The Radioactive Pacific Ocean

Is The IAEA Hiding Dangers of Releasing Fukushima’s Radioactive Wastewater into the Pacific Ocean?

Photograph Source: IAEA Imagebank – CC BY-SA 2.0

Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is proceeding with its widely criticized plan to release more than a million tons of “treated” radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean over the next 30 years. Concerned scientists and citizens continue to question the safety of TEPCO’s choice to use ocean dilution as their solution to the radioactive pollution from the plant’s disastrous 2011 meltdown. Dissent includes experts from Beyond Nuclear and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Treated wastewater from the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) used by TEPCO still contains the radioactive isotope Tritium, which the process can’t remove. There’s ongoing debate about the hazards of Tritium and other radionuclides such as Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 that remain present, too. Several Special Rapporteurs from the United Nations – experts from the UN Human Rights Council – warned Japan against the risks of the ALPS plan in 2021. But that didn’t stop the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from signing off on the plan this past summer, issuing a final report claiming the wastewater release would have “a negligible radiological impact to people and the environment.”

China’s state-run Global Times news outlet went so far as to voice concern relating to the legendary Godzilla, the ancient Japanese movie monster that wreaks havoc after being awakened and mutated by humanity’s irresponsible underwater nuclear testing. “What will be unleashed once the Pandora’s box is open?” the newspaper asked in August. “The answer to this question may become a landmine threatening the ecological environment of the world and the fears of real-life Godzilla among the public worldwide.” 2023’s acclaimed Godzilla Minus One adds detail by indicating it was the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands that mutated Godzilla into the much bigger, atomic fire-breathing monster that attacks Japan.

In a related story that’s received barely any coverage from the corporate media, activists are drawing attention to alleged internal documents leaked by a purported IAEA whistleblower. These documents suggest corrupt regulatory collusion between TEPCO, Japan’s government, and the IAEA to spin the final report in order to downplay the potential dangers and enable the wastewater release plan to proceed.  

The Fukushima 311 Watchdogs blog first reported on these documents in June, after site editor Herve Courtois received the alleged internal IAEA document concerning proposed revisions to the agency’s final report on TEPCO’s wastewater release plan.  Regarding the IAEA’s Draft Final Report of the ALPS treated water release plan, the leaked “Revision Proposal for the Final Report” states:

“The conclusion points to a favourable finding for the discharge of ALPS Treated Water… even though activity concentrations of some radionuclides above the discharge limits are reported… After IAEA’s consultation with the Government of Japan (GOJ), data and results that could be viewed negatively by the public should be removed.” The paragraph on Final Conclusions and Findings goes on to state that “The IAEA will conduct discussion with all Task Force experts, but their recommendations will not be reflected in the report.”

Courtois feels there’s reason to believe the documents he received concerning the “Revision Proposal for the Final Report” are legitimate. He says the person in question had created their email address just to communicate with him and that they exchanged a few emails, one of which included a few pages of the preparatory report by the IAEA. 

“I firmly believed those documents to be authentic because that person knew very well the exact schedule of the IAEA, the coming visit of the IAEA director to Japan, and the following release of the finalized IAEA report about the then-to-be released ‘filtered water’ etc.,” Courtois told Counterpunch by email. “The whistleblower had to be working within the IAEA itself to have access to the IAEA preparatory report and to know well in advance the IAEA schedule before anybody else, before any media published anything about it.”

Courtois related that an American activist put him and the whistleblower in touch with a Washington Post reporter in an attempt to gain coverage there. But the WaPo reporter’s questions aimed at verifying the whistleblower’s legitimacy led to concern about being identified.

The whistleblower thus urged Courtois to go ahead and publish a story at Fukushima 311 Watchdogs, as first intended. “After my publishing it, the whistleblower thanked me in a last email and then made their email address inactive. End of the story,” Courtois explained of how the interactions concluded.

It appears that the only mainstream media reporting on the existence of these whistleblower documents is a single article by the Associated Press, with a story from June 30 in which Japan’s then Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi was asked about the allegations that Japan had pressured the IAEA to remove negative information from its final report. 

“The IAEA is aware of the existence of the forged documents,” Hayashi said. “The IAEA’s comprehensive final report is a document prepared under the responsibility of the IAEA, and the Japanese government is not in a position to manipulate its contents,” he claimed. “I would like to stress that we are firmly opposed to any attempt to undermine the independence and neutrality of the IAEA with false information.”

