Pacific Islanders’ safety and subsistence living in jeopardy

As Japan continues to carry out its intentions to dump more than 1 million metric tons of diluted nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, Pacific Islanders’ safety and subsistence living are in jeopardy.

In an opinion piece published in The Guardian earlier this year, Henry Puna, secretary general of the inter-governmental organization Pacific Islands Forum, criticized Japan’s irresponsible decision to discharge Fukushima nuclear-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, stressing that there are serious information gaps.

“We have uncovered serious information gaps and grave concerns with the proposed ocean release. Simply put, more data is needed before any ocean release should be permitted.”

For Pacific Islanders who are historically and unfortunately familiar with nuclear contamination, “continuing with ocean discharge plans at this time is simply inconceivable, and we do not have the luxury of time to sit around for four decades in order to ‘figure it out’,” said Puna.

What Puna referred to was a tragic history from 1946 to 1958, when the United States detonated 67 nuclear tests on, in and above the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, causing unprecedented environmental contamination and, for the indigenous peoples of the islands, long-term adverse health effects.

In Enewetak Atol in the Marshall Islands, U.S. authorities also conducted a dozen biological weapons tests and dumped 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site, The Los Angeles Times said in a report in 2019.

“Our Pacific people did not have the opportunity to ask decades ago when our region and our ocean was identified as a nuclear test field,” he said, urging Japan to hold off on any such release until the people of the Pacific Island countries are certain about the implications of such discharge on the environment and on human health.

The nuclear-contaminated wastewater dump threatens not only human health but also the fisheries on which Pacific Islanders rely for a living.

According to Puna, the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is important fishing grounds for tuna. If the tuna is affected, it will pose a serious threat to the rights and interests of islanders in related industries and even consumers around the world.

Fishermen in Japan’s Tohoku Region, which has been plagued by the 2011 nuclear disaster, are also strongly opposed to the dumping plan and accuse the Japanese government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) of backpedaling on their commitments.

TEPCO and the government promised local fishermen in 2015 they would not dispose of the nuclear wastewater without gaining the “full understanding of citizens and fishery stakeholders,” but it remains unclear whether the two parties have reached an agreement on what that entails.

Meanwhile, a recent poll shows that more than 90 percent of Japanese believe that the discharge of nuclear wastewater into the sea will bring “negative word-of-mouth” to Japan’s fishing industry and aquatic products, and over 60 percent think that the Japanese government and TEPCO have not given enough explanation.

As said by Puna, the decision for any ocean release is not and should not only be a domestic matter for Japan, but a global and transnational issue that should give rise to the need to examine the issue in the context of obligations under international law.

Japan does not own the Pacific Ocean either. If Tokyo persists in its risky, poisonous nuclear wastewater discharge plan, it will leave another indelible mark of sin on its history as a result of its irresponsible behavior. ■

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