Last Thursday, Japan began releasing 1.3 million tonnes of treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific.
The waste is from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which was hit by a tsunami in 2011. The plant is owned by the Japanese government through a state-owned company, Tokyo Electric Power Company, which has set a 30-year timeframe for the release of its nuclear waste into the ocean.
Across the Pacific, we’ve seen protests against Japan’s actions — including here in Aotearoa. For many, it’s a direct violation of the sanctity of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa and of Indigenous rights, and the latest example of the Pacific being used for the nuclear purposes of an imperial power.
Here’s Marco de Jong speaking to Teuila Fuatai.
On Friday, around 30 of us gathered outside the Japanese consulate in Tāmaki Makaurau. We were there in solidarity with our whanaunga across the Pacific, standing up for nuclear justice and the health of our oceans. It was a collective action — with marches in Suva, protests in South Korea and Japan, as well as in Pōneke at the Japanese embassy this week.
It’s been two years since Japan announced plans to release nuclear waste from the damaged Fukushima plant into the Pacific. This might seem like a long time for consultation, but it’s really not when you consider the length of the planned discharge and the approach Japan has taken. Rather than building consensus with others that will be affected, we’ve seen a campaign of justification.
Nobody disagrees that the Fukushima disaster was a tragedy that has resulted in difficult decisions having to be made. Nor do they disagree that science should inform this process. What regional partners and people throughout the Pacific disagree with are the narrow standards Japan has used in assessing potential harms, and how much cost and legal obligations seem to have influenced their decision-making.
We should be clear that there is no scientific consensus about the safety of the discharge. After initial dialogue with Japan, the Pacific Islands Forum appointed an independent panel of experts to give a second opinion.
The panel found that Tokyo Electric Power Company’s data and the International Atomic Energy Association’s standards were insufficient for understanding the full consequences of the dump — and that the IAEA had ignored its own guidance on cost-benefit analyses. An alternate plan was suggested, whereby the water would be set within concrete and used to fortify a seawall.
Because these findings were inconvenient, Japan disregarded them, and instead worked within the region to gain support for their original plan. There’s been an accompanying scientific charm offensive. We’ve seen leaders flown out, renewed development assistance, and even advertisements in local papers.
Japan’s actions have been hugely damaging for Pacific unity, in a time when regionalism was already under strain. Pacific Islands Forum members are split over the issue. The likes of Fiji’s Sitiveni Rabuka and the Cook Islands’ Mark Brown endorse the discharge and the IAEA’s findings.
On the other side are Henry Puna, the Forum’s secretary-general, nations like Niue, Tuvalu and the Solomons Islands, and influential NGOs like Pacific Elders’ Voice and the Pacific Council of Churches. All have opposed the release, highlighting the Pacific’s nuclear-free stance and a history of carrying the costs of others’ nuclear experiments.
My suggestion is that Pacific people see Fukushima within a broader story. This is about ongoing nuclear colonialism opposed by an intergenerational, regional movement for the health of the oceans. Let’s talk about some pieces of this story. We shouldn’t be afraid of expressing the fundamentals that are central to our beliefs — the things we need to say again and again when confronted with nuclear issues in the Pacific.
First, we know without doubt that the legacies of nuclear harm in the Pacific are very much ongoing. We must always think of places like Moruroa, Fangataufa, Bikini Atoll, Kiritimati — and, in Australia: Maralinga, Emu Field, and the Montebello Islands. We must remember the people who fight without acknowledgment and redress. These spaces throughout the Pacific are intimately connected with nuclear violence.
For decades, Pacific people were told by outside experts and scientists that the tests and nuclear activities undertaken in these areas were safe. That the severe, multiple and ongoing health effects, that the cancers and stillborn babies, were not connected to nuclear testing.
When Pacific people talk about safety and accountability, they’re not simply debating theories and science. And neither are advocates. We’re actually standing up for people who’ve been silenced. We’re remembering and honouring a real history of nuclear trauma and colonial erasure in the Pacific.
This issue is made more complex by the fact that nuclear science is highly technical, and nuclear states like Japan monopolise this expertise — it takes advanced degrees in disciplines like nuclear physics and engineering to read measurements in becquerels and sieverts!
This is a specialised area dominated by those with a vested interest in the industry. It tends towards knowledge hierarchies that can be wielded to shut down debate or narrow the scope of opposition. If you make it about numbers, it becomes a contest as to who can produce the more convincing ones.
