DOES THE PUBLIC HAVE A SAY?
For their part, representatives of the government and TEPCO I have spoken with invariably stress how important it is to them to reach understand and agreement with all stakeholders, the Fukushima fisheries coops in particular, and to respond to their concerns in the decision-making process. They say they are fully prepared to accommodate the fishermen’s desires regarding the quantity and timing of releases, how they will be monitored, and how to adjust the release parameters in response to what is found after the system begins operation. And although when I point out that concern is not limited to fishermen in Fukushima, but that coops in Miyagi and Iwate, as well as Ibaragi and Chiba also consider themselves stakeholders, and that in fact residents internationally along the entire Pacific rim have already expressed concern, officials voice agreement but cannot point to any concrete efforts to communicate with or include anyone outside of Fukushima or the Tokyo power centers. In the same way, the concerns of major food distributors such as supermarket chains, who ultimately make the decision whether or not to purchase and sell Fukushima marine products nationwide, do not seem to be being addressed.
Shuji Okuda, METI’s Director for Decommissioning and Contaminated Water Management, Nuclear Accident Response Office, Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, stressed that no decision has yet been made which of the five options for dealing with the tritiated water detailed in the 2016 Task Force report will be chosen. In other words, although TEPCO, government ministries, and stakeholders are proceeding as if it’s a done deal, no-one with decision-making power has yet made a decision. “It will be a decision of the Japanese Government as a whole,” Okuda explains, “not one made by any single agency. And it will be based on ample discussions with all stakeholders.” Since the release of the Task Force Report in 2016, METI has been discussing the social impacts quite a lot, he noted. They are particularly concerned about “damaging rumors”- fuhyo higai – that will result from any tritiated water release, and have been discussing how to counter them. He continues, “Because the risks have been demonstrated to be very low, it’s less a question of safety, and more one of potential public reaction and reputational damage. We plan to hold further discussions with stakeholders and the general public to increase understanding.” Regarding international communication efforts, he points to English-language materials and reports the ministry releases, but says that since any impacts will involve primarily Japanese local area, information dissemination overseas is limited to experts, administrative officials and some media.”
METI recently announced that meetings will be held where the public can hear explanations of proposed solutions and comment on them. The Subcommittee on Handling Water Treated by the Polynuclide Removal Facility is one of several Japanese government committees organized by METI tasked with formulating a response to the problem of the radioactive water. The planned public sessions were announced at its eighth meeting, on Friday, May 18th. This is a step in the right direction, and is long overdue. Nevertheless it may well be a case of “too little, too late.”
METI, Subcommittee on handling water treated by the polynuclide removal facility, 8th meeting May 18, 2018 (Report regarding upcoming public hearings on tritiated water problem – in Japanese)
Good public communication about the release plan, the ocean science it involves, and what the expected risks are and why, cannot by themselves guarantee public acceptance. But this kind of communication is essential, particularly with such a globally contentious and high-profile issue like releasing radiation into the ocean. The public needs to know the environmental effects, health effects, how it will be monitored, what transparency measures are in place, what the process for adjustment and revision will be. Almost two years have elapsed since the Tritiated Water task Force released its recommendations, and a broad and energetic stakeholder engagement and information effort should have been ongoing since then. But such efforts are now only in the planning stage. It seems that METI and other ministries have been paralyzed, faced with taking responsibility for a politically damaging decision, forced to acknowledge that they support the plan but unable to take concrete steps to implement it or prepare the public. TEPCO, while it accepts its responsibility for the decision, seeks full government support, including robust public communication efforts. It seems extremely unlikely to act without a clear government decision in favor of the release and stipulating its timing. We should be prepared for the government to remain paralyzed until the last possible moment, when crisis is imminent, and then to announce a decision suddenly, justifying it by saying that time has run out and that it “can’t be helped.” As a colleague pointed out, this is, unfortunately, the Kasumigaseki way.*
When asked what the official position of TEPCO was regarding the plan to release the water, Kohta Seto of TEPCO’s Communication Development, Fukushima Daiichi Decontamination and Decommissioning Engineering Company, replied, “We recognize that comprehensive examination of technical and social factors is ongoing currently at the national subcommittee. Our response policy will be made in consultation with the government and related stakeholders based on the subcommittee’s discussions.” This echoes METI’s assertion that no decision has actually been made. But in fact the Tritiated Water Task Force, the subcommittee referred to, has been dormant for over a year, and any further recommendations will come from the higher-level METI Contaminated Water Countermeasures Committee and from the NRA.
