April 25, 2022
A panel of scientists has identified critical gaps in the data supporting the safe discharge of wastewater into the Pacific.
Independent scientists are questioning Japan’s plans to dump just over 1 million tons of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, following a review of the available evidence.
The panel of multi-disciplinary scientists, hired by the intergovernmental Pacific Islands Forum, has not found conclusive evidence that the discharge would be entirely safe, and one marine biologist fears contamination could affect the food system.
Last year Japan announced that wastewater from the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, destroyed in March 2011 following the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, would be dropped into the Pacific in 2023.
The announcement triggered immediate concern from nations and territories in the Asia-Pacific region and led the Pacific Islands Forum to hire a panel of five independent experts to review the plan.
Previously, it was broadly believed that dropping the wastewater into the ocean would be safe, given it had been treated with “advanced liquid processing system” technology, which removes radioactive materials from contaminated water.
But panel scientist Robert Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii Kewalo Marine Laboratory, says the panel unanimously believes that critical gaps in information remain.
Previous discussions over the safety of Japan’s plans emphasized the chemistry of the discharge, but not how it could interact with marine life, he said.
“If the ocean were a sterile glass vessel, that would be one thing,” Richmond said. “But it’s not, you know, there’s lots of biology involved.”
Richmond has been particularly concerned about the potential for tritium – a key compound of concern – being absorbed into the food system because the radioactive isotope can bind to phytoplankton.
Through phytoplankton, Richmond says, the radioactive element could then find its way into the greater food system as the microscopic plants are consumed by mollusks and small fish, which are later consumed by other fish and eventually humans.
“Things like mercury in fish are now of an international concern. Radionuclides will be the same,” Richmond said.
The situation is dynamic too, as climate change affects the temperature of waters and weather patterns change.
“As temperatures go up, many chemicals become more interactive, they become a little bit different in terms of break down,” he said. “So these are all the things we need to consider.”
Confusing The Masses
The Pacific Islands Forum convened its panel of experts – specializing in policy and different scientific disciplines – because of the highly technical nature of Japan’s plan.
The PIF did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
But Forum Secretary General Henry Puna has said that while Japan was open and frank in several information sessions held with the Forum, it wanted to bring on its own group of experts to look at the data and advise them.
“I just want to note that, for us, the issue is very urgent but also requires very careful thinking,” Puna said in September.
Since Japan announced it would release the treated water into the Pacific, it has been working with the International Atomic Energy Association to ensure its plans are safe. In February the IAEA made its first assessment and recently completed a second assessment at the end of March.
The IAEA is expected to deliver reports from its site visits in the next two months, according to its website, and would release a fully comprehensive report before any water is released.
Richmond said the panel wants to work with Japan and the IAEA to ensure the best outcome.
Nonetheless, the information seen by the panel showed less than 1% of the tanks of wastewater had been treated and less than 20% had been adequately sampled, Richmond says.
“Based on those numbers alone, we’re uncomfortable in making predictions of where things are going to end up,” Richmond said.
The Pacific Perspective
Community groups and environmental organizations were quick to respond to the news last year, raising concerns about the longterm effects to their region, with its legacy of nuclear testing and the fallout. And coastal communities and fishermen in Japan have also raised concerns.
The U.S. expressed its support for the plan in April last year, which has since been criticized by U.S. territories and affiliated states.
Rep. Sheila Babauta of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands introduced a resolution to CNMI’s House of Representatives opposing any nuclear testing, storage or waste disposal in the Pacific.
It was passed in December, months after the U.S. stated its position and after other Pacific groups and governments condemned the move.
“I’m really disappointed in the lack of engagement, the lack of information and the lack of free, prior and informed consent,” Babauta, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, said.
The mistrust that is harbored by many in the Pacific stems back to U.S nuclear testing in the Republic of Marshall Islands following World War II, British testing in Kiribati and the French in French Polynesia, which had flow-on effects to the environment and long term health of Pacific people. And in 1979, Japan provoked backlash when it revealed plans to dump 10,000 drums of nuclear waste in the Marianas Trench.
Babauta says she introduced the resolution as a show of solidarity for the rest of the Pacific.
“The ocean is our oldest ancestor. The ocean is our legacy,” Babauta said. “It’s what we’re going to leave for our children.”