After the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan released radioactive water into the sea, the Korean government began reviewing Tuesday if the action violates international law and what Seoul can do if the move leads to damage in Korea.
Korea University professor Park Gi-gap said, “Though Japan discharged contaminated water into its exclusive economic zone, this has caused environmental damage in contaminating seawater, animals and plants. So this is the matter over which countries can express their concern from the perspective of global safety.”
Seoul is checking if the discharge violates the 1975 London Dumping Convention. In principle, the convention bans dumping into and incineration of high-level radioactive waste and other contaminated materials at sea. An attached condition, however, allows radioactive waste lower than minimum levels of concentration to be dumped into seawater if dumping be unavoidable.
Whether the Japanese power plant’s latest action violates the convention remains unconfirmed, however.
Seoul National University professor Baek Jin-hyeon said, “The release of contaminated water by the Japanese power plant amounts to a discharge, not dumping as banned under international law.”
Lee Yoon-geun, in charge of waste assessment at the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, agreed. “The convention prohibits dumping into open waters, so it is difficult to apply the convention to the discharge of waste from land to sea,” he said.
“What is important is not the act of discharge itself but whether radioactive levels in discharged water exceed international safety levels.”
The problem is that the London Convention has no minimum levels in detail, as is the case for a convention on radioactive waste management.
So the focus is on if radioactive levels and iodine concentration in the released water exceed the levels set by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Commission on Radiological Protection. This means only when the extent of contamination exceeds the safety levels set by international organizations can Japan be considered violating international law.
The investigation of the Korean government and the nuclear safety think tank in Seoul is known to be focused on verifying this. A Korean Foreign Ministry official said, “Related ministries, including the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, are verifying if the released water is in line with minimum concentration standards.”
With no provision on punishment in the convention, however, Japan is unlikely to face sanctions or compensation for damages even if found to have violated international law.
Kim Chan-gyu, an honorary professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, said, “The latest act by Japan is applied to a contingency, in other words, an unavoidable situation.”
Professor Park also said, “Japan is highly likely to be exempted from responsibility.”