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Japan's toxic water plan defies int'l law

By Liu Xianfa | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-07-04 08:48

File photo of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. [Photo/Agencies]

The Japanese government's decision to discharge the nuclear-contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea has, from the very beginning, been questioned and opposed by the international community. News reports say Japan plans to release the tritium-contaminated water from the crippled plant into the sea this summer.

Japan's plan is an extremely irresponsible move. It has ignored the professional and authoritative opinions of international agencies and opposition at home and abroad, showing its disregard for the marine environment and public health.

The volume of nuclear-contaminated water Japan has decided to discharge into the sea and its potential risks are unprecedented. The radioactive wastewater contains more than 60 radionuclides, many of which cannot be effectively treated with existing technologies.

Some of those radionuclides could be spread across the oceans by currents and eddies and damage the marine environment and ecology. The contaminated wastewater, planned to be discharged into the sea over a period of 30 years, will have an impact on the marine environment and public health worldwide.

According to a German marine scientific research institute, given the strong currents along the coast of Fukushima, radioactive materials could spread to most of the Pacific Ocean within 57 days from the day of the discharge, and reach all oceans within a decade. And Greenpeace nuclear experts have said the level of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in the wastewater will remain hazardous for thousands of years with potential to cause genetic damage.

All countries are obliged to abide by the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the protection and preservation of the marine environment, and jointly protect planet Earth.

According to provisions of general international law and the UNCLOS, Japan is obliged to take all possible measures to prevent pollution of the marine environment, notify and consult with states likely to be affected, assess and monitor the environmental impact, take precautionary measures to minimize the possible hazardous effects, ensure transparency, and engage in international cooperation to reduce the risks of damaging the marine environment.

But the Japanese side has been shunning its responsibilities and international obligations using various pretexts, and has audaciously decided to discharge the nuclear contaminated water into the sea. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency task force, which has conducted a safety assessment and released a report in Japan, has a very limited mandate as agreed between Japan and the IAEA. Also, the IAEA is not authorized to evaluate options other than the discharge plan. Therefore, Japan cannot use the IAEA's report as an excuse to dump the nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the ocean.

Japan's plan to dump the toxic wastewater into the sea is not the only way to deal with the contaminated water nor is it the safest way of disposal. But before thoroughly exploring all safe means of disposal, Japan has unilaterally decided to discharge the toxic wastewater into the ocean to reduce economic costs, and put marine life and human health at serious risk.

The Japanese government has repeatedly claimed, albeit without proving it, that the contaminated water is safe enough to drink after being treated. But according to the data released by Japan, more than 70 percent of the treated contaminated water stored in tanks still has radioactive elements that far exceed the regulatory limits for discharge. As a matter of fact, a report from Japan said fish caught in the harbor close to the crippled nuclear plant contain radioactive caesium more than 180 times Japan's legal limit.

It is a pity that some Western governments and media outlets, which are prone to hyping up environmental issues such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in 1986 and smog and sandstorms in China in past years, have responded to Japan's decision rather passively. They avoid talking about the hazards the radioactive wastewater pose to the marine environment and human life, with some even acquiescing to Japan's move, thus exposing their hypocrisy.

The ocean is neither Japan's trash bin nor sewer. Instead of sacrificing marine life and human health, Japan should heed international concerns, fulfill its international obligations, change its discharge plan, and explore all alternative means to dispose the radioactive wastewater in a scientific, transparent and safe manner under international oversight.

The author is the commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China in the Macao Special Administrative Region.

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

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