Published: 11:50, May 3, 2021 | Updated: 11:50, May 3, 2021
Wastewater fuels concerns across region
By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong

A woman tears a Japanese rising sun flag during a protest denouncing the Japanese government's decision to release treated radioactive Fukushima water in front of a building which houses Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, April 24, 2021. (AHN YOUNG-JOON / AP)

Adecision by Japan to dump contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea is generating growing anger in Southeast Asia.

While international outrage over Japan’s plan has focused mostly on the fears of people in China and South Korea, awareness of the dangers posed by the release of more than 1 million metric tons of the contaminated water is mounting farther south.

Commentators across Southeast Asia are highlighting the threat to coastal communities and marine biodiversity. “The seas are a fluid environment that cannot be bordered up by any means,” said Serina Abdul Rahman, visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

She said that while the area from which Japan will dump the contaminated water “is quite a distance away”, it will only be a matter of time before this discharge will eventually flow into Southeast Asian seas.

“With extreme weather conditions, that we get more frequently now, anything in the sediment and substrate can get churned up and flow with the currents,” Serina said.

She said that wastewater discharge will harm not just the maritime environment and migratory birds and animals. The dumping of contaminated water also threatens public health as it can contaminate seafood. Fisherfolk will also lose their livelihood in the process.

Renato Redentor Constantino, executive director of Manila-based think tank Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, said releasing radioactive water will affect not just Japan but its neighbors in the region as well, as they all share maritime borders. He urged Japan to stop dumping its “gross failure to curb the avarice and recklessness of its nuclear industry on its neighbors, future generations, and the fragile ecosystems we all share”.

Naderev Sano, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said Japan’s decision “completely disregards” human rights and international maritime law.

“This completely ignores the human rights and interests of the people in Fukushima, wider Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. Japan is known to have a much higher capacity, and more robust risk management systems, monitoring systems, enforcement capacity, and technology,” Sano said at an April 22 briefing.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on April 13 that his government has decided to discharge contaminated wastewater in Fukushima Prefecture into the sea.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has been generating massive amounts of radiation-tainted water since 2011, after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the northeastern coast of Japan and triggered a powerful tsunami. The plant’s three nuclear reactors melted down after the tsunami destroyed their cooling system.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s operator, pumped seawater into the reactor cores to cool them and keep them from melting. Since then, TEPCO has stored 1.25 million tons of wastewater in tanks.

The water, according to reports, has been treated using an advanced liquid processing system, to remove most contaminants. But things like tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors, are proving hard to filter out.

The decision drew a swift response from China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged Japan to reconsider its plan and cooperate with other countries to conduct assessments on the water.

On April 26, another ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said experts from China will be invited to join a technical working group led by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that will look into Japan’s contaminated water disposal plan.

“China is in close communication and coordination with the IAEA over the issue,” Wang said, adding China will fully support the nuclear agency’s follow-up work.

Philippine Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque reminded Japan of “the principles of international environmental law”.

“First principle is that we are one ecosystem, second principle is we are interconnected, and the third principle is that the polluter must pay,” Roque said on April 15.

Riko Kurniawan, director of the Riau Province’s office of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, is calling on the Indonesian government to provide more information on Japan’s dumping of wastewater.

Antonio Oposa Jr, an environmental lawyer from the Philippines, urged the Philippine government to also “do something about it (because) that is something that is not just illegal, but very dangerous to the country”.

Leonardus Jegho in Jakarta and Xinhua contributed to this story.