Fighting Radioactive Wastewater Dumping from New York to Fukushima
By Howie Hawkins
June 21, 2023
I attended the Global Greens Congress in Incheon, South Korea, as an informal observer intending to interact with and learn from Greens around the world. Leading up to the Congress, I was asked by Tim Hollo, director of the Green Institute, the think tank of the Australian Green Party, to make presentation on Grassroots Democracy to a session on “Power and Grassroots Democracy,” where I made the case that Greens should stand for institutionalizing a confederal grassroots democracy based on citizen assemblies. What I did not anticipate beforehand, but is not surprising given Green anti-nuclear traditions, is that I would participate in actions in South Korea against Japan’s imminent plan to dump over a million tons of radioactive wastewater from the damaged cores of three Fukushima nuclear reactors into the Pacific Ocean for decades to come.
Anti-nuclear campaigners have been one of the primary catalysts for the formation of Green parties around the world, from Germany, France, the U.K., and the U.S. to Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. I was one of those campaigners myself in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. In South Korea in 2023, I found myself coming from a fight in New York to stop the dumping of radioactive wastewater into the Hudson River from the decommissioning Indian Point nuclear power plants into a similar fight against radioactive wastewater dumping with anti-nuclear campaigners in South Korea and around the Asia Pacific region.
I have been an anti-nuclear activist since 1969 when as a teenager I followed David Brower out of the Sierra Club and into the Friends of the Earth that he had initiated because the Sierra Club supported the proposed Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo, California, which we are still fighting to close to this day, 54 years later. In 1976, I was one of the co-founders of the anti-nuclearClamshell Alliance in New England, whose mass occupations of the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear reactors in New Hampshire sparked a wave of similar actions across the nation in the 1970s and 1980s, including at Diablo Canyon. The Clamshell Alliance was invited to send two representatives to the first national U.S. Green Party organizing meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota in August 1984. I was selected to go, along with another Clamshell co-founder, the late Guy Chichester.
This year I traveled to South Korea from New York, where we are fighting to stop Holtec International from executing its plan dump more than 1 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Hudson River from the Indian Point nuclear reactors that have been shut down and are in the process of being decommissioned. On Friday, June 9, the last day of the 2023 legislative session, the New York State Senate unanimously passed S6893, which prohibits the dumping of radioactive waste from decommissioning nuclear plants into the Hudson River. But the Assembly failed to pass the companion bill, A7208, before the state legislature went into recess for the rest of the year. Environmentalists in New York immediately demanded a special legislative session to pass the no dumping bill before Holtec International goes ahead with its plan to start the radioactive wastewater dumping into the Hudson River this summer. The New York Assembly is controlled by the Democrats. The Democrats’ failure to stop this nuclear dumping is another reason why we need the Green Party.
Anti-nuclear dumping activists in New York State Capitol Building.
When I arrived in South Korea, I soon learned how their fight against the much larger proposed dump of radiactive nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima reactors in Japan is a major issue in South Korea and around the Asia Pacific region. As soon as within a few weeks, the owner of the Fukushima nuclear reactors, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), plans to begin dumping more than 1.3 million tons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. TEPCO claims to be running out of storage space. With a half-life of 12.33 years, the radioactive tritium in the wastewater could be isolated from the environment until it decays into helium. That would take building more storage tanks, but that would be better than rushing to dump the radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean now.
Storage tanks around the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors.
This dumping may affect ecosystems all the way to North America. Because the ongoing cooling process for the three melted-down Fukushima reactor cores produces more than 130 tons of contaminated water daily, this release of radioactive isotopes could go on for decades. The radioactive wastewater contains cesium-137, strontium-90, and substantial amounts of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium is a comparatively weak isotope whose beta radiation cannot penetrate the skin, but can be harmful when ingested and lodged in the body, where the beta radiation can cause cancerous cell mutations, miscarriages, and birth defects. Scientists warn that the tritium in the water organically binds to other molecules, moving up the food chain. They say the radioactive hazards of tritium have been underestimated and could pose risks to humans and the environment for over 100 years.
Radioactive isotopes will accumulate in plankton at the bottom of the food chain and bioconcentrate up the food chain through a variety of invertebrates, fish, marine mammals, and humans. The U.S. National Association of Marine Laboratories, representing over a hundred member labs, opposes the Fukushima wastewater release plan. A recent study indicates that microplastics—tiny plastic particles that are increasingly widespread in the oceans and accumulating in the bodies of organisms, including humans—may also be a major vector of radionuclide transport and bioaccumulation. While TEPCO claims it is filtrating out the cesium-127 and strontium-90 to “safe” levels, the results have been shown to vary widely from tank to tank. And there really is no safe level of radiation. Strontium-90 is of particular concern because it lodges in bones and increases risks of bone cancer and leukemia.
Green Party US and Justice Party of South Korea delegations with signs opposing the dumping of radioactive wastewater at Fukushima.
