Nuclear wastewater plan creates paradoxes

People rally to protest against the Japanese government's decision to discharge contaminated radioactive wastewater in Fukushima Prefecture into the sea, in Tokyo, capital of Japan, April 13, 2021. (DU XIAOYI / XINHUA)

On April 13, the Japanese government decided to discharge nuclear wastewater from the wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the sea. It argued that this move was “inevitable”, “urgent” and a choice made after careful study, and there were precedents to follow.

Japan plans to release more than 1 million metric tons of contaminated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean over the next 30 years, with the first discharges beginning in about two years. The wastewater to be discharged would be treated to international standards. To prove the safety of the radioactive wastewater, a few senior officials even claimed that it is safe to drink.

However, all these arguments fall into serious paradoxes.

Paradox No 1 involves claimed “responsible power” versus irresponsible decision.

Japan, which positions itself as a responsible power and has repeatedly claimed that the Fukushima nuclear wastewater would be disposed of with great care, is ignoring the serious concerns of its neighbors and the strong opposition of its citizens to the unilateral decision.

The Fukushima nuclear accident was one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents to date. Dumping the plant’s nuclear wastewater will inevitably cause environmental damage. 

The European Union has issued a statement that Japan should ensure the absolute safety of any wastewater discharge while fully fulfilling its national and international obligations.

This irresponsible decision will also cause the Japanese people to suffer from secondary environmental hazards. They have already been the victims of environmental pollution caused by the concentrated release of harmful and toxic substances.

Paradox No 2 involves assumed “good posture” versus nonconsultation. Although Japan has assumed a posture of setting a high value on external concerns, it has yet to fully consult with neighbors and other stakeholders.

On April 12, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Japan’s lower house of parliament that it was important to take a “comprehensive approach”, since there was opposition. However, a “comprehensive approach” was not taken before making the decision. Japan did not consult with neighbors.

Why is Japan reluctant to set up a joint technical working group under the framework of international institutions to accept verification and supervision by international assessment? If, as claimed by Japan, the treated nuclear wastewater meets international safety standards, why is Japan not willing to consult with various stakeholders, and why did it merely inform its ally, the United States? Interestingly, while the US claimed that Japan “appears to have adopted practices consistent with internationally recognized nuclear safety standards” and that Japan “has been transparent in its decision-making”, the US Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning against importing certain types of Japanese food.

Japan should sincerely face the opposition of various countries and consciously accept the substantive participation and supervision of the international community.

Paradox No 3 involves “international standard” versus lack of precedent. Japan claims that its decision conforms with international practice and standards. However, there is neither practice nor precedent in the world to discharge nuclear wastewater generated by a nuclear accident into the sea.

The becquerel unit of radiation measurement referred to by Japan is controversial and not an international standard. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency has not issued any permit for Japan to discharge nuclear wastewater, although the agency’s director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said Japan’s solution was “technically feasible and in line with international practice”.

Paradox No 4 involves contracting party versus violation of convention.

Japan is a contracting party to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, its decision to dump the wastewater has violated the convention’s relevant provisions.

The author is a member of the United Nations International Law Commission and an adjunct professor at Guanghua Law School of Zhejiang University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.