01 junho 2021

The Japanese government’s decision to dump water from Fukushima into the ocean and its implications for the law of the sea

On April 13, 2021, Japan approved the plan to dump contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Ocean after receiving treatment to reduce radiation levels. Since 2011, when the plant’s reactors were damaged by an earthquake and tsunami that caused explosions of hydrogen, contaminating its cooling water, about 1.3 million tons of this water has been stored in tanks at the unit.

According to the Japanese government, the eviction will begin in two years, which is the time that the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), will need to filter the water and obtain regulatory approvals, and it may take decades to complete [1]. It is noteworthy that by the end of 2022 the storage capacity of this water will be exhausted, leading to the need to give some destination to it.

As a justification for the adoption of this controversial measure, Japan’s prime minister argued that the release of treated water is inevitable for the decommissioning of the plant and reconstruction of the Fukushima area. He also said that the government will ensure the safety of the operation and help farmers, fishermen and local tourism.

The Japanese government stressed that the filtration and dilution processes will remove most of the radioactive elements, leaving only tritium, which will be diluted so that its levels reach the permitted limits. This substance is only considered harmful to health if it is in high concentration, but, even so, it will increase the radiation levels of the water if dumped into the sea.

The plan is supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency because it is a practice similar to those adopted by other nuclear power plants to dispose of radioactive liquids. The United States also expressed its support, noting that Japan “was transparent about its decision and appears to have taken an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards” [1].

On the other hand, this decision did not please the fishing industry, given the fear that trade in the region will be hampered by the dumping of contaminated water. Neighboring countries, such as China, South Korea and Taiwan, have also expressed their concerns, as the measure affects international public health and safety, as well as the maritime environment of other countries.

Alongside these, Greenpeace expressed its opposition to the decision, which ignores the human rights of Japanese citizens and neighboring nations. A Greenpeace Climate Campaigner, Kazue Suzuki, said that “Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option”.

Added that “the Cabinet’s decision failed to protect the environment and neglected the large-scale opposition and concerns of the local Fukushima residents, as well as the neighboring citizens around Japan”. The Executive Director at Greenpeace, Jennifer Morgan, pointed out that the oceans are already facing several difficulties in recent decades and this decision violates the Japan’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [2].

Indeed, the preservation of the marine environment is a recurring theme throughout the Convention, which has a specific part to deal with the subject matter, establishing, in the first article, a general duty of preservation. It should be noted that the provisions of this part apply to all maritime zones, including internal waters [3].

In addition, UNCLOS determines the adoption of all necessary measures 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. Such measures shall reduce, as much as possible, the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances.

Hence, two relevant questions arise to identify whether or not there was a violation by the Japanese government: whether the water coming from the plant should be considered harmful and if there are other viable alternatives to solve the problem of storing that water, in order to verify the indispensability of the dumping.

Japan has ensured that the measure is safe and that treated water has no scientifically proven risk, and claimed that this is the most viable solution. Greenpeace, however, stressed that any radioactivity released into the environment will have a consequence. In addition, the organization published, in March 2021, a report detailing alternatives for decommissioning the plant.

Another important point is that the Convention imposes on States the duty to ensure that activities under their jurisdiction do not cause pollution in other States. In addition, it creates a duty of global and regional cooperation, stimulating the exchange of information on pollution of the marine environment. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the South Korean government declared that the decision was taken unilaterally, without sufficient consultations with its country.

Thus, it can be noted that there are still issues to be discussed on the subject before the start of the implementation of the plan and Japan may have to face strong resistance from environmental organizations and neighboring countries, as well as from its own population.


[1] Available in: Acesso em 15 de abril de 2021.

[2] Available in: Acesso em 15 de abril de 2021.

[3] ZANELLA, Tiago V. Manual de Direito do Mar. Belo Horizonte: Editora D’Plácido, 2019.

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