On June 5, before the Global Greens Congress, I made a solidarity statement at a news conference hosted by the Justice Party of South Korea, which concluded by emphasizing how both the Justice Party of South Korea and the Green Party US are excluded from their fair share of government representation by limited or no proportional representation. The point was well-received by the Justice Party members who received nearly 10% of the vote in the last national parliamentary elections, but only 2% of the seats, six out of 300, under South Korea’s limited proportional representation. I said, “Limited proportional representation is limited democracy.”
I participated in the news conference with Michael Feinstein, former Green mayor of Santa Monica; Matthew Skolar, co-chair of the Young Ecosocialists, the youth caucus of the Green Party US; and Austin Bashore, co-chair of the Green Party US International Committee, who lives in South Korea and took the initiative to approach the Justice Party for a meeting. Representing the Justice Party were Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party 2022 presidential candidate and representative in the National Assembly; Bae Jin Gyo, a Justice Party representative in the National Assembly; and Party Spokesperson Wee Seon-hee. We concluded the press conference by holding up signs opposing the dumping of radioactive wastewater at Fukushima. The joint Green-Progressive news conference was covered in several Korean media outlets, including Kyunghyang Shinmun, an independent employee-owned newspaper that is considered the progressive major daily newspaper of South Korea.
(L-R) Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party 2022 presidential candidate; Howie Hawkins, Green Party US 2020 presidential candidate; Wee Seon-hee, Justice Party Spokesperson; Bae Jin Gyo, Justice Party representative in the National Assembly.
Later in the week on June 10, I also had the opportunity to meet with Hong Heejin, the youth leader of the Progressive Party of South Korea, at the Global Greens Congress, which she attended as an observer. The Fukushima dumping was a big issue for the Progressives as well and Hong Heejin invited me to join the Progressive Party on June 12 for a demonstration called by the Fisherman’s Union against the Fukushima dumping.
Hong Heejin, Progressive Party youth leader, and Howie Hawkins at the Global Greens Congress in Incheon, South Korea.
The Fisherman’s Union demonstration was far more disciplined and unified than U.S. demonstrations. Instead of milling about on their feet talking to each other more than paying attention to speakers on the stage that characterizes American demonstrations, these 4,000 or so fisherman were seated cross-legged in rows on a closed-off street in front of the National Assembly building. They exuded a strong image of unity and militancy for their demands.
The Fisherman’s union did waves with their protest signs, much like we do at football games.
The fisherman chanted out their union slogans and demonstration demands loudly and in unison. The union had their own anthem and hand dance to go with it that everyone did — several times. They read out a solidarity statement sent by Fukushima fisherman that noted that they are connected by the same ocean to each other and to the whole world, which is why we must stop the dumping. They had scientists explain the dangers of tritium to ecosystems and food chains from plankton, to fish, to humans. There were dozens of media outlets covering it, as well as a heavy police presence.
It was good to see the speakers for the Justice and Progressive parties speaking from the stage together in solidarity.
The speaker in the pink jacket is Wee Seon-hee, Spokesperson of the Justice Party. With her in the navy blue jacket about to speak is Yoon Heesook, Progressive Party member of the National Assembly.
Wee Seon-hee, Spokesperson of the Justice Party, and Howie Hawkins.
Hong Heejin, Youth leader of Progressive Party; Howie Hawkins; Yoon Heesok, Progressive Party member of the National Assembly.
Yoon Heesok, Progressive Party member of the National Assembly; Howie Hawkins; Hong Heejin, Youth leader of Progressive Party; Kim Bongyong, Farmer leader of the Progressive Party.
I cannot explain why the Korean Green Party did not have a contingent at this demonstration even though they too are opposed to the dumping. I asked them at their table at the Global Greens Congress the day before demonstration if they were going. I gathered that they were not going but we were having translation problems and I could not get clear reason why. But from talking with Greens from Japan, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, the Fukushima nuclear wastewater dumping is a huge concern for Greens and ordinary people throughout the Asia Pacific region. The Global Greens Congress adopted a resolution sponsored by the Green parties of Japan and Australia against the radioactive wastewater dumping at Fukushima.
Returning to New York, I was glad to learn that the state legislature was coming back into session for two days to consider some unfinished business, including the Assembly bill to outlaw the dumping of radioactive wastewater into the Hudson River. On June 20, the Assembly did pass the anti-dumping bill they had failed to adopted before the regular legislative sessions ended. Now the bill awaits signing into law by Governor Kathy Hochul. The anti-nuclear activism that made a difference in New York should encourage us.
Now we need to add our voices to the demands by Asia Pacific countries to prevent the nuclear wastewater dumping at Fukushima that is likely to begin as soon as this summer. Many Asia Pacific nations are opposing the dumping, including South Korea, China, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands Forum, an organization representing 18 island nations already damaged by decades of nuclear testing in the region. On the other hand, the G7 intergovernmental political forum of wealthy nations, consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, declared support for Japan’s Fukushima dumping plan at their meeting in April. Now we need to put the heat on the Biden administration to reverse its policy and oppose the Fukushima dumping plan. The environmental movements and fisherman’s organization of the Asia Pacific region need our support to protect their environments and livelihoods.