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Better safe than sorry with Fukushima water

By Francisco Leandro | China Daily | Updated: 2023-03-22 08:11

A worker stands near tanks used to store treated radioactive water on Friday at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. HIRO KOMAE/AP

Following the announcement of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on March 3, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, according to a BBC report, has confirmed that the government is planning to release 1.3 million cubic meters of contaminated water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea.

Japan plans to release the contaminated water in spring or summer, but the Japanese government has said no water would be released before receiving the International Atomic Energy Agency's "comprehensive report".

Let's begin with the precautionary argument. The core argument is to freeze or stop an environmentally risky activity capable of causing a serious or irreversible damage due to the lack of scientific certainty. The precautionary principle is part of a number of international legal instruments, and a cornerstone of international environmental law.

Indeed, and despite any misunderstanding of its legal interpretation, principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is extensively recognized by states and provides a practical guidance to the concrete application of international law.

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach should be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation, says the Rio Declaration.

Second, the consultation with neighboring countries argument. The Rio Declaration further stresses the need for effective international cooperation to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer to other states of substances that may cause severe environmental degradation or are harmful to human health.

In addition, states should provide prior and timely notification and relevant information for potentially affected states on activities that may have a significant adverse trans-boundary environmental effect and should consult with those states at an early stage and in good faith. The Republic of Korea, China, several Pacific Island nations and even the Japanese fishing communities have objected to the planned release of the contaminated water.

Third, the illegality of dumping contaminated water into the sea argument. In 1996, Japan became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972(The London Convention), and its 1996 protocol with 2006 amendments.

The provisions of the UNCLOS are clear when it comes to imposing a general obligation on states to protect and preserve the marine environment (Article 192) and strictly imposing a binding commitment on all parties to ensure that activities under their jurisdiction or control are so conducted as not to cause damage by pollution to other states and their environment, and that pollution arising from incidents or activities under their jurisdiction or control does not spread beyond the areas where they exercise sovereign rights in accordance with this Convention (Article 194, paragraph 2).

Especially, Article 194, paragraph 3, imposes an obligation on states to minimize to the fullest possible extent the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources, from or through the atmosphere or by dumping, and pollution from other installations and devices operating in the marine environment, in particular, measures for preventing accidents and dealing with emergencies, ensuring the safety of operations at sea, and regulating the design, construction, equipment, operation and manning of such installations or devices.

Since Japan is also a party to the London Convention of 1972, which is one of the first global conventions to protect the marine environment from human activities and has been in force since 1975, the country should know that the convention's major objective is to promote the effective control of all sources of marine pollution (not only vessels) and to take all practical steps to prevent pollution of the sea by dumping of wastes and other matter. In fact, Article 3 of the London Convention defines and prohibits dumping as any deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures at sea.

Also, the parties to the London Convention (and Protocol) have adopted an amendment to ensure that the dumping of sewage sludge at sea would be prohibited worldwide. Indeed, the amendment to the London Protocol removed sewage sludge from the list of permissible wastes, wastes which may be considered for dumping at sea.

The amendment was adopted by the 44th Consultative Meeting of Contracting Parties to the London Convention and the 17th Meeting of Contracting Parties to the London Protocol, which met at the international Maritime Organization headquarters in October 2022. In the same line of reasoning, a number of states (such as Australia) also introduced in their national legislation the prohibition of disposal of dredged or excavated materials at sea.

And fourth, the better to be safe than sorry argument. History tells us that Japanese militarism caused sorrow and suffering to millions of people in many countries before and during World War II, and the consequences of Japan's atrocities are still felt by people in those countries.

Besides, Japan insists on continuing its absurd whaling program despite the rulings of the UN International Court of Justice, which in 2014 ordered an immediate stop to the killing of whales. The International Court of Justice, in addition to a number of countries, scientists and environmental organizations, consider Japan's so-called research on whales unnecessary and lacking scientific merit, describing it as a thinly disguised commercial whaling operation.

So, will Japan once again sacrifice its international reputation, putting at stake its obligations as a responsible sovereign state, and risk causing severe global environmental damage and harm to human health? The answer is strident: better to be safe than sorry.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

The author is an associate professor at the City University of Macau.

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