Interview: Japan’s decision to discharge nuclear contaminated water into sea “unacceptable”, says nuclear specialist


LONDON, April 22 (Xinhua) — Japan’s plan to release more than 1 million tonnes of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea has caused condemnation from not only its domestic public but also neighbouring countries and international environmental organizations.

The Japanese government tries to mislead public opinion by claiming that the wastewater will be treated and diluted so radiation levels are below those set for drinking water.

But for Shaun Burnie, a UK-based senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace East Asia, an office serving the East Asia region of the global environmental organization Greenpeace, releasing contaminated water into the ocean is “unacceptable”.

“The idea that it’s safe to discharge that sort of activity into the ocean is clearly scientifically bankrupt,” Burnie, who travels regularly to Japan, told Xinhua in a recent interview.

“Radioactive tritium, the Japanese government says there’s no problem it poses no threat. It’s not the most hazardous radionuclide in the water, that’s clear. But a fraction of that radioactive tritium becomes organically bound in human cells, plant cells, animal cells, at which point it gives radiation exposure and can cause cell damage, genetic damage. So the Japanese government is not being honest with what’s in this water, or what the effects will be,” said Burnie.

“There are so many reasons why dumping nuclear waste into the world’s oceans is a bad idea,” he said, adding that dumping nuclear waste was exactly what the nuclear industry had done over many decades.

“We now have a situation coming on quarter of a century later, where the Japanese government thinks they can easily move forward with discharging nuclear waste into the Pacific. That’s unacceptable.”


Scientists have warned that radiation from tritium can be ingested, which is why fishing industry groups are concerned about the risk of it getting into the food chain and being consumed through sea food.

Greenpeace are largely concerned about the knock-on effects discharging waste water could have on marine environments.

“The different radioactive materials that will be in the water, if it’s discharged, they behave differently in the marine environment, some concentrate in sediments, some concentrate in marine life,” said Burnie.

“It’s the Pacific Ocean. It’s an enormous body of ocean with enormous powerful current. So the first concern is the local effects to the people living along the Pacific coast of Japan, including the fishing industry, they will be the ones most directly affected.”

According to Burnie, it won’t just be an environmental and health problem when the water affects marine life, but also an economic one — as the fish markets may look elsewhere to avoid fish that could have contamination.

“It’s both the reality of radiation contamination, and also the perception of it. And so it’s a very serious, very complex issue. All of this can be avoided. By opting for what alternative actually exists. They don’t have to release this water into the marine environment.”


The Fukushima radioactive water is currently being treated in a complex filtration process that removes most of the radioactive elements, but some remain, including tritium.

It is then kept in huge tanks, but the plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TepCo) is running out of space, with these tanks expected to fill up by 2022.

According to Greenpeace, there is an alternative to discharging the waste water into the ocean.

“Fortunately, there is a clear alternative, which minimizes the environmental and human health risks,” said Burnie.

According to Greenpeace, the Japanese government admitted in its own investigations in 2020 that land space was available next to the Fukushima Daiichi site.

“The 2022 deadline is actually false. It’s complete fantasy and suits the Japanese government’s interest of saying we must make a decision on this we must discharge because we’re running out of space. They’re not running out of space.”


Despite condemnation from environmental groups and countries in East Asia, the United States has backed Japan to discharge the contaminated water into the ocean.

This, according to Burnie, is to do with international relations and the fact that U.S. nuclear companies have interests in the situation.

Japan’s current nuclear wastewater problem comes from 2011, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the north-eastern coast of Japan, triggering a 15-meter tsunami.

While the back-up systems to prevent a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant survived the initial quake, further damage was inflicted by the tsunami. As the facility’s cooling systems failed in the days that followed, tonnes of radioactive material were released.

But despite the plan being approved, Burnie said there is a possibility that the decision can be reversed.

“I’ve been working on these issues for more than 30 years. And one thing you can be absolutely certain of is that even although bad decisions are announced, it doesn’t mean they will be implemented. So actually, I’m reasonably optimistic that we can actually stop this discharge, protecting the marine environment working with citizens in Japan, in Korea, also in China,” Burnie said. Enditem


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