Dainty Lockon was sitting in her bedroom in her two-bedroom flat in Suva, Fiji, when she got the call. It was November 2021, and her father had died after a battle with diabetes, more than 1,800 miles away, at his home in Majuro, Marshall Islands.

He was 50 years old.

Diabetes is not a disease that is directly caused by radiation. But Lockon believes that US nuclear testing in the Pacific played a role in his early death.

Years after the atomic bombings in the Marshall Islands, the fallout and forced relocation of communities triggered a ripple effect: many indigenous Marshallese people who had depended on subsistence farming and fishing for 4,000 years suddenly could no longer count on their food security. Could, and became dependent. on imported products and unhealthy, non-native processed foods.

And they were lucky. On Utrik Atoll, where Lockon’s maternal family is from, many residents fell ill with acute radiation sickness.

Now he worries that his community will face even greater health risks. On Thursday, the Japanese government began releasing wastewater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, and plans to continue doing so gradually for the next 30 years.

Rows of large blue storage tanks as seen through a viewing portal
An observatory room at the Tokyo Electric Power Company Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant shows (from left) the Unit 1 to Unit 4 reactor buildings and storage tanks for contaminated water.
Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Japan is treating the water before releasing it into the ocean, but the water will still contain low levels of radioactive contaminants that cannot be removed. Japan has promised that the levels of pollutants present will be well below international health standards, and has won the backing of a key UN agency. But some scientists are concerned about how little is known about the potential long-term effects of wastewater.

Japanese officials declined to speak on the record about their plans, but have publicly made an argument that the country is running out of space to store contaminated water from a nuclear power plant and another earthquake — that earthquake. similar to that which caused the damage to the plant – may release stored water before it is treated. The plan now is to treat the contaminated water, then discharge it into the Pacific Ocean over the course of three decades to more quickly shut down the nuclear facility.

In 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck Japan, causing a tsunami over 19,000 people died And shut off emergency generators for the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the hours that followed, three nuclear reactors melted down, forcing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people. The radioactive water spilled into the Pacific Ocean and was carried by currents eastward toward the United States. Two and a half years later, radiation from the plant was detected in California waters, but At levels considered harmless.

destroyed building in empty city
An April 2011 photo shows the “ghost town” of Minamisoma, a city in Fukushima Prefecture. All residents were evacuated after the nearby Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was damaged by an earthquake on March 11, 2011.
Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis via Getty Images

In the decade that followed, Japan built more than 1,000 tanks to store more than a million tons of water from Fukushima: rainwater, groundwater, and water pumped into the facility to cool damaged reactors. Once treated, that water would be dumped into the Pacific Ocean for the next three decades.

Japanese officials have promised that the levels of pollutants in the wastewater will be well below international health standards, and last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations agency that oversees nuclear energy, gave the green light to the plan. When it issued a report The wastewater has been described as having “negligible radiological effects on people and the environment”.

However, some scientists are concerned about how little is known about the potential long-term effects of that wastewater, while many indigenous peoples of the Pacific, such as the Lakoan, worry that the move will increase those health disparities. It will add additional burden to those already facing it. For Lockon, Japan’s decision is an extension of a long-standing history of using the Pacific Ocean as a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

“It’s giving us more opportunities to deal,” she said. “It feels helpless.”

During the Cold War, Britain, France and the US tested more than 300 nuclear bombs in the Pacific regions of Polynesia and Micronesia, as well as in the deserts of Australia. After the eruption in the Marshall Islands, Children eat “ice” on Rongelap Atoll It fell from the sky which later became calcium debris. Radioactive debris stuck to the coconut oil in the women’s hair.

A black and white photo of women of different ages
Five Pacific Islanders, left to right, Jonita Zalme, 15, Jemloch Kabinelli, 14, Lisa Paul, 42, Mary Kabinelli, 20, and Mina Boaz, 13, who were exposed to massive radioactive fallout in 1954, New England deaconesses Posing before leaving, June 11, 1966, at the hospital in Boston, where he was recovering from surgery to remove growths from his thyroid glands. The group was one of 64 residents of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands who were pelted with particles following the H-bomb test at Bikini on 1 March 1954.
FCC/AP photo

At Fukushima, one concern about discharges is tritium, a radioactive isotope produced in nuclear reactors that cannot be removed through Japan’s remediation process. Japanese officials say that once wastewater enters the ocean a kilometer from Japan’s shores, the amount of tritium present is expected to be far below World Health Organization standards for drinking water quality.1,500 becquerel per liter compared to The WHO limit is 10,000 Becquerel per litre; This level is comparable to water discharge from normally operating nuclear power plants in China, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Japan says the discharge is safe, but Timothy Musso isn’t so sure. biologist and professor at the University of South Carolina and author of a detailed review Current Studies on Tritium Currently awaiting publication.

