Eating the three-eyed fish: where is Australia on nuclear wastewater in the Pacific?

by Emma Shortis
IAEA experts examine work on Unit 4 of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Greg Webb/IAEA)


The Australian government’s muted response to Japan’s release of Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific raises serious questions about its commitment to the region and Australia’s history of standing against nuclear testing.

In August, Japan began what will be a decades-long process of releasing more than one million tons of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown into the Pacific Ocean.

Though deemed in compliance with international safety standards by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the release of water containing tritium – a form of radioactive hydrogen – has been met with significant opposition.

Most of that opposition has come, unsurprisingly, from China. In June, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that the “ocean is humanity’s common good, not Japan’s private sewer.”

Opposition from Japan’s other neighbours and allies, meanwhile, has been muted. After expressing significant concerns, the governments of nearby nations like Korea have apparently been assuaged by promises of regulatory compliance – notwithstanding the continued opposition of local environmental and industry groups.

What appears to have happened is that the release of irradiated water into the world’s biggest ocean has been drawn all too quickly into either side of the now well-worn battle lines of “strategic competition” in the Indo-Pacific. Opposition and acquiescence fell easily, and predictably, into the binary framing of US President Biden’s world of democracies versus autocracies. So the focus of dissent has been on China.

As is usual in this framing, the peoples of the Pacific – the people impacted most by the decisions of rich, developed nations sitting on the edge of the vast ocean home of the Pacific Islands – have been ignored.

Pacific Islander peoples have been expressing their significant, historically grounded concerns about the Fukushima release since the plan was announced. In June, a member of the Pacific Islands Forum independent panel of experts, appointed to support the Pacific Islands in consultations with Japan over the release, questioned the IAEA sign-off, arguing that “the critical, foundational data upon which a sound decision could be made was either absent or, when we started getting more data…extremely concerning.”

Local villager Tuiverata walks along a breakwall in the village of Veivatuloa, 35kms west of Suva, Fiji. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The “unanimous conclusion” of the expert panel was that “this is a bad idea that is not defended properly at this point, and that there are alternatives that Japan should really be looking at.”

So where is Australia, an apparently critical player in the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, in all this?

This country, we have long been told, is “committed to our Pacific family, and to working together to realise our shared vision for a stable, secure and prosperous region, and to support the aspirations of Pacific island countries.”

But in a short statement released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade just before the wastewater release began, the Australian government expressed “confidence in the process that has led to the decision by Japan to release the treated water.” In February, Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged the concerns of Pacific Islanders, but was assured that “transparency and trust” were in place. In a move redolent of an iconic Simpsons episode, diplomatic staff at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo even went so far as to enjoy a meal of “Fukushima fish and chips”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi, India. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Our “Pacific family” is no doubt, once again, deeply disappointed by Australian inaction and acquiescence. A government “committed” to the Pacific is apparently not entirely on board with supporting the aspirations of its peoples – at least not when it comes to their aspirations to not live in a radioactive ocean.

This muted reaction is doubly disappointing from a country, and a party, that has a long and proud history of both contesting nuclear activity in the Pacific and standing up to Japanese efforts to trample environmental consensus.

For decades, and particularly in the 1990s, Australian labor governments stood alongside Pacific Island nations in furiously contesting French nuclear testing. Stretching into the 2000s, Australian governments remained staunch in their opposition to Japanese “scientific” whaling. In both cases, Australia successfully expressed significant opposition to the damaging actions of an important strategic ally. In both cases, that opposition was mostly contained to the specific issue at hand, and did not impinge on broader security relationships – which, even if they became tense, never broke down completely and have now fully recovered.

In the same Department that joyously expressed its “confidence” in Japan and effectively ignored its “family” in the Pacific, there is – or at least there should be – deep institutional knowledge of how to manage strong disagreements and successfully cordon them off from deeper security ties. Our history should make us confident that we can – and should – share and support the legitimate, evidence-based anger of our Pacific family.

So why isn’t the Australian government condemning, loudly, the release of nuclear wastewater into the world’s largest ocean?

As is becoming increasingly clear, the Labor Party’s decision to support the Morrison government’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines has far-reaching consequences. That decision, made within a matter of hours, has unthinkingly shattered many labor traditions – the most relevant of which here is that long, proud history of labor governments unapologetically standing against rich and powerful nuclear powers treating the Pacific as a dumping ground.

The insistence that Australia “needs” AUKUS has apparently created a reluctance to engage in that discussion in good faith, most likely to avoid the topic of nuclear waste as much as possible – now, because of Labor’s doubling down on AUKUS, a sensitive topic domestically.

Let Them Eat Submarines
Photo: (Supplied: British Ministry of Defence/LA Will Haigh)

AUKUS also points to another factor – this government’s extreme insecurity over issues of foreign and security policy. As was made clear at Labor’s recent national conference, party leadership is determined not to be wedged on issues of national security. Despite all the talk of being able to have “adult conversations”, the government is not willing to allow even the slightest appearance of concession to China, around which every aspect of foreign and security policy now revolves. While on paper, wastewater dumping looks like it should fall into Wong’s category of “cooperate where we can”, in reality, we cannot be opposed to something China opposes, because we are not, and can never be, on the same side about anything – even if that thing is the dumping of radioactive wastewater into the Pacific.

This framing of a world divided into enemies and allies now extends into all of Australia’s relationships. The Australian government’s reaction to the Fukushima release, and its broader relationship with Japan, make that abundantly clear. As a member of the Quad, alongside India and the United States, Japan is regarded as critical to “stability” in the Indo-Pacific and to countering or containing China. That now means, apparently, that Japan can effectively dictate Australian policy – it can be assured of our “confidence” that dumping radioactive water in the Pacific Ocean is fine, actually, and that also, we’d better not even consider phasing out the export of fossil gas to a critical ally, lest we undermine our own security and the stability of our region.

Taken together, all of this – bad faith engagement with the Pacific, AUKUS, and the ongoing insistence that our own use and export of fossil fuels is necessary to regional stability – reveal a deeply uncomfortable truth about this labor government.

Despite all assurances to the contrary, it does not take climate change seriously.  Nor does it take nuclear hygiene seriously. And questions have to be asked about its long-term commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Like its predecessors, this government is hiding behind security in order to avoid doing the hard work on climate. That weakness, which extends across all areas of domestic and international policy, is why the Australian government is not “committed” to “our Pacific family”, not really.

In failing to support Pacific Islanders’ aspirations for a nuclear-free Pacific, and in failing to rapidly decarbonise, the Australian government shows “our family” who we are, every day. And they see it.

This, in the words of the Prime Minister, is how Australia deals with “the world as it is.” Our Pacific family could be forgiven for thinking that our vision of a “bright future” for the world is one in which nuclear-powered submarines prowl silently through a rising, irradiated Pacific.

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