It seems the AP made little, if any, attempt to investigate Hayashi’s claim that the documents were forged. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did, however, acknowledge allegations from a second whistleblower regarding an alleged payoff of one million euros to IAEA officials, claiming they were “absolutely untrue”. Yet Korean media reported later that same week that Japanese officials were actively searching for such a leaker. 

Courtois posted about the bribery allegations as well, but says it was a repost of a report that appeared in South Korean media and that he doesn’t think those documents came from the same person.  He explained that his whistleblower “was more likely to work close to the IAEA” or Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority and that the other whistleblower “would have been working within the Japanese government,” with those documents allegedly coming from within Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Fredrik Dahl of the IAEA’s press office predictably concurred with Japan’s Hayashi in his response to a Counterpunch query on whether the agency had investigated the allegations of the purported IAEA whistleblower. “Last summer, we became aware of the existence of a forged document with similar content to what you are referring to in your mail. It did not come from the IAEA and it did not reflect the Agency’s position.”

Further analysis of the alleged IAEA “Revision Proposal for the Final Report”

Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) – a UK/Ireland-based organization that works to minimize nuclear hazards and increase public safety – reported on the allegations of the IAEA whistleblower in early July after UK-based marine radiation expert Tim Deere-Jones was alerted to the documents by Herve Courtois and brought them to the NFLA’s attention. 

“The leaked document is on IAEA headed paper and typeface, bears the imprint of the relevant department, is couched in language characteristic of the IAEA, and refers to ‘The public’s captiousness on radioactivity issues,” Deere-Jones explained of his sense that the document is legitimate. He noted that captiousness is defined as “the disposition to find and point out trivial issues or faults” and that such language was “a precise reflection of our long-term experience and understanding of the IAEA and nuclear industry attitude and response to our concerns.”

“The contents of this report, if true, are deeply disturbing and suggest a plan in which, at the highest level, officials from the international agency responsible for nuclear safety, the Japanese nuclear industry and the Japanese government have colluded to underplay the dangers posed to Pacific marine life and the world community by the expedient, but irresponsible, discharge of tritium-contaminated water,” NFLA Chairman Councillor Lawrence O’Neill added.

Troubled by how Japan’s Foreign Minister was quick to condemn the document as forged while the IAEA made no comment at all, Deere-Jones and the NFLA sent a letter to the IAEA in early September calling for an effort to investigate the whistleblower’s claims. But they’ve received no response. “Sadly, I am not at all surprised by the IAEA approach, which is typical of the nuclear industry at large when faced with awkward questions and data requests, i.e. ignore the questions and/or fudge any responses with indirect responses or a simple repetition of PR statements of nuclear orthodoxies,” Deere-Jones told Counterpunch.

“As we see it, the current IAEA position is strongly indicative of the fact that the IAEA may have much to hide and is relying on its position as a UN Agency with responsibility/duty only to the UN’s Security Council (stacked as it is with permanent members who are nuclear states) to enable it to ignore individuals, organizations, and communities who seek highly relevant information and answers to crucial questions,” Deere-Jones added. 

Radioactive waste specialist Kevin Kamps from the non-profit watchdog organization Beyond Nuclear suggests that the whistleblower allegations aren’t surprising.

“These whistleblower allegations are deeply alarming and troubling, as well as ironically familiar. In 2012, the Japanese Parliament concluded that collusion – between TEPCO, Japanese government regulators, and Japanese government elected and appointed officials – was the root cause of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe in the first place. Now, allegations of collusion between TEPCO, the Government of Japan, and the IAEA — and even of payoffs to the latter — beg the question, how much worse will the nuclear catastrophe’s consequences compound over time, due to such indefensible and dangerous decisions as dumping 1.3 million tonnes of highly radioactive wastewater from the destroyed atomic reactors into the Pacific Ocean,” Kamps told Counterpunch.

“A make or break” issue for the global nuclear industry?

Deere-Jones believes that TEPCO’s wastewater disposal from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean represents “a make or break issue” for the nuclear industry. His analysis includes five key points:

1) “The global nuclear industry has pointed to the fact that the currently accepted discharges of high concentration Tritium liquid nuclear wastes to sea from the totality of operating nuclear reactors and reprocessors, far exceeds the proposed annual discharges of Fukushima’s ALPS treated Water.”

