The Pacific facing a radioactive future
360Info is an open-access global news agency staffed by journalists working with academics to tackle the world’s biggest challenges and deliver practical solutions
Japan plans to dump radioactive water from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean, but its effects on Pacific nations are unclear, writes Robert H. Richmond as the Pacific Islands Forum meets this week
When the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima, Japan in 2011, it resulted in the tragic death of many people and severe damage to a nuclear power plant, requiring a constant flow of cooling water to prevent new disasters. More than 1.3 million tons of water contaminated by radionuclides are now retained on the site. The operator of the Fukushima plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), with the approval of the Japanese government, plans to start discharging this water into the Pacific Ocean from next year. But compelling, data-based reasons to examine alternative approaches to ocean dumping have not been sufficiently explored.
Safety claims are not scientifically supported by available information. The world’s oceans are shared by all peoples, providing more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe and a diversity of resources of economic, ecological and cultural value for present and future generations. In the Pacific islands in particular, the ocean is seen as connecting, rather than separating, widely distributed populations.
Dumping radioactive contaminated water into the Pacific is an irreversible action with cross-border and transgenerational implications. As such, it should not be undertaken unilaterally by any country. The Pacific Islands Forum, which is meeting this week, has had the foresight to ask the pertinent questions about how this activity could affect the lives and livelihoods of their people now and in the future. It relied on a panel of five independent experts to provide it with the critical information it needs to carry out its due diligence.
No one questions the integrity of Japanese scientists or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but the belief that the ability of our oceans to receive unlimited amounts of pollutants without ill effects is patently false. For example, tuna and other large ocean fish contain enough mercury from land-based sources to compel people, especially pregnant women and young children, to limit their intake. Tuna have also been found to transport radionuclides from Fukushima across the Pacific to California. Phytoplankton, microscopic plant life that floats freely in the ocean, can capture and accumulate a variety of radioactive elements found in Fukushima’s cooling water, including tritium and carbon-14. Phytoplankton is the basis of all marine food webs. When consumed, the contaminants would not be broken down, but would remain in the cells of organisms, accumulating in a variety of invertebrates, fish, marine mammals and humans. Marine sediments can also be a repository for radionuclides and provide a means of transfer to bottom-feeding organisms.
The rationale for dumping is mainly based on radionuclide chemistry and modeling of concentrations and ocean circulation based on assumptions that may not be correct. It also largely ignores biological uptake and accumulation in marine organisms and the associated concern of transfer to people consuming affected seafood. Many of the more than 62 radionuclides found in Fukushima water have long periods over which they can cause harmful effects, called half-lives, ranging from decades to millennia. For example, Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, and Carbon-14 over 5700 years. Issues like this are really important because once radioactive materials enter the human body, including those that release relatively low-energy radiation (beta particles), they can cause damage and increase the risk of cancers, cell damage, central nervous system damage and other health problems.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster is not the first event of this type and will probably not be the last. The challenges of cleaning up, treating and containing contaminated cooling water are also an opportunity to find and implement safer, more sensible options and set a better precedent for dealing with future disasters. The Pacific region and its people have already suffered the devastation caused by the nuclear testing programs of the United States, Britain and France. Documented problems have led to international agreements to limit such testing. In this case, Pacific Islands Forum members are key players finding a unified voice against the planned dumping of radionuclides and other pollutants into the ocean that surrounds their homes and holds the future of their children.
The world’s oceans are in trouble and under increasing stress due to human-induced impacts related to global climate change, overfishing and pollution, with consequent cumulative effects on living resources and the people who depend on them. . Pollution, especially from land-based sources, is one of the greatest threats and challenges to the sustainability of ocean resources and associated elements of human health.
Japan and TEPCO plan to start dumping radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean in 2023. A more deliberate and careful approach would respect the precautionary principle – that if we are not sure that no harm will caused, we should not continue. The rush to dilute and discard is misguided and such actions should be deferred until further due diligence can be performed. Sound science and a much closer examination of alternatives, along with respect for the health and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific Rim, all require it. Much better and transparent communications are needed to provide accurate and adequate information to leaders, resource managers and stakeholders to use in their deliberations on the way forward. If island nations lead, other nations are sure to follow.
Robert H. Richmond, PhD is Research Professor and Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, an Aldo Leopold Fellow in Environmental Leadership, and a Fellow of the International Coral Reef Society. He is part of the Pacific Islands Forum Advisory Group on the Fukushima Spill, which funded this research. He warmly thanks the contributions of the other panel members, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, Dr. Ken Buesseler, Dr. Ferenc Dalnoki Veress and Dr. Tony Hooker.
Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.
Start your day with
a curation of our top
stories in your inbox
Start your day with a cure of
our best stories in your inbox
READ TODAY’S NEWSLETTER