Fukushima Dumping: A Violation of International Law?

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Emergency workers on Tuesday managed to stem a leak of highly radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean by injecting a mixture of liquid glass and a hardening agent into Reactor No. 2 at the Fukushima power plant. It was a minor victory in what will certainly be a prolonged battle to safely cool fuel and spent fuel at four crippled reactors.

But while the unintentional leak was closed, Tepco’s intentional dumping of 11,500 tons of less radioactive water continued Wednesday—leading to questions about whether Tepco was in violation of international law. Can a company really just dump atomic effluent into the ocean?

In this case, the answer is probably yes. The 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, to which Japan is a signatory, bans the dumping of pollution at sea. The London Convention, as it is known for short, includes a special provision for radioactive waste—if a suspected violation has occurred, the IAEA can be asked to complete a technical evaluation and review, which is then considered by a compliance group. But the convention contains a loophole: it only covers the dumping of waste from vessels, aircraft and other man-made structures at sea. It does not cover land-based discharges, as is occurring at Fukushima. That falls under national jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, says David Santillo, a Greenpeace researcher at the University of Exeter in Britain, “The proposals to release such large quantities of radioactive waste from the Fukushima plant are likely to be viewed by other parties to the convention as something that should de facto be prohibited by the ban. If it is possible to install pumping equipment capable of transferring more than 10 000 m3 of contaminated water into the sea then it would seem reasonable to suggest that the same pumping equipment could be used to pump the water to a suitable containment vessel, thereby protecting both human health and the marine environment and allowing proper controlled treatment in due course. There are certainly some rumors circulating already that South Korea and other  countries will raise their concerns and objections.”

So far, however, such objections have been raised through diplomatic, rather than legal, channels. The South Korean Foreign Ministry told AFP that it expressed concerns through its embassy in Japan that unleashing the contaminated water could infringe on international law and inquired about Tokyo’s next steps. Kyodo news agency reported that the concerns centered not around the 1972 London Convention but around the 1986 Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, which obligates nations to provide data such as the accident’s time, location and radiation releases to affected states when harmful trans-boundary radiation is released.

Addressing this concern, Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto said at a press conference that Tokyo had briefed diplomatic corps in Japan on the start of radioactive water disposal hours before  Tepco began releasing the liquid into the Pacific Ocean on Monday evening. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano was also contrite at a news conference on Wednesday, Reuters reported, saying that “Perhaps we should have given more detailed explanations to the relevant ministries and to our neighbors. We are instructing the trade and foreign ministries to work better together so that detailed explanations are supplied especially to neighboring countries.”

Meanwhile, Tepco announced a minor victory on Tuesday when it used sodium silicate, a chemical agent known as “water glass”, to solidify a cracked pit from where highly radioactive water had been seeping. The water had been found to have extremely high radiation and is believed to be the source of spiking radioactive readings in nearby coastal waters.

But a troubling report in the New York Times today makes clear that the battle to contain the Fukushima crisis is far from over. Citing a confidential assessment by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NYT reports that Fukushima “is facing a wide array of fresh threats that could persist indefinitely, and that in some cases are expected to increase as a result of the very measures being taken to keep the plant stable.” Specifically, the report mentions the mounting stresses placed on the containment structures as they fill with water used to try to keep the fuel cool, making them more vulnerable to rupture during an aftershock. Further, the accumulation of salt in several of the reactors from the seawater used as a makeshift coolant may have scaled up into clumps that are preventing the needed circulation of water to keep the fuel cool. David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the NYT, ““I thought they were, not out of the woods, but at least at the edge of the woods, but this report paints a different picture. They’ve got a lot of nasty things to negotiate in the future, and one missed step could make the situation much, much worse.”