BRICS summit must discuss release of Fukushima nuclear wastewater and its harmful effects on the planet

The decision by the Japanese government to release radioactive wastewater from Fukushima into the oceans of the world would be devastating for humanity says the writer. Picture: Supplied.

The decision by the Japanese government to release radioactive wastewater from Fukushima into the oceans of the world would be devastating for humanity says the writer. Picture: Supplied.

Published Jun 29, 2023


Jaya Josie

The BRICS heads of state meet in Johannesburg in South Africa on August 24.

The media in South Africa and internationally has been abuzz with speculation as to what will be discussed at the summit and attendant related meetings.

The big issues for the media are how the summit will deal with issues related to trade, acceptance of new members into the BRICS family, cross-border payments using own currencies, and efforts to negotiate a peace settlement in the Ukraine conflict.

As South Africa is a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC) Rome treaty. The country in particular is under scrutiny as to how it will deal with Russian head of state Vladimir Putin who is under an ICC arrest warrant.

While all these issues make for good media headlines, one of the most important issues that both the international and domestic media has ignored is the catastrophic effects and impact of the recent weather conditions along the Western Cape and other coastal areas in the country.

In fact, the current weather conditions have been attributed to the climate change crisis that is currently gripping the globe. BRICS countries, including South Africa, have all been experiencing deadly storms and intermittent droughts.

In a recent opinion piece in Independent Online (IOL June 20), Wesley Seale when describing the recent flooding in the Western Cape and the past floods in KwaZulu-Natal wrote that climate change is affecting our coastal regions in particular, which are coming under significant onslaught from the weather.

Recently, there have been devastating weather events in Brazil, Russia, India and China. With climate-related crises a regular occurrence, will the media or the BRICS countries include climate change and its impact on the environment as an important issue for the BRICS to discuss?

The oceans are a fragile and vulnerable ecosystem that has been under onslaught from plastic and other waste pollution for many years now. Such pollution has placed coastal fishing communities at high risk as they see their livelihoods suffer as the marine life on which they depended becomes strangled and poisoned.

Many coastal communities in BRICS countries face grave risks as their environments are threatened by storms and pollution. Although dangerous and devastating weather conditions and pollution have been with us for decades, a new man-made threat to the environment is about to be unleashed upon the oceans by Japan, an important member of the G7 countries.

As if the climate crisis and pollution of the ocean is not enough of a calamity, Japan has taken a decision to release the nuclear wastewater from the earthquake damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean.

Communities and experts from the areas around the world that may be affected by the contaminated nuclear wastewater have risen up in protest against this.

Nuclear wastewater would poison the whole ocean and affect people across the globe, argued Mammo Muchie, a professor of Innovation and Technology at the Tshwane University of Technology in an Independent Online article on March 31.

Radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90 and tritium will affect millions of lives. Already traces of radioactive materials were traced along the California coast in the US. Muchie warns that the health hazards created through radiation could be as devastating as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The disposal of the contaminated Fukushima wastewater into the ocean will continue for 30 years. Fukushima is located near the world’s strongest ocean currents, making it possible for radioactive materials to spread globally and threaten marine life and public health.

South Africa has a 2 798km coastline stretching from the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. South Africa is also a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (Iora) that regroups India and other members of the BRICS group and African and Asian countries.

South Africa’s communities, and African communities along its Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastline, depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods. To South Africa’s 28 000 people working in the ocean fishing industry, one can add thousands more from the West and East coasts of Africa, compounding the economic risks to Africa’s development and food security, and exacerbating an already fragile African health system, putting lives at risk over many years.

The release of the Fukushima radioactive wastewater into the oceans would be devastating for humanity. We need to be reminded of Article 194 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas that calls on countries to “take, individually or jointly as appropriate, all measures consistent with this convention that are necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source, using for this purpose the best practicable means at their disposal and in accordance with their capabilities, and they shall endeavour to harmonise their policies in this connection’; the UN injunction in sub-section 194 (3a), includes the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances.

The danger from the release of the wastewater from Fukushima poses a serious threat to humanity as a whole. At least one expert study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin 169 (2021) suggests that radioactive tritium water could be transported to the Indian Ocean and be carried by currents to the US and Canadian Pacific coasts. Another study published in Geography and Sustainability 2 (2021) on the transport and dispersion of tritium from radioactive water from Fukushima suggests that the nuclear accident will have global long-term impacts.

The article calls to action the science-based community and recommends four immediate steps that will be required. First, a third party evaluation and environmental assessment before any action; second, multi-stakeholder public participation for monitoring the impacts; third, long-term monitoring of coastal waters with international collaborative research; fourth, compensation for victims must be set up according to the international conventions like the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management, and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, the compensation responsibility should be for those who pollute the environment.

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) are variously affected by the poisoning of the oceans by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the release of the nuclear wastewater into the ocean. Many communities in the coastal areas of these countries will be affected.

Given the seriousness of the contamination of the oceans it is incumbent upon the BRICS summit in South Africa in August to address this issue as a matter of urgency. The summit should call on the UN section on the Convention on the Law of the Sea to set up an international independent evaluation and environmental assessment group to investigate the long-term impacts of the disaster and make recommendations for action.

The BRICS summit could also set up a BRICS collaborative research group from its members to study and monitor its coastal waters. Finally, the summit should call on those responsible for the disaster and the release of the contaminated wastewater to set up a mechanism for the compensation of the victims in terms of the international conventions.

  • Josie is a visiting professor at Zhejiang University International Business School (ZIBS) and professor adjunct at the University of Venda.