Others at TEPCO have acknowledged that the company feels ultimately responsible, and is confronted with a decision that could further damage others. Takahiro Kimoto, General Manager, Nuclear Power & Plant Siting Division, Fukushima Daiichi D&D Engineering Company, notes that under the existing plan and at the current rate, by 2020 there will be no more space to store additional tritiated water onsite at Daiichi. Constructing the dilution facilities and pipelines that the release would require is expected to require almost a year of preparation after any decision is made. At the current rate, that means the “go” signal must be given by early 2019 at the latest. Though TEPCO expects that measures such as the frozen wall and subdrain pumps will continue to reduce the amount of treated water that needs to be stored, nevertheless they recognize that there is a narrowing window for decision and action. The company has no plans to try to obtain land offsite to further expand tank space, which could provide an additional margin of time. Though feasible technically and cost-wise, this would be a stopgap measure that merely delays the decision to deal with the tritium more permanently by the other means already being considered. Kimoto explained that the company does not want to act independently. “The policies can’t and shouldn’t be determined by TEPCO alone, but we continue discussing the available options with government and other stakeholders. How much to empty the tanks, how that should be done to minimize environmental consequences, how to maintain trust and transparency, who we need to engage with on this matter, these are all issues we seek stakeholder engagement on. These discussions are taking a long time, but we consider them essential.” Put bluntly, TEPCO knows they will be the bad guys in this scenario no matter what, and prefer to have as broad support as possible.
I initially approached this issue as one of transparency and the need to include a broadly-defined base of stakeholders in the decision-making process and subsequent monitoring of the results. That has been experience of SAFECAST, which prioritizes transparency and impartiality, and tries to get as many people involved in environmental monitoring and decision-making as possible, with unprecedented positive results. We have seen similar benefits where citizen groups in Japan monitor food and their own environments, and seek and often gain a vital voice in decisions that affect them. The Fukushima fisheries coops, TEPCO, and METI all said they would welcome transparent, independent, ongoing third-party monitoring of seawater and marine life if and when the tritiated is released. TEPCO and METI say they understand the need for transparency, and are prepared to change their institutional cultures in order to better accommodate it. Okuda of METI observed, “Having accurate data available to the public won’t by itself ensure adequate understanding, but in the end it is essential.”
Based on many conversations, however, I’m not sure enough people in these organizations fully grasp what true transparency means. Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who has been monitoring Fukushima radiation effects in the ocean since immediately after the start of the disaster, started a very effective crowdsourced program to monitor radiation in the Pacific Ocean along the North American coast. He has long complained of the difficulty of getting
adequate access to funding for research in ocean zones close to Daiichi for scientific research. Regarding the need for transparency and independent monitoring he says, “When I talk about independent monitoring, I don’t mean JAEA or IAEA, or other big government-connected institutions, but universities, NGO’s, and other independent research labs.” He adds, “Even before the decision to release the water is made, someone should get a detailed accounting for what is in each tank for all of the radionuclides of concern, not just that they are below detection (using high thresholds), as the large volume of water means even seemingly small amounts add up. This needs to be independent of TEPCO or whoever is in charge of dumping.”
Buesseler and others share my opinion that robust and effective communication is essential, not to persuade the public that official plans are acceptable, but to better equip them to participate in the debate in an informed way, and to push back where they feel it is necessary. More effort should be made in communicating in general, and this requires a better-educated and more scientifically literate public, which means ongoing efforts that begin years before crisis renders it necessary. Independent groups should be involved in interpreting data and presenting the results in a way which does not damage their independence. It may be necessary to set funds for this aside where they cannot be controlled by government or industry. In the case of the tritiated water at Daiichi, though this kind of transparency and engagement will be essential, it will need to be accompanied by appropriate communication efforts. Those responsible for this should not underestimate the challenge or think it can effectively be rolled out in a short period of time.
According to METI, the content, location, and timing of the upcoming public sessions will be discussed at the next subcommitee meeting in July. People unable to attend in person will be able to submit comments and questions via email. Though hastily-planned events could possibly be held before the end of this year, it seems likely they will need to happen in 2019, bumping up against the decision deadline. While some fishermen are likely to attend, the cooperatives themselves will likely refuse. This situation requires the actual involvement of citizens in the decision making process, but it is difficult to find instances of that actually happening in Fukushima since the accident in 2011. At the central government level in particular, it has almost always been DAD — “Decide, Announce, Defend.” Government planners must think seriously about how prevent this from becoming just another clumsy photo-op, a fig leaf that will allow the government to claim it has adequately consulted the public.
A FINAL WORD
Regardless of whether one trusts scientific opinion or TEPCO, the tritiated water cannot be left in the tanks at Daiichi indefinitely, and releasing it to the ocean, though not without risk, is the least objectionable of the available options. As it stands now, given the depth of public mistrust and the nature of misinformation in our current era, the situation is ripe for the maximum misunderstanding and negative social impact to occur if and when this tritiated water is finally released. Unfortunately, I think we should be prepared for things to be done the “Kasumigaseki way,” with much insincere hand-wringing and expressions of regret. There will be negative social impact no matter what, but unless responsible government officials step up soon, own the decision, and ensure that public engagement is genuine, broad, and effective, these negative impacts will be unnecessarily magnified.
* Kasumigaseki is the part of Tokyo where central government functions are located. It’s similar to Capitol Hill.