2) “Tritium is released to the environment by nuclear industries in both liquid and gaseous forms. In early impact studies leading to estimated doses for the population, it was observed that atmospheric discharges generated higher doses than those related to liquid discharges. As a result, the nuclear industry sought to reduce atmospheric discharges by increasing the discharges of tritium to aquatic environments.”

3) “The global civil nuclear industry cannot operate without annually discharging enormous quantities of tritium to sea from every current design of operating nuclear power station and re-processing site.”

4) “The industry has merrily continued such discharges for many decades while ignoring the steady accumulation of peer-reviewed academic evidence proving that Organically Bound Tritium (OBT) does accumulate and bio-magnify through aquatic food webs, that climax consumers of OBT contaminated foodstuffs receive the highest doses, that tritium in all its forms can be incorporated into mammalian RNA and has a strong link to a wide range of health impacts and that all forms of tritium are far more mobile through marine environmental pathways, and can deliver doses via far more dose pathways than admitted to by the nuclear industry.”

5)  “The proposed release of the F’shima tritiated water is indeed a make-or-break test case moment for the global nuclear industry as it currently operated. It is evident that if any attempt to restrict the discharge of tritiated water to sea were successful, the industry would either collapse or be forced to engage in exactly the kind of mass storage scenarios we currently see at the F’shima disaster site.”

Such mass storage scenarios are more expensive and would contradict the official narrative from TEPCO and Japan that the Fukushima Daiichi site can be decontaminated in the same time frame as the release plan, as Greenpeace noted in a report in 2020

“To propose the long term storage of contaminated water would be to directly undermine the Japanese government and TEPCO narrative that all the nuclear waste generated by the disaster, including hundreds of tons of molten corium fuel and millions of tons of contaminated soil, will be removed by mid-century… It is a government priority to maintain the multi-trillion yen myth at the centre of official propaganda that effective and complete decommissioning and decontamination is possible at Fukushima Daiichi within the next few decades,” Greenpeace explained. 

“Discharge is the cheapest option and it furthers the objective of the government to create

the false impression that the consequences of the 2011 nuclear disaster are short-lived and of limited effect,” the Greenpeace report concluded.

International objections to TEPCO’s wastewater release scheme aren’t going away

The Pacific Collective on Nuclear Issues – composed of civil society groups and NGOs – issued a statement at the recent 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in which they condemned TEPCO and the Japanese government for going forward with the plan.  “The findings of the independent panel of scientific experts commissioned by the Pacific Islands Forum were unequivocal – the data provided so far, to support Japan’s claim that the treated wastewater is safe, is inconsistent, unsound and therefore far from reliable,” the Collective’s statement lamented, going on to declare the wastewater release to be a human rights violation.

Beyond Nuclear’s Kevin Kamps says the conclusions of that independent panel of scientists could well explain the allegations brought to light in the whistleblower documents. “Such alleged collusion and even payoffs could go a long way in explaining why IAEA so flippantly ignored the dire warnings, as by the Pacific Islands Forum’s Expert Panel, about the risks of ocean dumping for human and ecological health. The PIF Expert Panel even alerted IAEA to the fact that its approval of the dumping scheme violated the agency’s own regulations, but to no avail,” Kamps told Counterpunch.

Dr. Arjun Mahkijani –  a member of the Pacific Islands Forum’s expert panel – was also part of a panel on the question of “Fukushima Nuclear Waste Release: Is it Safe?” at the November 6 meeting of Berkeley, California’s Friends of Peace of Justice. Author of Exploring Tritium’s Danger, Mahkijani sent in a video statement in which he ripped the IAEA’s discourse around the wastewater release scheme as “almost comical” and said TEPCO doesn’t even know what the contamination levels really are in some of their wastewater tanks. “We know that we are hugely damaging the oceans and we need to stop. This is an egregious violation,” he concluded. He added that he’s among the scientific experts who feel that TEPCO should be disposing of the wastewater by solidifying it into concrete to be used in and around the nuclear plant area.

The wastewater release system itself now appears unsafe as well, with two workers being hospitalized after getting sprayed with radioactive liquid waste in October. A team of four workers were cleaning the piping of the filtering facility when a drainage hose came loose, splashing them with liquid waste. The accident occurred just three months after the wastewater releases began, in a scheme scheduled to last for three decades or longer. Pandora’s Box is wide open…

Greg M. Schwartz is an award-winning investigative reporter and was honored by the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2021 as an SEJ Spotlight Reporter of the Week. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @gms111, where he remains active to hold the line against Elon Musk’s right wing depredation of the site.

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