Japan, in an irresponsible manner, has started to dump its nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the ocean, despite the environmental impact this will have on the ocean and strong oppositions from countries in the Pacific region.

It’s a crime against humanity. Why does Japan insist on doing so? What should countries, which will be directly affected by the dumping, do in response? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Dr Arjun Makhijani (Makhijani), president of the U.S-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and member of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Expert Panel, over these issues. This is the first installment of the series.

GT: What concerns you most about the dumped nuclear-contaminated wastewater?

Makhijani: A great deal of the water in the tanks exceeds all norms and standards. Some tanks contain sludges; particulates are likely to be stirred up when water is withdrawn from them potentially clogging the filters. Water in some of the tanks is heavily contaminated with radionuclides like strontium-90, cesium-137 and iodine-129 far exceeding the acceptable limits. This is because the filtration system worked poorly and the early system was inadequate.

A small part of the tanks doesn’t appear to have significant contamination. But even this statement is uncertain because, as the PIF Expert Panel wrote, the sampling is biased and not representative of the contents of the tanks. This means neither TEPCO (Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company) nor the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) has a statistically valid idea of the radionuclide content in the tanks.

It’s concerning that TEPCO and Japan do not seem bothered by their lack of knowledge regarding the tank contents. This is scientifically problematic. TEPCO should know what is in the tanks; for example, they need to test the filtration system with the different kinds of contaminated water it will have to handle. Japan has resisted the idea that they should know what is in the tanks, saying they will sample before discharge.

IAEA is also of the opinion that it doesn’t matter if the tank contents are not accurately known now. I think this is scientifically unacceptable, but apparently it has been acceptable to the IAEA, TEPCO and the Japanese regulators.

One of the things that the Expert Panel said is that Japan hasn’t tested the ALPS system adequately enough. We asked what they will do if they find that the water before discharge is not up to the norms. Both Japan and the IAEA said that they are going to repeatedly run the water through the ALPS system. How many times? One of the IAEA representatives said if there is proof that the water doesn’t meet the norms, they could run it through ALPS 300 times, if necessary, to bring it to the standard for discharge. Even a dozen times would be too much; it would mean the filtration is not working properly and that it hasn’t been tested enough. You can’t just say you’re going to run the water through many times. That’s not a technically sensible answer.

GT: People from countries around the Pacific have been the main force opposing Japan’s dumping of the nuclear-contaminated wastewater. Why did we fail to stop Japan?

Makhijani: I think this is something for the Japanese government to answer. We as an Expert Panel asked them, what is the justification for this? Countries in the Pacific region, like China, South Korea, the Philippines and the Marshall Islands will be harmed. We know that some harm has already happened. There was a salt panic in South Korea. There is some societal harm, which can be measured. Countries like South Korea and China receive no benefit. It is very clear that the dumping is not justified.

Japan believes it can unilaterally decide to pollute the oceans. Despite claiming that the Pacific region is one society, Japan alone will make the decision. So other countries don’t have a decision-making authority, because Japan is deciding for the whole Pacific region. I think this is scandalous. It is a position that could lead to ecological chaos, because other countries could say the same and dump pollutants into the ocean.

GT: How do you comment on the lukewarm attitude of some Western countries toward this issue?

Makhijani: The U.S has supported Japan’s dumping plan. It relied on the IAEA’s assertion that the impact is negligible, partly because it is also doing dumping itself. There is a lot of protest in the U.S about this. There are petitions circulating. Now the US has its own tritium problem. There are decommissioned plants in Massachusetts and New York where they are proposing to dump tritiated water into the ocean. People are protesting and they don’t want this.

I know G7 has supported Japan. Germany somewhat objected. I don’t know if G20 will take this up. Many countries have their own nuclear dumping problems. So it’s easier to say yes to Japan than to say no. It’s not a secret that there are big political tensions and questions surrounding this matter, and there are alignments happening between the US and Japan. I don’t know whether political considerations have been a part of this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have.

Apart from all that, I want to note that I recommend that all countries who are now dumping tritium contaminated water from nuclear power plants should stop doing it and begin the process of the best way to do it now.

GT: While China bans all Japanese seafood imports, Japan has warned China of WTO action. How do you see such buck-passing moves by Japan?

Makhijani: Japan thinks it can take the issue to the WTO to compel China to stop banning seafood imports from Japan. But China can counter by taking the issue to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea when it comes to legal questions. There are so many legal forums. The WTO in my opinion does not have a very friendly attitude toward the environment. Maybe China should use this occasion to urge the WTO to be more environmentally friendly. In the WTO, military, security and trading issues trump everything else. Well, not all values are confined to those areas. I think it would be much better if Japan stops dumping. It would make things much easier.

There are many other avenues for seeking redress beyond the WTO. China is a big, powerful and wealthy country, the second biggest economy in the world and technically very sophisticated. My suggestion for China would be to push the IAEA to withdraw its endorsement because of bad science and the lack of justification for the dumping, which violates the fundamental safety principle No. 4 of the IAEA and the corresponding guidance in GSG-8. If Japan goes to the WTO, why doesn’t China go to many other forums in which this can be addressed?

The amount of dumping that has happened so far is relatively small. This is an activity that is going to go on for 30 years at least. If the intention is to stop Japan from dumping, there have to be more forums than the WTO. The IAEA should be held accountable both for its own sake and also as a way of holding Japan accountable. If the IAEA admits that it should have considered the deficiencies in Japan’s environmental impact assessment, or more importantly, should have considered justification, then Japan’s position on dumping will likely have to change because they relied on the IAEA’s statement that the impact will be negligible in order to start dumping.