China should actively consider legal battle against Japan’s wastewater plan: experts
Published: Apr 17, 2021 10:11 PM
File photo taken on Oct. 12, 2017 shows huge tanks that store contaminated radioactive wastewater in Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.(Photo: Xinhua)

Photo: Xinhua

China should proactively prepare a legal battle against Japan, as it will likely be the biggest victim if Japan dumps more than a million tons of radioactive wastewater from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, experts said on Saturday at a symposium.

Specifically, China should consider making good use of international judicial procedures and appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), experts noted. 

Japan announced its decision to dump contaminated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean on April 13, sparking widespread concern within Japan as well as countries in the Asia-Pacific including South Korea and China. 

Many well-known international organizations and environmentalists have drawn conclusions that Japan's move will bring considerable risks to people's lives and great damage to ecology and the environment. The German Institute GEOMAR predicts that Japan's nuclear wastewater will pollute half of the Pacific Ocean in 57 days, and 3 years later, Canada and the US will also be affected.

Although the Japanese government claimed that the treated contaminated water is safe and meets WHO standards, Gao Zhiguo, president of the Chinese Society of Law of the Sea and former judge of the ITLOS, said at the symposium that information released by Japan is not comprehensive, and Japan is hiding a lot of key information. "Japan said the water will be treated and diluted before being dumped into the sea, but it didn't clarify radioactive materials that cannot be removed," he noted. 

Experts agree that China, which is likely to be the biggest victim, or at least one of the biggest victims, should safeguard its interests by actively using legal weapons to deal with Japan's plan that defies international law.

Li Shouping, director of the School of Law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said if Japan's nuclear wastewater contains carbon-14 and iodine-129 and causes long-lasting harm, it is not only an internationally wrongful act, but may also constitute a crime against humanity.

"Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the illegality of Japan's decision is indisputable," Li emphasized. 

Gao said a series of principles, norms and obligations of international law can be applied when dealing with Japan's decision to dump Fukushima's nuclear wastewater into the sea, including a precautionary principle which requires decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high; due diligence, which demands countries take necessary measures to prevent its actions from harming the interests of other countries or the international community; responsibility not to cause environmental damage and duty to cooperate.  

Additionally, based on the "polluter pays" principle and principle of state responsibility and compensation, coastal residents of Fukushima, South Korea and China that would be severely affected by the pollution after Japan released its nuclear wastewater into the sea can form a delegation to file a lawsuit against Japan, Gao said. 

He suggested China should adjust its traditional position and policy toward judicial settlement of international disputes in a timely manner and actively consider making good use of international judicial procedures. 

"It's understandable that we don't accept third-party compulsory jurisdiction over issues that concern our core interests such as territorial sovereignty. But when it comes to issues like environmental protection and fisheries, we have the moral and legal high ground. If we resort to the ICJ or ITLOS, we have a big chance of winning," Gao added.   

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in also ordered officials on Wednesday to explore petitioning an international court over Japan's decision. It's feasible for South Korea to refer Japan's decision to the ITLOS and South Korea is likely to win, Gao said.  

Experts also said that China should now start finding scientific and legal evidence concerning the harm Japan's decision will bring in terms of economy, social, environment, ecology, health and security, and making preparations for diplomatic, public opinion, legal and compensation battles. 

For a long time, the US and the West have had international discourse power in maritime governance. Despite widespread criticism from environmentalists, international organizations and Japan's neighboring countries, the US "thanked" Japan's decision. 

Gao told the Global Times that whether the US supports Japan or not, it cannot conceal the fact that Japan has violated international law and relevant principles and it won't have a substantive impact on the results of a legal battle between Japan and relevant countries. 

"This is not a political issue, it concerns people's health and the security of neighboring countries," added Yue Shumei, a professor from Southwest University of Political Science & Law. 

Wang Hanling, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believed it's a good way for relevant countries to consider seeking litigation or arbitration against Japan, but he pointed out that Japan has a bad record in abiding by international rulings.

"To deal with Japan, and irresponsible enterprises like the Tokyo Electric Power Co, sanctions may yield better results," Wang suggested. 

More than 200 experts and scholars specializing in international law, maritime study, environmental law and international disputes settlement participated in the symposium held both online and face-to-face simultaneously. The symposium was focused on the legality of Japan's decision to discharge nuclear wastewater into the ocean. It's hosted by the Institute of International Dispute Prevention and Settlement and School of Law at the Beijing Institute of Technology.