“The key point, from my perspective, is that[tritium]has been insufficiently studied to make firm promises about the long-term safety of this type of release,” Musso said. “We don’t really understand what potential impact a massive point source of tritium would have on the natural environment.”

While exposure to tritium through swimming or drinking water poses no risk, the radioactive isotope can bioaccumulate through the food chain. Studies in mice and rats suggest that eating tritium can cause cancer and reproductive problems, Musso said, but whether the same would happen in humans is unclear because the radioactive isotope hasn’t been studied enough.

“We really don’t know if there will be any significant danger to humans at the end of the food chain,” Musso said.

This potential to affect the food chain is a major concern for Robert Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii and a professor specializing in marine conservation biology and coral reefs.

Richmond is part of a panel of experts Advising the Pacific Islands Forum, the main diplomatic body representing Pacific island countries, on Japan’s plan. In February, he visited Japan to meet with the country’s scientists about the release. They were not impressed by the lack of data provided regarding the contents of their water tanks and the effectiveness of their treatment systems.

“When they say science is impeccable – no, nothing more than that,” he said.

Richmond and his fellow scientists saw red flags in the existing data, including inconsistencies and poorly designed sampling protocols. One of Richmond’s collaborators, Kenneth Buessler, is a marine radiochemist and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Buessler says the water flowing out of the plant is exposed to more radiation than cold water in normally operating nuclear reactors because it is in direct contact with the molten coils. This means the water will need to be treated many times over to reach the health standard Japan has promised. He does not believe Japan has effectively demonstrated that its treatment systems can consistently remove high levels of hazardous compounds present in wastewater.

He also doubts there is an urgent need to get rid of the water and says Japan should consider other viable options. The rush to release the water, Richmond said, shows Japan is choosing the cheapest, most politically expedient way to get rid of nuclear waste rather than doing what’s best for its neighbors and the ocean, which is already stressed by the effects of climate change. , plastic pollution and ocean acidification.

“Once you make a mistake, there’s no looking back and all the monitoring in the world does nothing to protect ecosystems or the people who depend on them,” he said. “It just tells you when you screwed up and it doesn’t really do anything.”

A woman standing among a group of protesters.  He is holding a sign depicting a fish with nuclear symbol eyes
People gather in front of the Tokyo Electric Power Company on August 24, 2023 to protest the release of stored nuclear-contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
David Mareuil / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Pacific opposition to the plan was initially strong, but after the Japanese authorities implemented multimillion dollar advertising campaign Several people expressed support, most recently Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitivani Rabuka, to influence public opinion, including meeting with Pacific leaders.

On Twitter on Tuesday, Rabuka called the comparison of Japan’s controlled wastewater discharge to the historic nuclear test in the Pacific “fear-mongering.”

“It is impossible to compare those nuclear tests with the careful discharge of treated wastewater from Fukushima over a period of about 30 years,” he wrote.

But other leaders as the foreign minister of Vanuatu, stay disconnected Sheila Babauta, a former legislator from the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, abbreviated as CNMI, wrote a resolution condemning Japan’s plan in 2021. Today, he is steadfast in his opposition.

He said, “I am deeply concerned for the people of CNMI and how decisions are being made by major world powers without our knowledge and how this is going to affect our lives today and for generations to come.”

On Tuesday, Lockon was visiting Honolulu, and she woke up to Facebook messages from friends asking her about Japan’s plan to release wastewater that week. What could they have done? Can he make a statement criticizing the plans? Will it matter?

It took him a while to grasp the reality – the fact that what he and others had been campaigning against was actually happening.

“To be honest, it feels really helpless to express what you want to say because it doesn’t matter? Are they listening? He said. “But it does matter. Everything we do now will affect generations to come. And that’s why I’m worried.”

It was hard to put into words how she felt. What could she say that might convey the feeling she feared, what this big decision that was so far out of her control meant for her people?

He finished composing a poem he had started writing in Fiji last week. It was about a turtle who lays eggs under a full moon, but later realizes that the eggs will not hatch.

He wrote, “Under the full moon / I see raindrops / Blue water / An island mourning / In silence.”

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