By Sera Sefeti

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) submitted its final report to Japan on 04 July on the safety of dumping treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, saying the discharge proposal is consistent with relevant international safety standards.

But the small island nations of the Pacific remain strongly concerned over Japan’s persistent intention to dump nuclear waste on the ocean. They see this not merely a nuclear safety issue; it is rather a nuclear legacy issue.

The significant potential threat of nuclear contamination to the health and security of the Blue Pacific, its people, and its prospects is not to be taken lightly, given the significant reliance of the Pacific people on their ocean.

The 18-memebr regional organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum’s (PIF) specific concerns on nuclear contamination issues are not new; for many years, the Forum has had to deal with attempts by other states to dump nuclear waste in the Pacific. Leaders have urged Japan and other nuclear states “to store or dump their nuclear waste in their home countries rather than storing or dumping it in the Pacific”.

The Pacific has good reasons to be anxious about any nuclear activity, as there is a noxious legacy of nuclear testing in the region that has not only hurt Pacific Islanders, but, to this day, has left a long-lasting negative effect.

In the 1950s the U.S conducted nuclear weapons testing on the Marshal atolls of Bikini, and later it was found that ocean currents have contaminated the sea waters over 1000 kilometres away in Guam. Between 1946-1970 the U.S has dumped nuclear wastes in numerous sites off the coast of California in the Pacific that have contaminated sea water far away in the Pacific Ocean islands.

In 1981, waste from nuclear testing programme by the French in the Pacific islands had washed ashore on to reefs in the islands of Moruroa. These are some of the well-documented instances of unconcerned behaviour of western powers in the Pacific.

In 1979, after Japan planned to dump 10,000 drums of high-level nuclear waste deep into the Pacific Ocean, massive regional protests forced the then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to pledge in 1985 that “Japan had no intention of dumping radioactive waste in the Pacific Ocean in disregard of the concern expressed by the communities of the region.”

Thus, the PIF Secretary General, Henry Puna, said in a statement: “In 1985, the Forum welcomed Japan’s PM’s statement that Japan had no intention of dumping radioactive waste in the Pacific Ocean in disregard of the concern expressed by the communities of the region.”

He adds, “Against this regional context, Forum engagement on the present unprecedented issue signifies that for our Blue Pacific, this is not merely a nuclear safety issue; it is rather a nuclear legacy issue, an ocean, fisheries, environment, biodiversity, climate change, and health issue with the future of our children and future generations at stake.”

“Our people do not have anything to gain from Japan’s plan but have much at risk for generations to come.”

The Pacific Network of Globalisation (PANG) and the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have long fought against any decision on nuclear weapons.

According to PANG Coordinator, Maureen Penjueli, “we have an agreement to ban the use of nuclear weapons, but we have conveniently forgotten those that are still paying the price today for those evil actions decades ago.”

Even before Japan announced its decision in April 2021, Pacific states, meeting for the first time in December 2020 as States Parties to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga), “recalled concerns about the environmental impact of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactor accident in 2011 and urged Japan to take all steps necessary to address any potential harm to the Pacific”.

The Japanese reassured us that nuclear waste has been detoxified and is completely harmless; however, when the leaders of the Pacific region requested the samples to do their own independent test, they were still waiting.

This is raising concerns about the appropriate application and adequacy of current international nuclear safety standards in relation to the Fukushima case, noting how modern science and the non-legally binding nature of the standards, are unable to protect Pacific interests.

Puna however remains optimistic. “The PIF independent panel of scientific experts has continued to dialogue intensively not only with Japan and IAEA experts but amongst themselves as global experts in a range of related areas including nuclear power, radiation, high energy physics, marine environmental sciences, oceanography, and marine radiochemistry,” he said recently.

“I, too, continue to dialogue with Japan. It is clear in my mind that more work and dialogue are needed to ensure that we all come to a common understanding on this issue,” argues Puna.

Meanwhile, it seems that Japan will dump billions of tonnes of Fukishima nuclear waste into the Pacific following what they see as a green light given by the IAEA. However, the Tokyo Electric Power Company—the operators of the doomed nuclear plant—is facing mounting opposition over its plans to pump 1.3 million tonnes of contaminated wastewater.

The waters contain dangerous radionuclides from the 2011 meltdown of three reactors. Following a major earthquake, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident. The accident was rated level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, due to high radioactive releases.

So, it is only natural that government leaders across the Pacific and its people are strongly against any nuclear dumping into its ocean, an act that can be catastrophic for small island nations that are already suffering from the effects of climate change.

Fijian Youth Environmentalist and student Viliame Tawanakoro shared his views with IDN, “This action will put the global marine environment at risk and pose a threat to people’s lives and health worldwide, especially for those of us in the Pacific who rely on the sea,” he said. “Japan’s self-interest will result in long-term problems for future generations.”

He adds, “It is said and has been reported that there are over 60 types of radioactive substances, including tritium with a half-life of approximately 13 years, and carbon-14 with a half-life of over 5000 years.”

According to Tawanakoro, an I-taukei (indigenous Fijian), there is no current technology to treat many of these substances, and when dumped into the ocean, they will be swept by the ocean currents, leading to bioaccumulation, that can result in unpredictable risks to both marine and human health.

“Our families living on the islands may not be aware of the danger it poses, but it is something our government needs to look into ASAP; it is a disaster just waiting to happen,” Tawanakoro pleads.

Other parts of the Pacific Islands, like the Marshall Islands, have experienced the direct impact of nuclear testing. A Marshallese, Reileen Joel, witnessed first hand this impact in her island country and shares how the Pacific continuously suffers from the impacts of these nuclear weapons.

Joel said: “Take Marshall Island for example, many of them have been displaced and suffer various illnesses as a result of the radiation. It may have happened years ago, but as a Pacific Islander who has the heart of the ocean, I’m sad that Pacific Islanders had to go through that, so a lot of us have made it known that we are not going to stay silent on this issue.”

“We’ve been having nuclear campaigns for years; the United States stored their nuclear waste on the island of Runit in the Marshall Islands, and it’s been there till today. Over time, the radiation within that containment leaked and is also leaking into our ocean, affecting marine life and, of course, the fish we eat”.

“We’ve been fighting for a nuclear-free Pacific to help prevent future nuclear projects, and now this? Japan’s decision to dump their waste in our backyard is unacceptable,” she reacts.

Article 7 of the Treaty of Rarotonga place emphasis on keeping the region free of environmental pollution by radioactive wastes and other radioactive matter. Though Japan is not a signatory, it is part of the region and is a dialogue partner to the treaty.

As protest grows against Japan’s imminent decision, the PIF’s head, Henry Puna, calls on all States “to take all appropriate measures within their territory, jurisdiction, or control to prevent significant transboundary harm to the territory of another state, as required under international law.