MUMBAI – Despite assurances from the UN nuclear watchdog that a Japanese plan to release treated radioactive water from a tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant into the ocean is safe, the country’s Catholic bishops aren’t convinced and say they plan to continue insisting on a total ban on nuclear energy.
“The lack of trust is the problem,” Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo and president of the Japanese bishops’ conference, told Crux.
“Before the incidents in 2011, the government assured people the nuclear plants are well protected and safe, but it was not true. After the disaster, the government assured international community that the plants are under control but it was not true.”
“Now the government and International Atomic Energy Agency are saying the water has no problem to be discharged, but how can the general public, especially those who are living there, believe it?” Kikuchi asked.
The 64-year-old Kikuchi, a member of the Verbite order and a former missionary in Ghana, was elected President of Caritas Internationalis, the main global federation of Catholic charities, in May.
The Fukushima nuclear plant was hit by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, causing radiation leaks and permanently damaging several reactors, resulting in the closure of the facility.
Ever since, wastewater has been accumulating in the plant’s containers, in part because cool water was pumped into the plant to cool its reactors, and in part because rainwater and sea water has leaked in over the 12 years since the incident. Officials now say the containers are overflowing, leaving them with no choice but to release the water into the sea.
This week, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Association, visited Tokyo to present its final report on the plan to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
In essence, the agency gave Japan a green light, concluding that the release will have “a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment,” and that Japan has all the elements to “move on to the next phase.”
Japanese officials said the country will respond “sincerely” to the organization’s review and continue to explain its plan to affected local communities and the international community “with a high level of transparency.”
Those assurances, however, have not convinced everyone, including many residents in the area around the power plant, as well as some critics in neighboring countries. The Chinese government, for example, recently said the IAEA report “is not proof of the legality and legitimacy” of the release of the water.
In Korea, media reports suggest that sales of sea salt have surged as Koreans worry about contamination from the release, and some Koreans have protested the plan outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul wearing gas masks.
Critics claim that the release of the waste water could have unpredictable consequences for marine life and the ocean’s ecosystem.
Against that backdrop, Kikuchi said the controversy illustrates why the Japanese bishops want a total ban on the production of nuclear energy.
“The impact of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is still vivid among many in Japan,” he said. “Even though the government claims that nuclear power generation is green technology and would reduce emissions of CO2, those who witnessed what happened in Fukushima in 2011 cannot be convinced so easily.”
“The rising cost of thermal power generation has been pushing power companies to resume operation of ,once stopped, more than 30 nuclear power plants all over in Japan, while no one knows how long it might take to dismantle the damaged Fukushima facilities,” Kikuchi said.
“Maybe it is true that the ‘contaminated water’ could be ‘not contaminated’ at all. But how can we be sure after all these past 12 years of disappointing experience?” he asked.
“As long as there are possibilities of harm to health [and to] the environment, we cannot agree with the decision of the government and will continue to call the government to change the energy policy to protect all life,” Kikuchi said.