The Japanese government has announced it will spend USD$260 million to buy local seafood products if domestic sales are affected by the release of Fukushima wastewater. If the Japanese public is more accepting of seafood caught in waters around the discharge area, seafood imports from other countries to Japan will likely fall. However, if public opinion does not go this way, Japan will have to import more seafood to meet local demand. If 40 percent of the reduction in Japanese seafood exports is absorbed by its own market, the modelling shows this would result in a USD$272 million reduction in Japanese seafood imports from other countries.
Countries in the same community as Japan show a more significant reduction in their seafood exports to Japan while countries not in the same community have less impact. The planned Fukushima nuclear wastewater disposal will mainly affect countries in the same seafood trading community as Japan. These countries will see more significant reductions in their imports of Japanese seafood and in the exports of their seafood to Japan compared to countries in other communities.
Alternatives to dumping Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific
Some experts argue that there are compelling data-backed reasons to examine alternative approaches to the wastewater dumping. The apparent rush to treat, dilute and dump should be postponed until further due diligence can be performed.
During a visit to the Fukushima site in February 2023, it was apparent that large amounts of concrete will need to be used to expand the seawall, stabilize large amounts of contaminated soil and fortify the ice barrier presently in place to reduce groundwater flow into the damaged reactors. Using the treated cooling water onsite to mix concrete that can be used to expand the seawall should be given more consideration if the water is truly safe, as it removes the issue of ocean release and would substantially reduce the volume of stored cooling water.
The present situation arose from a classic type II statistical error: accepting a false hypothesis (of safety of the nuclear power plant siting, with inadequate safety measures). A more detailed set of analyses that includes problematic scenarios can help prevent another calamity.
Claims of total safety are not supported by the available information. The world’s oceans are shared among all, providing over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and a diversity of resources of economic, ecological and cultural value for present and future generations. Within the Pacific Islands in particular, the ocean is viewed as connecting, rather than separating, widely distributed populations.
The risks of wastewater
Releasing radioactive contaminated water into the Pacific is an irreversible action with transboundary and transgenerational implications. As such, it should not be unilaterally undertaken by any country. The Pacific Islands Forum has had the foresight to ask the relevant questions on how this activity could affect the lives and livelihoods of their peoples now and into the future. It has drawn on a panel of five independent experts to provide it with the critical information it needs to perform its due diligence.
No one is questioning the integrity of Japanese or International Atomic Energy Agency scientists, but the belief that our oceans’ capacity to receive limitless quantities of pollutants without detrimental effects is demonstrably false. For example, tuna and other large ocean fish contain enough mercury from land-based sources to require people, especially pregnant women and young children, to limit their consumption. Tuna have also been found to transport radionuclides from Fukushima across the Pacific to California.
Phytoplankton, microscopic organisms that float free in the ocean, can capture and accumulate a variety of radioactive elements found in the Fukushima cooling water, including tritium and carbon-14. Phytoplankton is the base for all marine food webs. When they are eaten, the contaminants would not be broken down, but stay in the cells of organisms, accumulating in a variety of invertebrates, fish, marine mammals and humans. Marine sediments can also be a repository for radionuclides, and provide a means of transfer to bottom-feeding organisms.
The justification for dumping is primarily based on the chemistry of radionuclides and the modelling of concentrations and ocean circulation. But the assumptions that underpin this modelling may not be correct. It also largely ignores the biological uptake and accumulation in marine organisms and the associated concern of transfer to people eating affected seafood. Many of the 62-plus radionuclides present in the Fukushima water have long periods over which they can cause harmful effects, called half-lives, of decades to millennia.
For example, cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, and carbon-14, more than 5,700 years. Issues like this really do matter, as once radioactive materials enter the human body, including those that release relatively low-energy radiation (beta particles), they can cause damage and increase the risk of cancers, damage to cells, to the central nervous system and other health problems.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster is not the first such event, and undoubtedly will not be the last. The challenge of cleaning-up, treating and containing contaminated cooling water is also an opportunity to find and implement safer and more sensible options and setting a better precedent to deal with future catastrophes.