Opinion | Fukushima waste water hysteria distracts from real threats to Pacific Ocean’s health


People living around the Pacific Ocean have good reason to be alarmed about the threats to everyone’s health from marine water pollution, but tritium and water being released into the ocean from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is not among them.
Putting aside some shameless scaremongering, driven by geopolitical arm-wrestling with Japan, the alarmist contagion that has surged across South Korea, mainland China and even Hong Kong over the release of Fukushima water illustrates one thing more than anything: our generally appalling ability to rationally evaluate the environmental risks our communities face.

At best, this ignorance leaves us unfocused on the true dangers to our health. At worst, it results in the misdirection of billions of dollars to problems that involve negligible or non-existent risk, at the expense of funds being directed to tackle major environmental challenges that threaten our health and livelihoods worldwide.

It is worth remembering that up until the 1975 London Convention, our oceans were regarded as dumping grounds. Recall the 2018 Ocean Pollution Guide by the research group IPEN: “The notion of a vast ocean with endless food supplies and a limitless capacity to absorb and ‘dilute’ pollution is a deeply embedded cultural myth in industrialised cultures.”

A National Geographic study published in 2019 noted that up to 1972, oceans were quite literally garbage dumps: “Millions of tons of heavy metals and chemical contaminants, along with thousands of containers of radioactive waste, were purposely thrown into the ocean.”

Confirming such findings, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that around 80 per cent of the pollution found in the ocean comes from the land – from industry, transport, agriculture and consumer waste, flushed into rivers and out to sea.
While regulations against egregious contamination of the ocean have tightened considerably since the London Convention, it is still extensive, with major Asian rivers flushing millions of tonnes of waste into the ocean every year. As a result, as the IPEN report concludes: “ Marine pollutants are impacting the health of our oceans … Every day, an ever-increasing cocktail of intentional and unintentional chemical releases, as well as the unrelenting tidal wave of wastes, particularly plastic waste, enters our waterways and marine environment.”
One direct result is the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch – around 1.6m sq km of mostly plastic waste swirling quietly at the heart of the Pacific. Another result, less clearly visible but just as dangerous, is the organic pollutants, mercury compounds, pesticides, fertilisers and oil spillages that get dissolved, ingested by marine life and eventually eaten by any of us who include seafood in our diets.

Compared with such significant hazards, which constitute a direct danger to the health of so many millions worldwide, the dangers arising from the tritium in the Fukushima discharges are almost laughably insignificant.


Japan’s prime minister tucks into Fukushima seafood, vowing to overturn Chinese import ban

Japan’s prime minister tucks into Fukushima seafood, vowing to overturn Chinese import ban

According to Tony Irwin, a professor at the Australian National University: “Nuclear plants worldwide have routinely discharged water containing tritium for over 60 years without harm to people or the environment.” This includes most of the 55 nuclear plants operating along China’s coastline and the more than 400 nuclear plants currently in operation worldwide. Irwin notes that 10 times more tritium falls as rain in Japan every year than will be discharged from Fukushima.

Or take Nigel Marks, at the Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, who notes that 8,400 grams of pure tritium occur naturally in the Pacific Ocean, compared with the Fukushima release, which will amount to 0.06 grams per year. “A lifetime’s worth of seafood caught a few kilometres from the [Fukushima] ocean outlet has the tritium radiation equivalent of one bite of a banana,” he has said. “In truth, almost everything is radioactive, including the Pacific Ocean, where tritium accounts for a modest 0.04 per cent of total radioactivity.”

Those who rushed to take salt off supermarket shelves as protection against the tritium threat would do well to recall that a large number of fresh foods – not just bananas but carrots, potatoes, red meat, Brazil nuts and even beer – are radioactive because of potassium-40.

They should also be alert to the fact that cat litter is radioactive enough to set off airport radiation alerts. In short, on any scale of risk, we should pause to recognise that there are thousands of greater threats that face us every day than tritium, and that goes for the seriously threatened Pacific Ocean, too.

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I have much graver concerns over the plans of deep-sea mining operators to scoop polymetallic nodules from the Clarion-Clipperton Zone close to Nauru in the middle of the Pacific. This will stir up huge amounts of silt, along with radioactive materials and sulphur compounds, from the deep ocean floor.

As researchers from the University of Chicago said this week in their Air Quality of Life Index, if our governments succeeded in reducing fine particulate pollution in the air down to recommended levels, it would add 2 years and 3 months to the life of every one of us.

In short, people around the Pacific should indeed be passionately concerned about reducing ocean pollution and eliminating the thousands of pollutants that so directly threaten our health and that of our marine life.

Even a brief examination of leading risks, and of priorities for action, tells us tritium is not on the list. Our political leaders should be focusing on the many real and urgent threats rather than playing petty geopolitical games.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades


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