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Japan or Environment: What is US priority?

By BIBHU PRASAD ROUTRAY
July 31, 2021 14:40 IST
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Bibhu Prasad Routray explains why the US is supporting Japan's resolve to release 'treated' radioactive waste water into the Pacific Ocean. And what role China plays in the US decision.

IMAGE: The Japanese goverment's decision to discharge contaminated radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean is being opposed in Japan. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters
 

On April 13, 2021, the Japanese government announced plans to release radioactive waste water stored at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean over a period of 30 years.

Apparently, the current facility to store the contaminated water since the 2011 nuclear disaster will be full and Tokyo will have to find new ways to manage the waste water.

While it is choosing the most convenient option, its decision can have larger catastrophic ramifications on the environment, marine life, communities and other countries.

Despite such widespread concerns, the decision is being supported by the United States, underlining the fact that geopolitics scores higher than the environment in America's priorities.

The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency seem convinced by the Japanese argument that Tokyo will treat the water adequately to make it safe before releasing it in the Pacific Ocean.

Japan's Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso went to the extent saying the released water would 'be drinkable'. This kind of loose talk and display of defiance has now started receiving local as well as global backlash.

The very vocal Japan Fishermen's Association has argued that the government's decision contravenes its 2015 assurance that contaminated water would not be released without their consent.

According to a survey, over 70 per cent of the fishermen oppose the government's decision; they are concerned that the release of the waste water would result in customer backlash and directly impact their livelihood.

There is global opposition to the Japanese decision as well, especially from China, South Korea, Australia and the Pacific Island nations.

While the IAEA chooses to term the waste water as 'treated' rather than 'contaminated', environmental institutions and groups do not support Japan's explanation.

In April 2021, three independent UN human rights experts -- including the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Special Rapporteur on Right to Food and Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment -- said in a joint statement said that the release of contaminated water into the marine environment 'imposes considerable risks to the full enjoyment of human rights of concerned populations in and beyond the borders of Japan'.

IMAGE: An aerial view of the storage tanks for treated water at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Energy has said that the impact of nuclear waste water on the marine ecological environment requires continuous follow-up observation.

The German Marine Science Research Institute points out that the coast of Fukushima, which has the strongest ocean currents in the world, could lead to radioactive materials spreading to most of the Pacific Ocean within 57 days from the date of discharge. It will reach global waters in 10 years.

Greenpeace nuclear experts have pointed out that the Carbon-14 contained in Japan's nuclear waste water is dangerous for thousands of years and may cause genetic damage.

South Korea's foreign minister has expressed 'serious regret' over Tokyo's decision.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has urged Japan to 'act in a responsible manner'.

Motarilavoa Hilda Lini, stateswomen and veteran anti-nuclear activist from Vanuatu, one of the Pacific islands which may bear the brunt of Japan's decision, has demanded, 'If it is safe, dump it in Tokyo, test it in Paris and store it in Washington but keep our Pacific nuclear-free.'

Astonishingly, the US and the IAEA have chosen to side with Tokyo and override widespread global concerns. This is despite the fact that the Biden administration, after assuming power early this year, re-emphasised the US's commitment to fight climate change and support the environment.

In April 2021, the US had hosted a two-day climate summit attended by 40 world leaders. President Joe Biden had set a 2030 timeline for greenhouse gas pollution reduction. In the same month, however, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry reaffirmed that his country backed Tokyo's decision and rebuffed South Korea's request for intervention.

'The US is confident that the government of Japan has had full consultation with IAEA and that the IAEA has set up a rigorous process,' Kerry had remarked.

Previously, on April 12, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price had said in a statement that Japan has taken a responsible attitude and has always maintained transparency. He claimed that Japan has adopted an approach that complies with globally recognised safety standards.

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IMAGE: Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks while a monitor displays US President Joe Biden, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Photograph: Kiyoshi Ota/Pool/Reuters

There can be only one explanation for the US choosing to back Tokyo and ignore the sense of outrage expressed by a large number of countries and by stakeholders within Japan as well. And that explanation is Geopolitics.

Washington considers Japan an invaluable support in its rivalry with China, which has worsened over the years.

As one of the four members of the Quad, that describes itself as an alliance of like-minded countries but is essentially an organisation aimed at countering Beijing, the US can ill afford to oppose Tokyo, even if it means overriding its own proclaimed concerns for the environment and climate change.

Geopolitics would also demand that Tokyo remains indebted to the US for such a gesture and pays back by remaining its strong and unwavering ally.

One would, however, have hoped that the Biden administration maintains its principled position and uses its influence over Tokyo to avert a potentially catastrophic step.

Washington prides itself as the lead writer of the international rule book for countering any Chinese attempts at militarising space. In May this year, the US had criticised Beijing about the debris from an enormous Chinese rocket that fell back to earth.

US Defence Department Spokesperson John Kirby had said in May, 'We want to see everybody who are actors in space do so in a responsible, deliberate way that's mindful of the safety of all our citizens here on earth.'

In contrast, John Kerry's statement in Seoul, on the Japanese nuclear waste water episode, is representative of the country's double standards.

In view of the global concerns, the IAEA has invited China's participation in a technical team that will be responsible for the disposal of the contaminated water.

The UN body has also reached an agreement with Tokyo to closely monitor the release after Japan adheres to stringent safety requirements.

In this entire episode, one wishes the US had better projected its concern for environment and not chosen to sacrifice it at the altar of geopolitics.

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is director, Mantraya Research Forum, Goa, and is a former deputy director at the National Security Council Secretariat.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/ Rediff.com

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