In the Pacific, where we’ve consistently pursued nuclear-free policies, expertise on nuclear facilities and their waste is limited. We have different scientific expertise, often culturally informed and based on interests like ocean ecology.
The dumping is set to continue for 30 years, extending and compounding these legacies of nuclear harm. Remember, the scientific consensus is that no amount of radiation is safe and standards regulating control of radionuclides (radioactive materials) are legal obligations.
To suggest that Pacific people are approaching this unscientifically is a supreme form of colonial gaslighting that diminishes our collective rights, our rights to self-determination, and our proper concern for intergenerational impacts. It’s simply untrue and leans into racist stereotypes — that as Pacific people, we’re not capable of understanding complex issues. When, really, we know our rights and we know that this is a transboundary harm issue.
We also know they’re governed not by science alone but by cost and how much they can get away with. Japan is counting on other nations not taking this to international legal tribunals, because if it was, many experts argue it would be a cut-and-dried case.
Second, this is not the first time Pacific nations have opposed nuclear dumping. In the early 1980s, Japan proposed to dump half a million barrels of nuclear waste in an area to the east of the Marianas Trench.
Pacific nations worked in international forums to oppose this. They emphasised the importance of the ocean to Pacific life and livelihood and the interconnected nature of ocean and islands systems — highlighting Indigenous knowledge about the inviolability of the ocean and scientific arguments about its special hydrological, geologocial and ecological characteristics.
As a result, areas of the high seas were deemed unsuitable for dumping within the Noumea Convention area. This was a huge win, giving us the basis for principled, legally backed opposition today.
As Pacific nations, our real strength is through collectivity and our identity is with the ocean. Together, we have control of a third of the world’s surface through our exclusive economic zones. If we want genuine self-determination, we need to remove that area from superpower competition in geopolitics and focus on things like our response to the climate crisis and providing the conditions for our peoples to live decent lives.
When we have come together in the past, it has resulted in important regional agreements like the Waigani and Noumea Conventions and the Treaty of Rarotonga. These set out very clearly the Pacific commitment to controlling hazardous waste and safeguarding the ocean. Because they draw on our own Pacific science, these instruments form an Indigenous regime of ocean governance.
The movement for the oceans has made the world a better place. The climate agenda owes much of its shape to Pacific activism through the Alliance of Small Island States. We have the Marshall Islands to thank for establishing the 1.5-degree threshold by which we measure our failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (This, uncoincidentally, is the upper limit for the survival of coral.) Associated attempts to protect the oceans as the world’s largest carbon sink and storehouse of biological diversity are being led by Pacific “large ocean states”.
There are a few key themes across this story. That Pacific people are not anti-science — and rather, for centuries, science has been profoundly anti-Pacific people. That we have a common ocean heritage and should be able to determine what happens across the moana. That this movement is intergenerational and includes the whole region, but has enabled global interventions with world-leading results.
Here in Aotearoa, we have a part to play. We’ve seen the New Zealand government deliberately sideline itself so it doesn’t have to take a position against Japan — one of its key trading partners. It’s been worse than silence. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) actually identified an intermediary role for itself between Pacific nations, Japan, and the IAEA. You have to ask who they think they’re representing domestically, and who are the partners of choice internationally. New Zealand is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, yet MFAT has broken with a regional consensus established over decades that New Zealand itself contributed to.
This has really hampered our collective power as Pacific nations and does a massive disservice to our nuclear-free legacy. Our standing in the world is based on a principled image and influence in the Pacific, so this is no joke. Given this lack of political leadership, it’s up to civil society organisations within Aotearoa to re-engage with regional networks, build networks, and pressure the government to act in the interest of our Blue Pacific.
We are the people of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa and we centre the health of our ocean. We respect the mauri of our moana, which is essential to our way of life. For centuries, we’ve maintained a balance between our human needs and ocean health as indivisible parts of who we are. We have a duty to oppose further nuclear harm in our region — and to stop any further precedent that we are a dumping ground.
Who is speaking for the ocean, if not us? If Japan is so convinced of the scientific safety of its nuclear waste then it can go ahead and dump it in Tokyo. Their waste has no place in our Pacific.
Dr Marco de Jong is a Sāmoan New Zealander, and a Pacific historian. He recently completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Islands with a particular focus on anti-nuclearism and climate change. He is now serving as co-director of Te Kuaka, an independent group promoting a progressive role for Aotearoa in the world.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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