BY LINDA PENTZ GUNTER August 2023
Much has been made — and rightly so — about the potential impact on human health and the Japanese fishing industry if Japan moves forward with its proposal to dump 1.2 million cubic meters — that’s 1.3 million tons —of radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant site.
Unfortunately, this looks likely to happen sometime this month or next despite the worldwide outcry. But when I say “happen”, that rather suggests a one-off dump. Instead, the discharge of these liquid nuclear wastes could go on for at least 17 years according to the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, but likely longer as decommissioning work at the site is expected to take at least 30-40 years.
It is perfectly right and reasonable that the Japanese fishing community sees its livelihood under threat from this proposal. Indeed, it has already taken a hit, as imports of Japanese fish stock to South Korea were down by 30% in May, before the dumping even began. This was clearly driven by jitters around the on-going safety of Japanese fish supplies once those radioactive discharges get underway.
And Pacific Island nations, along with an international team of scientific experts, have equally decried the plan as premature, unnecessary and in need of far greater confidence and further study before such discharges are executed, if ever.
But there is a greater moral issue here, one that speaks to humankind’s reckless and selfish behavior on planet Earth ever since mechanization and the various so-called industrial revolutions began.
For almost three centuries in the developed world, we have continuously and wantonly destroyed vast areas of precious habitat for numerous species. We have clear cut forests, sliced the tops off mountains, broken open the earth to mine minerals, exploded atomic weapons, spewed mercury and carbon into our air, drilled for oil, sprayed pesticides at will and filled the oceans with plastics, to name just a few environmental atrocities.
The toxic mess these activities leave behind has been dumped into rivers, streams, lakes and oceans, or on the lands where the less influential and powerful amongst us live — in the United States almost always in communities of color or on Native American reservations.
One of the worst offenders on this list is nuclear waste. In keeping with our heedless irresponsibility we have kept making lethal radioactive waste without the slightest idea how to safely manage or store it for the longterm. For years, barrels of the stuff were dumped into the sea, until a 1994 amendment to the London Dumping Convention, put an end to it.
But of course the nuclear industry found a way around this. Routine liquid discharges through a pipe circumvented this law. Institutions such as the LaHague reprocessing site on the northern French coast, have discharged radioactive liquids (and gases) for decades. Didier Anger, the now retired expert activist on the environmental crimes at La Hague, uses this history to warn us urgently and eloquently of the folly of discharging nuclear waste into our oceans.
At times, the liquid wastes from La Hague, measured at the discharge point by vigilant groups such as Greenpeace, could have been classified as high-level radioactive waste that would normally require a deep geological repository.
As we approach the moment when radioactive liquids are once more poured into the sea, this time in Japan, imposing a toxic burden on the creatures who are already struggling to survive there, we must ask whether human beings have some sort of divine right of kings to trash the habitat of other living things?
The answer should surely be ‘no’. That humans can generate a radioactive mess and “dispose” of it into some other creatures’ habitat, poisoning their environment is, frankly, both arrogant and abhorrent.
We have already done this everywhere and it has come with a terrible price to other creatures as well as to ourselves. The destruction and contamination of habitat has led to mass extinctions. The US has lost three billion birds since 1970. That’s one in four birds. We may have thought the birds were back in abundance during the start of the covid pandemic, but that was just us hearing what’s left of them more clearly, in the quiet of lockdown.
Bees, who perform around 80% of all pollination, are dying out and hives collapsing, all due to human activities. These include pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and, of course, the climate crisis.
Absent these and other essential members of the web of life, our own extinction is not far behind.
We need to stop this behavior and we need to stop it now. We should do it not only for ourselves but for the countless innocent creatures who should not be expected to offer up their homes as our dustbins.
Loading up the Pacific Ocean with liquid radioactive waste — whether it dilutes and disperses or not — is a crime of immorality representative of so many that have come before. If we are truly to change our plundering, polluting and profligate ways, banning the radioactive water dump at Fukushima would be an excellent place to start.
This first appeared in Beyond Nuclear International.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.