China seems to be taking the moral high ground and exploiting the opportunity provided by Japan’s release of tainted water into the Pacific Ocean from the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
But is it the reflection of genuine concern for environmental degradation of contamination? Or is it a manifestation of its geopolitical war with the developed world led by the United States in general and Japan in particular?
These two questions are relevant given China’s questionable record on environmental issues.
Let us begin with what Japan is doing and determine whether its actions align with the international standards on environmental safety and safeguards.
On August 24, the Fukushima plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), pumped a small quantity of treated water from the plant to the sea. Monitors from the UN atomic watchdog, IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), which had endorsed the plan in July, were on the site to oversee the release procedure.
According to Tepco, the water will be released in modest quantities and with extra checks. The first discharge, totaling 7,800 cubic meters, is expected to last about 17 days.
The first release is one of four, scheduled between now and the end of March 2024. It is said that the entire discharge process is expected to take as long as 40 years.
It may be recalled that an earthquake followed by a tsunami in 2011 wrecked the Fukushima nuclear power plant, destroying its cooling system and causing reactor cores to overheat and contaminate water within the facility with highly radioactive material. Though the plant and its reactors are now defunct, they still need to be cooled, which is why wastewater accumulates.
Some 350 million gallons are reportedly being stored in more than 1,000 tanks on-site. The tanks are now nearing capacity, and as the site cannot fit anymore, some of the water needs to be released. Japan is, therefore, saying that it needs the land occupied by the tanks to build new facilities to decommission the plant safely. Besides, if these tanks are not emptied, there will be severe consequences if there is a new natural disaster, causing their collapse.
Accordingly, what Japan has done is that it has developed a complex filtration system that removes most of the radioactive isotopes from the water. Known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (or ALPS), it can remove several different radioactive contaminants from the water.
However, there is a radioactive isotope that cannot be filtered out. That is tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that is part of water. To deal with this problem, Japan says it is diluting the water with seawater so that there is much less tritium in every drop.
Further, it is bringing tritium levels well below all safety limits and below the level released by some operating nuclear plants. Japan is also saying it is taking that diluted water and passing it through a tunnel under the seafloor to a point off the coast of Fukushima in the Pacific Ocean. That will dilute it further.
The IAEA has peer-reviewed this plan and found it consistent with international safety standards. The Agency issued its comprehensive report on the safety review of the ALPS-treated water at the plant on July 4.
In the report, the IAEA concluded that Japan’s approach and activities to discharge ALPS-treated water are consistent with relevant international safety standards. The report noted that the controlled, gradual discharges of the treated water to the sea, as planned and assessed by TEPCO, would have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.
AEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in July and presented the comprehensive report on the IAEA’s independent safety review of Japan’s plan to release treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi plant into the sea.
“This comprehensive report makes the science of the treated water release clear for the international community, and it answers the technical questions related to safety that have been raised,” Grossi said.
“The IAEA notes the controlled, gradual discharges of the treated water to the sea, as planned and assessed by TEPCO, would have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.”
The IAEA report resulted from nearly two years of work by an IAEA Task Force of top specialists from within the Agency, advised by internationally recognized nuclear safety experts from eleven countries.
According to Professor Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth, “The risk is really, really, really low. And I would call it not a risk at all.” He is an expert on radioactivity in waterways, having done extensive research on nuclear accidents, including at Chornobyl. “We’ve got to put radiation in perspective, and the plant release — if it’s done properly — then the doses that people get and the doses that the ecosystem gets just won’t be significant, in my opinion,” Smith says.
Some experts have pointed out that nuclear power plants in other countries, including China, release diluted tritium into the sea for decades without incident.
“Nuclear power plants worldwide have routinely discharged water containing tritium for over 60 years without harm to people or the environment, most at higher levels than planned for Fukushima,” Prof. Tony Irwin of the Australian National University has argued.
The United States has welcomed the IAEA report, noting that “Japan’s plans to release treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site are safe and consistent with internationally accepted nuclear safety standards. Since the 2011 nuclear accident, Japan has proactively coordinated with the IAEA on its plans and conducted a science-based and transparent process. We look forward to Japan’s continued cooperation with the IAEA as its process moves forward.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also openly supported Japan in a Twitter post: “We thank Japan for its transparent efforts in its decision to dispose of the treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi site.”
Even the South Korean government, once an outspoken critic of the plans, has said that it accepts the science behind the discharge. However, Seoul has stopped short of publicly supporting Japan’s approach, given the country’s highly divided polity at present.
South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party led a candlelit vigil against the discharge, and protests continued in Seoul on August 24, with some protestors even trying to enter the building housing the Japanese embassy.
However, China has retaliated with concrete actions against the Japanese release of the contaminated water. It announced an immediate blanket ban on all seafood imports from Japan.
“The ocean is the common property of all humanity, and forcibly starting the discharge of Fukushima’s nuclear wastewater into the ocean is an extremely selfish and irresponsible act that ignores international public interests,” Beijing’s foreign ministry said in a statement, adding, “By dumping the water into the ocean, Japan is spreading the risks to the rest of the world and passing an open wound onto the future generations of humanity.”
But is China sincere in its criticism? For many experts, this question has no answer. They feel the Chinese anguish is dubious, given that its nuclear plants have released diluted tritium into the sea for decades without incident.
Even otherwise, China’s environmental problems, including outdoor and indoor air pollution, water shortages & pollution, desertification, and soil pollution, have become more pronounced and are subjecting people to significant health risks. The lack of transparency in the Covid pandemic’s origin in China still confused the world, according to critics.
China only recently started actively helping to formulate global responses to climate change. For decades, China resisted making commitments under the UN framework.
Chinese diplomats argued that China shouldn’t sacrifice its economic development for environmental protection and that developed countries, such as the United States, should carry more burden because they could grow their economies without limitations.
Coal, which makes up nearly two-thirds of China’s energy consumption, is primarily to blame, but China has not reduced the consumption of coal in any appreciable way. It pledged to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement, reduce coal use, and invest in renewable energy. But its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) still finances coal-fired power plants abroad.
China’s average temperature and sea levels have risen faster than the global average, according to a 2020 report from China’s National Climate Center. It is feared that some of China’s coastal cities, such as Shanghai, could be submerged if the global average temperature continues to rise.
Incidentally, not long ago, the US State Department released a “fact sheet” on China’s “environmental abuses.” It pointed out how “Beijing is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases; the largest source of marine debris; the worst perpetrators of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and the world’s largest consumer of trafficked wildlife and timber products.
“While the Chinese people have suffered the worst environmental impacts of its actions, Beijing also threatens the global economy and global health by unsustainably exploiting natural resources and exporting its willful disregard for the environment through its One Belt One Road initiative.”
According to this fact sheet, “Many BRI-funded projects do not meet international standards, leaving countries to deal with the harmful consequences long after a project is completed. Environmental safeguards depend on the laws of host countries, and Beijing is leading nations away from developing their economies sustainably.”
Given all this, China questioning Japan of a plan of action approved by the IAEA and poses no health hazards appears more political than scientific. It is possibly the reflection of the poor health of Sino-Japanese relations today.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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