24 Aug 2023

Pacific leaders split over Fukushima nuclear wastewater release

2:28 pm on 24 August 2023
Fiji prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka called for unity in his first parliamentary speech for the year. Monday 13 Feb 2023

Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Photo: Fiji Parliament

Pacific leaders are split over Japan's plans to gradually release 1.4 million tonnes of treated nuclear wastewater from the defunct Fukushima power plant over a period of 30 to 40 years.

Japan has announced it will start releasing treated nuclear wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima power plant at 1pm local time (4pm NZ time).

"This is a big step and punctuating moment in the process of decommissioning, this is a big step," Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) spokesperson Junichi Matsumoto told media.

"We will have 30 years or so, we will secure safety and quality. We will accomplish this discharge, we have to buckle down ourselves and we have to do it with an intense attitude," he said.

The release of 1.4 million tonnes of the wastewater into the Pacific Ocean is expected to take several decades.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Japan's plan meets all relevant international safety standards.

But it has not won favour from everyone, with some Pacific leaders still concerned about the effects.

"There's a possibility we may have a splinter on our view on the Fukushima discharge, on the whole, we'll probably find consensus," former PIF chair and Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told RNZ Pacific in Port Vila.

Rabuka was optimistic that Pacific countries, particularly those in Melanesia would eventually see eye to eye.

"Traditionally we are together on most issues," Rabuka said.

The Japanese government said it was "not wilfully" trying to divide Pacific nations.

The Cook Islands Prime Minister and incoming forum chair Mark Brown in Japan with Henry Puna to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The Cook Islands Prime Minister and incoming forum chair Mark Brown in Japan with Henry Puna to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Photo: Supplied/PIF

In an effort to pull out this so-called 'splinter' or ease the pain, The Pacific Islands Forum chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said forum leaders would, "as a matter of priority", consider the latest developments in their next meeting in Rarotonga and Aitutaki in November.

First Foreign Forum Ministers were to meet in September. They too were to discuss the issue.

"We note the IAEA's recommendations that the plans by Japan are consistent with international nuclear safeguards and that impacts on the environment and human health are negligible," Brown said.

"At the same time, we appreciate the advice rendered by the independent PIF panel of scientific experts," he said.

From left: Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Kitlang Kabua, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Mark Brown, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a meeting of Pacific Island Forum in Tokyo

Photo: AFP/Masanori Genko

The advice has been mixed, two of the PIF panellists appointed by the Secretariat have said it has been an uphill battle trying to get information from Japan to verify safety. They said there have been "red flags" in the data and one even criticised the IAEA, a move nuclear experts do not take lightly.

The UN nuclear watchdog boss has since defended its position on Japan's wastewater dump.

Other experts on the PIF panel said they had no issue with the release and no harm would come to the Pacific as a result, from a scientific standpoint.

"It is not lost on me that there remains diverging views and responses in the international community, and within our Blue Pacific region," Brown said.

He said, as chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, he was committed to maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the government of Japan and the IAEA on this matter.

"As custodians of our Blue Pacific Continent, and in recognition of the transboundary and transgenerational nature of this issue, it is incumbent on all of us to ensure the highest level of due diligence and ongoing monitoring of the planned discharge," Brown said.

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