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Fifth Estate

Discharge of radioactive water by Japan threat to humanity

The decision by Japan to release over one million tonnes of contaminated water from the abandoned Fukushima nuclear power station back into the sea has come as a surprise to many people inside and outside the country. Environmentalists have voiced concern that discharging the nuclear wastewater back into the sea poses serious danger to marine life.

Past scientific studies have also linked radioactive elements contained in the water to public health risks. For instance, Tritium, which is hard to remove from the waste water, is a cancer, birth defects and genetic disorder risk multiplier, when ingested. Yet, the ill-fated tanks contain even more deadly radioactive contaminants with much affinity for accumulation in sea food.

Because of the complex global interdependence of countries including food value-chains, the decision by Tokyo could easily plunge the whole world into a nuclear-induced public health disaster. This is why neighbouring countries such as China and South Korea have already expressed deep concerns over the decision. Japan’s fishing industry is strongly pushing against the move to dump the toxic water because of past experiences where the sea products from the country were largely boycotted because of the toxic elements in the wake of the nuclear disaster in 2011.

Deliberately polluting the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes also presents a setback to global efforts to reduce impacts of climate change. Many professional organizations including Greenpeace Japan have expressed strong opposition to the decision. In a report detailing the realities of the Fukushima waters, Greenpeace indicates that the water contained “dangerous levels of carbon-14, a radioactive substance with potential to damage human DNA.

Given the interconnectedness of the world water ways and food systems, the move by Japan could see millions of people in faraway spaces including Kenya affected. In a report published by a German research organization, should Tokyo proceed with the decision, in just five years, the radioactive elements would have dispersed to North America.

Such a scenario would shift the problem from the source to doorstep of the United States, the only country that has so far expressed support for Japan. Developing economies could be in particular danger with limited technology and resources to cushion themselves from the vagaries of such nuclear release.  

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency, while conceding that ocean discharge was in line with international best practice, the Agency’s Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, has expressed concern over the large amounts of water at the Fukushima plant. He argues that the move by Tokyo is both unique and complex.

Years of opposition within Japan and beyond have seen the country’s authorities postpone the idea of a sea discharge. There is little information that the wastewater has been made safe for release. The urgency to get rid of the nuclear water now appears to be pegged on the diminishing storage capacity at the site, rather than sound and safe levels of contamination of the water contents.

Having failed to convince domestic audiences about the safety of the waste water, Japan faces even a more critical challenge of convincing the international community about the veracity of its information. A key step is to allow international professional bodies access to its data while building global consensus on the whole process.

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It is for this reason that the entire international community should demand of Japan not to discharge the toxic waste into the sea, before convincing the world about safety from the involved contaminants. Any unilateral action by Japan without the buy-in, understanding and cooperation of neighbouring countries and the nod of the larger global family would amount to nuclear terrorism.

The writer is a scholar of international relations. Twitter: @Cavinceworld.

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