The Pacific faces a radioactive future
Japan plans to dump radioactive water from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean, but its effects on Pacific nations are not clear, Robert H. Richmond writes as the Pacific Islands Forum meets this week
When the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima, Japan in 2011, it resulted in the tragic death of many people, and severe damage to a nuclear power plant, which required a constant flow of cooling water to prevent further catastrophe. More than 1.3 million tonnes of radionuclide-contaminated water have now been retained on-site. The Fukushima plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), with the approval of the Japanese Government, plans to begin releasing this water into the Pacific Ocean starting next year. But compelling, data-backed reasons to examine alternative approaches to ocean dumping have not been adequately explored.
Claims of safety are not scientifically supported by the available information. The world’s oceans are shared among all people, providing over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and a diversity of resources of economic, ecological and cultural value for present and future generations. Within the Pacific Islands in particular, the ocean is viewed as connecting, rather than separating, widely distributed populations.
Releasing radioactive contaminated water into the Pacific is an irreversible action with transboundary and transgenerational implications. As such, it should not be unilaterally undertaken by any country. The Pacific Islands Forum, meeting this week, had the foresight to ask the relevant questions on how this activity could affect the lives and livelihoods of their peoples now and into the future. It has drawn on a panel of five independent experts to provide it with the critical information it needs to perform its due diligence.
No one is questioning the integrity of the Japanese or International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scientists, but the belief that our oceans’ capacity to receive limitless quantities of pollutants without detrimental effects is demonstrably false. For example, tuna and other large ocean-going fish contain enough mercury from land-based sources to require people, especially pregnant women and young children, to limit their consumption. Tuna have also been found to transport radionuclides from Fukushima across the Pacific to California. Phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like life that floats free in the ocean, can capture and accumulate a variety of radioactive elements found in the Fukushima cooling water, including tritium and carbon-14. Phytoplankton is the base for all marine food webs. When they are eaten, the contaminants would not be broken down, but stay in the cells of organisms, accumulating in a variety of invertebrates, fish, marine mammals, and humans. Marine sediments can also be a repository for radionuclides, and provide a means of transfer to bottom-feeding organisms.
The justification for dumping is primarily based on the chemistry of radionuclides and the modeling of concentrations and ocean circulation based on assumptions that may not be correct. It also largely ignores the biological uptake and accumulation in marine organisms and the associated concern of transfer to people eating affected seafood. Many of the 62-plus radionuclides present in the Fukushima water have long periods over which they can cause harmful effects, called half-lives, of decades to millennia. For example, Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, and Carbon-14, more than 5700 years. Issues like this really do matter, as once radioactive materials enter the human body, including those that release relatively low-energy radiation (beta particles), they can cause damage and increase the risk of cancers, damage to cells, to the central nervous system and other health problems.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster is not the first such event, and undoubtedly won’t be the last. The challenges of cleaning up, treating and containing the contaminated cooling water is also an opportunity to find and implement safer and more sensitive options and setting a better precedent to deal with future catastrophes. The Pacific region and its people have already suffered from the devastation caused by United States, British and French nuclear testing programs. Documented problems have led to international agreements to curtail such testing. In this case, the members of the Pacific Islands Forum are key stakeholders that are finding a unified voice against the planned dumping of radionuclides and other pollutants into the ocean that surrounds their homes, and holds their children’s futures.
The world’s oceans are in trouble and experiencing mounting stress from human-induced impacts tied to global climate change, overfishing, and pollution, with consequential cumulative effects on living resources and the people who depend on them. Pollution, particularly from land-based sources, is one of the greatest threats and challenges to ocean resource sustainability and associated elements of human health.
Japan and TEPCO plan to begin dumping radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean in 2023. A more deliberative and prudent approach would adhere to the precautionary principle – that if we are not sure no harm will be caused, then we should not proceed. The rush to dilute and dump is ill-advised and such actions should be postponed until further due diligence can be performed. Sound science, and a much more careful consideration of the alternatives, and respect for the health and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific region, all demand it. Far better and transparent communications are needed to provide accurate and adequate information for leaders, resource managers and stakeholders to use in their deliberations on the way forward. If the Island nations lead, other nations are sure to follow.
Robert H Richmond, PhD is a Research Professor and Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, Aldo Leopold Fellow in Environmental Leadership and Fellow of the International Coral Reef Society. He is part of the advisory panel to the Pacific Islands Forum on the Fukushima dumping, who funded this research. He gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the other panel members, Dr Arjun Makhijani, Dr Ken Buesseler, Dr Ferenc Dalnoki Veress, and Dr Tony Hooker.
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