[Column] Japan dumping radioactive water into the ocean impacts all of humankind via Hankyoreh

In 2020, humankind has to face a number of challenges that we have never experienced before. One of them is the possibility that radioactively contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant will be dumped into the ocean. According to the international environmental group Greenpeace, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) submitted a final report to Tokyo on Feb. 10 arguing that the ocean dump of all of Fukushima’s contaminated water was essentially the best available option. After previously proposing an ocean dump as a measure in its 2015 “intermediate-term road map for reducing risks related to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster,” Japan has quietly gone through the procedures to make it official.But the ocean dump of this contaminated water would represent an irreversible disaster for humanity. At its core, the plan involves first lowering the concentrations of nuclear material in the highly contaminated water through a multi-nuclide removal system, after which the remaining radioactivity is to be purified with water on a yearly basis before being discharged and dumped into the ocean. Yet it’s impossible to present completely accurate scientific evidence that the concentrations of the 200 or so varieties of nuclear material leaked by the disaster will fall below permissible thresholds. This is borne out by reports that even the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have admitted their failure to control some of the radioactive material, including tritium. This is the pitfall of the 1% error.


After-the-fact aid measures cannot be seen as effective in this case due to legal issues concerning the capabilities (qualifications) of the parties involved and proof of causality. This was illustrated in the past in a compensation case between the Soviet Union and residents of West Germany concerning the leakage of radiation from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The precautionary principle was also proclaimed in the Rio Declaration, an international charter on protection of the global environment. This is explicitly regulated by the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident in its Articles 5 and 6, which refer to the obligation of a country responsible for a nuclear accident to provide prior information and participate in prior consultation. Can it be said that Japan and South Korea are fulfilling their legitimate duties and demands as signatories? The reality indicates that this is not the case.To begin with, there is the issue of prior information sharing between the two sides. Information provided by the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in connection with the disaster has been posted in a “Japanese nuclear power plant radiation information corner” on the website of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), which has presented itself as South Korea’s control tower for responding to the Fukushima disaster.But for the most part, this consists solely of records of the monitoring of changing radioactivity concentrations in waters near Fukushima and discharges of sub-drain underground water. Not only that, but as the aftermath of the accident continues to unfold to this day, the NSSC omits details about the expected operation time and progress of passive cooling equipment (see Article 5-1(c) of the convention). The sub-drain underground water in question is simply low-concentration contaminated water, which is entirely different from the highly concentrated water in storage tanks that Japan wants to dump into the ocean in large volumes.For an assessment of the environmental impact of an ocean dump, this low-concentration water cannot be compared with the highly concentrated water created as a result of encountering nuclear fuel rods during the use of water to cool the heat inside the reactor produced by accident. Additionally, nuclear experts have also referred to increased reactor pressure and radiation leaking as a result of nuclear fuel rod fusion and meltdown, which ought to be included in the information provided about the power plant’s current situation. More importantly, there is no mention of an assessment of the environmental impact on the Pacific Ocean if Japan proceeds with the ocean dump (see Article 5-1(e) and (f) in the convention).


What I want from the South Korean government as the resident of a country that neighbors the site of a nuclear accident is the other side of the coin from what I seek from Japan. This demand is also rooted in Article 2 of South Korea’s Framework Act on Environmental Policy, which incorporates content (the right to participate in environmental decision-making, the right of access to environment information, access to environmental justice) from the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement for the achievement of environmental justice.First, the control tower for responding to the accident should be the pan-governmental Office for Government Policy Coordination (OPC). This will serve as a yardstick for gauging the South Korean government’s recognition of and commitment to resolving the possibility of this unprecedented ocean release of radioactively contaminated water. Preferably, outside figures would be taking part in the task force, including nuclear experts with environmental groups and experts on international environmental law. Second, the South Korean government needs to more proactively demand transparent and accurate information from the Japanese government. Who among us South Koreans is truly aware of what is happening right now inside of the Fukushima reactors? The information that Japanese has given to date is greatly lacking in both quantitative and qualitative terms.


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