It is to be expected, but we will hold them to account should anything go wrong, Forum Secretary General Henry Puna told journalists this afternoon as news broke that Japan has begun the release of the Fukushima Plant Wastewater.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), who are also carrying out the discharge, relayed the news at around 4 pm FJT (1 pm JPT), coinciding with Puna’s press briefing at the Forum Secretariat in Suva.
The initial discharge involves releasing 7,800 tons of treated water diluted with seawater over a span of 17 days. This marks the first of four discharges scheduled between today and March 2024. Approximately 1.3 million tons of treated water are present at the TEPCO complex, which is running out of storage space. The complete release of this treated water is estimated to extend beyond 30 years.
Puna acknowledged that Japan’s decision to release the water had been subject to two years of discussion and negotiation. He also affirmed that Japan’s actions are within its sovereign rights.
While recognising the Forum’s limited authority to halt Japan’s decision at this point, Puna reiterated the Forum’s unwavering commitment to ensuring accountability.
“Japan has started the release and the best we can do and the only option that is open to us now is to ensure that Japan is held accountable for the safety of the water and guarantee from IAEA that there will have a presence on-site to regularly monitor the quality of the water that is being discharged, and we look forward to regular reports not just from IAEA but also from continuing dialogue with the Government of Japan moving forward,” Puna said.
“Our Leaders are assured by the commitment and guarantee by IAEA that they will be establishing a presence on the ground in Fukushima to continually monitor the safety of the water that is being released, and we are also holding Japan and the Prime Minister of Japan to their commitment to the Forum that they will not allow the discharge to go ahead unless their satisfied, based on scientific evidence, that it is safe to do so. We will continue to hold them to that commitment and trust me we will not fail in holding them to that commitment.”
Impact on Rarotonga Treaty and Safety Assurance
Puna highlighted concerns among Forum leaders regarding the implications of the Fukushima discharge on the Rarotonga Treaty. He noted that coupled with nuclear legacy issues, these concerns prompted the Forum to be vigilant regarding Japan’s actions since talks started two years ago. Puna mentioned that although differing viewpoints have emerged, the situation necessitates moving forward.
“Our leaders are also concerned about the impact that this will have on the Rarotonga Treaty and of course combined with our nuclear legacy issue and experiences that was really what prompted our leaders to be very sensitive to this action by Japan in the first place. But now that they have had the report from IAEA and our own panel of experts, the divergence of views has emerged, but we have to move forward,” Puna said.
Puna said that the decision by leaders to postpone discussions until their November meeting, particularly as Japan begins the release of the water, should not be misconstrued as a lack of importance attributed to the matter.
“I can assure you that our Leaders have always accorded the highest priority on this issue,” he said.
Engaging in discussions with Japan for over two years since the initial announcement of the discharge in 2021, the Forum’s leaders he said have consistently conveyed their concerns regarding the nuclear legacy issues.
The Fukushima issue or the economic implications stemming from the discharge of the water was not considered by Foreign Economic Ministers when they met in Suva early this month but will be on the agenda for the Foreign Ministers Meeting in Suva next month.
“This issue will be discussed by our foreign ministers in mid-September when they meet to talk about the collective position that we have taken and how to deal with this matter going forward,” he said.
Collective Priority and Individual Autonomy, Respecting Leaders’ Guidance
Puna echoed Forum Chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown’s calls to respect the prerogatives of each sovereign leader.
He acknowledged that while a collective directive had been issued when they began negotiations in 2021, allowing the Forum to proactively engage with Japan, a divergence of views including at the community level and even within the Forum’s own panel of experts has since emerged, saying that such diversity should be expected and respected, and necessitate caution.
“Now that there is a divergence of views we need to be very careful and we can only do what our leaders tell us. While we prefer to work as a collective, it is up to each leader to determine what is best for their own country and their people’s best interests. And that is where we are today.”
Discussing the proposed alternatives to releasing the wastewater, Puna said, “Those options were not considered and were dismissed by the government of Japan. I can say we tried our best to raise those options and to persuade the government to seriously consider those alternative options.”
Those other options raised during the negotiation period include burying the water into their own ground, and also an option advanced by the Forum’s own independent panel of experts for water to be used in mixing concrete for the development projects that Japan has in mind for Fukushima to rebuild the city.
Puna also said that the release process is not a one-time “dump” but rather a gradual “release” spread over a period of time, when asked to explain the Forum’s interpretation of the discharge approach being taken by the Japanese Government.
Monitoring Going Forward
Regarding ongoing monitoring, Puna said that guidance will come from the Forum Chair. The Forum Chair will maintain regular communication with the IAEA, and reports detailing the quality and current status of the released water will be provided to them. The Forum’s course of action will also be influenced by leaders’ dialogue with Japan.