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Japan’s nuclear waste disposal and the future for nuclear energy for the Pacific nations

Anna Chong

Source: BBC News

Nuclear waste disposal has always been at the heart of environmental criticism especially for the Pacific Island nations who have been suffering from the long-term environmental and health impacts of nuclear testing. The most recent event that made international headlines was the release of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The Japanese government planned to release more than 1 million tonnes of treated water in the following few decades.

Japan released its first nuclear wastewater on 24th August and hasn't announced its second plan of release yet. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), committed to review the release of the treated water, concluded that Japan’s activities to discharge the treated water stored at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station were consistent with the relevant international safety standards. The government of Japan with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the power plant, both claimed in a statement to TIME that the radiation of the wastewater, reached the requirement of international conventions and presented little risk to human and marine life. However, opposition and anger emerged over the release of the treated water. The release of treated water clearly demonstrated that there is disagreement over the safety of nuclear waste disposal and there are uncertainties for the future energy blueprint for the Pacific Island states and the Asian states.

Many scientists, countries, and leaders, including Australia, Fiji's prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau and Papua New Guinea agree. But Japan and TECPO received criticism. China PR has been the most vocal among the international community. China plunged into opposition and immediately banned all aquatic products from Japan. However, the BBC verifies that nuclear plants around the world regularly release wastewater with higher tritium levels than that treated water from Fukushima, but the findings will do little to ease the concerns of the Japanese public and its neighbouring countries. The statements from IAEA officials and the Japanese Government have done little to assuage the safety concerns. The large wave of criticism opened the discussions over the treatment of nuclear waste disposal. The release of treated water clearly demonstrated that there are disconnections between the safety of nuclear waste disposal and uncertainties for the future energy blueprint for the Pacific Island and Asian states.

One of the strongest critics was from Pacific Island nations. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a regional intra-governmental organisation which consists of 17 island nations, strongly condemned the decisions and urged Japan to delay the release of Fukushima waste. Henry Puna, Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum released a statement in which he said that the Fukushima wastewater release was a crucial matter for the region. After reviewing the results from a panel of independent scientists hired by the PIF to assess TEPCO's plan. One of PIF’s experts, Dr Arjun Makhijani who was the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research's President, has criticised the IAEA for ignoring its own principle of justification and general safety requirements. Puna announced his opposition with the TECPO and IAEA’s decisions and required more data. He concluded, “We are now aware of the announced commencement of the discharge by TEPCO and the Government of Japan.”

PIF’s strong oppositions emerged from the environmental and historical perspectives, but among the strongest concerns were economic critics. Amid the release of wastewater, a local Japanese fisherman expressed concern and outrage over reputational damage, economic loss and seafood safety. Japan, apart from receiving criticism from its own shore, drew criticism internationally. Tuvalu’s Finance Minister Seve Paeniu called for a stop to Japan’s release of treated water. Paeniu argued that the release and contamination of wastewater would have major impacts on the ecosystem, fishing grounds and the tuna industry the country’s economy relied on. The concerns from the fishing industries demonstrated that the concerns of nuclear waste disposal reached its way to the economic sectors. The release of wastewater damaged economic interests and affected the livelihood of the fishing industries in the Asia-Pacific.

TECPO and PIF delivered very different statements of doubts and divisions over the data. TECPO assured the Pacific and claimed that their priority was to make sure there was no contamination to the marine resources. In reality, IAEA acknowledged that the treated water would have a “negligible radiological impact” on people and the environment. Scientists and environmental advocates agree that the health impacts on the environment from the wastewater are negligible.  However, as more international coverage reports on the events of Japan’s nuclear waste disposal, TIME and The Economist speculate that the sudden concern from neighbouring countries such as China could be a political act, rather than environmental criticism. TIME speculated that China attempted to stoke up anger for its citizens and the release of wastewater served as a political distraction to divert their attention from the current domestic crisis. In the wake of the energy crisis, such political acts sacrificed the welfare of the Pacific communities. As the Philippines and Indonesia announced their plans of developing nuclear power programmes, the IAEA and the nations that contained nuclear power plants were slower to act over the issues of nuclear waste. 

The Pacific nations should have been consulted over the matter of IAEA’s decision. Rather than releasing wastewater into the ocean as practical norms, nations should foster collaboration, solidarity and technology exchange. Nations should enhance the overall related technologies in the field of waste transportation, storage technology, site-selection method for disposal facilities, and the disposal technique. The incident at the Fukushima nuclear plant should raise an alarm for international communities to seek better strategies to compose nuclear waste.


Anna Chong is currently studying International Relations and Peace and Conflicts studies at the University of Queensland. She has developed a strong interest in analysing East Asian affairs and geopolitical issues in Australia and Asia Pacific. Excelling in fluent Cantonese,  Mandarin and English, proficient in multilingual research and able to reach audiences from different backgrounds.