue that stands to arise if the contaminated water is dumped into the ocean is the major impact on the marine environment in the Western Pacific and the health of residents in the region, and South Korea is the closest neighbor to Japan.
In a recent piece published in the UK’s The Economist, Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace Germany warned that if Japan dumped the water into the pacific, radioactive material will begin flowing into the East Sea within a year. As Japan’s closest neighbor, South Korea has maintained that it has a right to sufficiently discuss the potential environmental threat and demand related information. During a South Korean parliamentary audit, expressions of concern about the Fukushima water release were coupled with demands for response measures to be put in place.
Unfortunately, these messages and warnings are not being expressed as part of a system of guidance and cooperation to permit a fundamental resolution. Rather, they amount more to a form of pressure within international discourse, which runs the risk of being shrugged off with pro forma logic. The predictions that radioactive material will begin washing into the East Sea within a year could change with the actual amounts and concentrations of water dumped; in the absence of real announced concentrations of inflowing contaminants, it does nothing more than to raise a threat.
More than the fact of the inflows over the year after release, we need to be aware that there are migrating species that could enter the waters near South Korea at any time. Also, what is to be done about the destruction to the marine ecosystem or the marine life that is being fished in the Pacific by the different countries? The result would be a disaster for humankind. We need a more in-depth and scientific examination to identify a disposal plan that allays the concerns of Japan’s neighbors as well as those of Japanese civil society and fishers, who are the ones suffering the ill effects first hand.
Plans for handling marine contaminants fall into five main categories. The first involves controlling the source. The most basic means of resolution is to replace materials and production processes and ban production and consumption to ensure that contaminants are not released in the first place. The second involves recirculation and reuse. This means either re-circulating contaminants through nature or reusing them for other purposes. The third involves storing the contaminants. In cases where no disposal method has yet been developed and reuse is not an option, the approach has been to contain and process them at a safe distance from areas of human activity.
The fourth involves controlling contamination through a regional quota system. This means applying different standards for management depending on the uses of particular waters; in South Korea’s case, marine protected areas and special management areas fall into this category. The last approach is contamination control through taxation. Under such a system, penalties are imposed in cases where contamination is unavoidable; as a rule, the party responsible bears the costs for compensation and restoration.
Lee Suk-mo, professor of ecological engineering at Pukyong National University
An ocean dump from a nuclear power plant at the current level, without any international regulations in place, would be utterly unacceptable and an affront to environmental justice for humanity today and future generations. Radioactive material decays naturally; if set apart and stored, it goes away naturally over time. But because of issues concerning time and space, this is not an economical approach, and new and effective disposal technology could be developed while it is being stored.
This is why the nuclear power plant water issue is something that should be approached as an issue affecting all of humanity, rather than one restricted to Fukushima and Japan. In particular, neighbors and countries possessing nuclear power plants of their own should make it a priority to cooperate fully in technological and economic terms.
Human disasters may start in one country, but it is through international cooperation that a country’s disaster can be resolved.
By Lee Suk-mo, professor of ecological engineering at Pukyong National University