[Column] Japan dumping radioactive water into the ocean impacts all of humankind

Posted on : 2020-02-20 17:25 KST Modified on : 2020-02-20 17:25 KST
S. Korea needs to adopt a stronger stance to prevent a worldwide ecological disaster
Artist Lim Ok-sang’s work about Japan’s plan to dump radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.
Artist Lim Ok-sang’s work about Japan’s plan to dump radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.

In 2020, humankind has to face a number of challenges that we have never experienced before. One of them is the possibility that radioactively contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant will be dumped into the ocean. According to the international environmental group Greenpeace, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) submitted a final report to Tokyo on Feb. 10 arguing that the ocean dump of all of Fukushima’s contaminated water was essentially the best available option. After previously proposing an ocean dump as a measure in its 2015 “intermediate-term road map for reducing risks related to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster,” Japan has quietly gone through the procedures to make it official.

But the ocean dump of this contaminated water would represent an irreversible disaster for humanity. At its core, the plan involves first lowering the concentrations of nuclear material in the highly contaminated water through a multi-nuclide removal system, after which the remaining radioactivity is to be purified with water on a yearly basis before being discharged and dumped into the ocean. Yet it’s impossible to present completely accurate scientific evidence that the concentrations of the 200 or so varieties of nuclear material leaked by the disaster will fall below permissible thresholds. This is borne out by reports that even the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have admitted their failure to control some of the radioactive material, including tritium. This is the pitfall of the 1% error.

Modern science warns us that even scientific knowledge is by no means definitive. From the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to Bohr’s quantum interpretation and Prigogine’s principle of irreversibility of time, science has been skeptical of the absoluteness of scientific knowledge. In the case of complex ecosystems like the marine environment, the uncertainties are arguably greater owing to the long duration of contamination and the broadness of the area affected. Moreover, flora and fauna species can never return to us once they have become extinct. That is why we must prevent such ecological disasters.

After-the-fact aid measures cannot be seen as effective in this case due to legal issues concerning the capabilities (qualifications) of the parties involved and proof of causality. This was illustrated in the past in a compensation case between the Soviet Union and residents of West Germany concerning the leakage of radiation from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The precautionary principle was also proclaimed in the Rio Declaration, an international charter on protection of the global environment. This is explicitly regulated by the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident in its Articles 5 and 6, which refer to the obligation of a country responsible for a nuclear accident to provide prior information and participate in prior consultation. Can it be said that Japan and South Korea are fulfilling their legitimate duties and demands as signatories? The reality indicates that this is not the case.

To begin with, there is the issue of prior information sharing between the two sides. Information provided by the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in connection with the disaster has been posted in a “Japanese nuclear power plant radiation information corner” on the website of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), which has presented itself as South Korea’s control tower for responding to the Fukushima disaster.

But for the most part, this consists solely of records of the monitoring of changing radioactivity concentrations in waters near Fukushima and discharges of sub-drain underground water. Not only that, but as the aftermath of the accident continues to unfold to this day, the NSSC omits details about the expected operation time and progress of passive cooling equipment (see Article 5-1(c) of the convention). The sub-drain underground water in question is simply low-concentration contaminated water, which is entirely different from the highly concentrated water in storage tanks that Japan wants to dump into the ocean in large volumes.

For an assessment of the environmental impact of an ocean dump, this low-concentration water cannot be compared with the highly concentrated water created as a result of encountering nuclear fuel rods during the use of water to cool the heat inside the reactor produced by accident. Additionally, nuclear experts have also referred to increased reactor pressure and radiation leaking as a result of nuclear fuel rod fusion and meltdown, which ought to be included in the information provided about the power plant’s current situation. More importantly, there is no mention of an assessment of the environmental impact on the Pacific Ocean if Japan proceeds with the ocean dump (see Article 5-1(e) and (f) in the convention).

Japan’s neglect of its international duties as country responsible for disaster

The next issue is the broader one of prior consultation. The concrete list of Japan’s cooperative duties includes areas such as the basic manual for the water’s ocean release, disclosure of the nuclear material diffusion map for the Pacific Ocean, and environment assessment reports. What has been most lacking from the Japanese government, however, is the kind of good faith and diligence it should be showing as the country responsible for the disaster. The South Korean government, as Japan’s immediate neighbor, should be approaching the issue of cooperation in a stronger manner based on the principle of good faith and fair dealing, which is a basic norm of international relations.

What I want from the South Korean government as the resident of a country that neighbors the site of a nuclear accident is the other side of the coin from what I seek from Japan. This demand is also rooted in Article 2 of South Korea’s Framework Act on Environmental Policy, which incorporates content (the right to participate in environmental decision-making, the right of access to environment information, access to environmental justice) from the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement for the achievement of environmental justice.

First, the control tower for responding to the accident should be the pan-governmental Office for Government Policy Coordination (OPC). This will serve as a yardstick for gauging the South Korean government’s recognition of and commitment to resolving the possibility of this unprecedented ocean release of radioactively contaminated water. Preferably, outside figures would be taking part in the task force, including nuclear experts with environmental groups and experts on international environmental law. Second, the South Korean government needs to more proactively demand transparent and accurate information from the Japanese government. Who among us South Koreans is truly aware of what is happening right now inside of the Fukushima reactors? The information that Japanese has given to date is greatly lacking in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

Necessity of disclosing information to the public

If I can add a suggestion, converting the disclosed information into a form more accessible to the public would be an opportunity to increase literacy and promote popular participation in environmental decision-making (see Article 4 of the Aarhus Convention). Third, we need stronger cooperation with Japan to prevent the disaster’s ravages from spreading. Environmental contamination across national borders is all the more serious an issue when it concerns a nuclear disaster; cooperation with the country responsible is essential. The South Korean government needs to establish a clear position from Japan on the most pressing issue -- whether and when it plans to proceed with the ocean program -- and cooperate with the international community to verify it.

In truth, the answer to the contaminated water issue has already been presented: burying the storage tanks deep underground. Japan has ignored this solution, which is generally supported by the international community, in favor of proceeding down a different path in the face of objections from many of its own citizens.

In the final analysis, if the South Korean government fails to wage a serious battle against this reckless challenge from the Japanese government, it will go down in history not simply as a “climate offender state” but as an accomplice in Japan’s contamination of the East Sea and Pacific Ocean. One means of preventing the ocean dump of this contaminated water may be to compel Japan to comply fully and completely with the precautionary principle in the Convention on Early Notification, which has been reduced to bare bones over the years. The marine ecosystem comprising the Fukushima coast, the East Sea, and the Pacific Ocean is ultimately linked to our dinner tables. The ocean release of contaminated water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant must not happen.

By Yun Yeong-hun, attorney with the Association of Gwangju Region Attorneys

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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