Environmental implications require an international conversation
Storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
At a meeting of parties to the London Convention and Protocol on Dec. 14, the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF) clearly stated that the release of contaminated water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean was not a sovereign decision for the Japanese government to make. Its reason was that the damage would extend beyond the scope of Japan’s jurisdiction, affecting nearby countries including South Korea.
While the US and France have stated their trust in the safety of releasing the water and referred to it as a matter for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to oversee, delegations from China, Russia, and Canada indicated their support for the South Korean government’s position. David Santillo, a Greenpeace Research Laboratories senior scientist who took part in the meeting, stressed that the matter of releasing the water into the ocean was something to be discussed at an international level.
During the meeting, the MOF worked to encourage other countries in the region to indicate their support, while also ensuring an opportunity to continue the debate at the next meeting. Despite these efforts by the South Korean government, some in South Korea still maintain that there is nothing wrong with dumping the water because it’s been treated. This conclusion is faulty.
The 1.37 million tons (as of summer 2022) that are currently set to be released into the Pacific Ocean are just the start of the issue. Even after that enormous amount has been discharged, radioactive material — hundreds of tons produced each week at the Fukushima plant — will continue to be released. Some of the radioactive substances have half-lives in the tens of thousands of years or more. The main reason for the water’s contamination has to do with three reactors that melted down in the Fukushima disaster. Cooling water has to be added daily to control the reactors as they continue to undergo nuclear fission. This means that water is going to continue to be contaminated until the reactors’ nuclear fuel and waste have been completely removed.
The amount of nuclear fuel remaining after the Chernobyl disaster, commonly viewed as the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, has been reported at around 570 tons. The Ukrainian government predicted it would take 100 years to remove it all. This means there is no way to pledge any concrete timeline. Within the Fukushima reactors, there are more than 1,100 tons of remaining nuclear fuel and waste, nearly twice as much as Chernobyl. In particular, most of the strontium, which inflicts the most biological damage, is still in the reactors.
As more water is contaminated by this highly concentrated radioactive material, it accumulates in the ecosystem. The amount of contaminated water that the Japanese government plans to release into the Pacific already exceeds 1 million tons; over the next 10 years, it could rise to 2 million. The radioactive substances in the water are another issue. As cesium and strontium deposit and accrete on the ocean floor, they can release radioactive matter over the long term. The effects on marine life are likewise severe.
The problem is that there is no way of gauging or preventing the damage ahead of time. This is why there are such strict regulations on the disposal of radioactive material into the ocean. The Japanese government has argued that its release of Fukushima water is justified by likening it to the release of cooling water from normally operating nuclear power plants, but no precedent exists where permission has been granted to discharge waste from a nuclear accident into the marine environment. As such, South Korea needs to stop the Japanese government’s decision to avoid a tragic outcome.
To begin with, Seoul has the right to demand that Tokyo perform an official environmental impact assessment. The release of the contaminated water into the ocean would be a violation of international law if it does not conform to the principle of prior notification and the obligation to perform an environmental assessment.
Even the IAEA, which has sided with the Japanese government, explicitly mentioned the need for an environmental impact assessment in its report. The South Korean government must speak out and ensure it happens.
By Chang Mari, Greenpeace energy campaigner