Friday, September 23, 2016

Radioactive Water Contamination and the Socialization of Risk

My academic research looks at catastrophic risks encoded into modern infrastructures and examines the governance strategies that frame and manage these risks, particularly in relation to economic, social, and environmental welfare.

I'm currently working on a short essay examining how risk was socialized and privatized in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

Here are some excerpts (NOTE: these are "in-the-rough"):

Economists George Akerlof, Paul Romer, Robert Hall, and Greggory Mankiw[i] helped formulate contemporary understandings of how organizations can privatize profits while socializing losses in their description of how excessively risky conduct by limited liability corporations can result in government bailouts and/or bankruptcy proceedings that allow retention of private earnings. The economic and social costs of the company’s riskY conduct are therefore essentially socialized when assumed as a government liability.
A. Akerlof, Paul M. Romer, Robert E. Hall, N. Gregory Mankiw 1993. Looting: The Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 1993, No. 2 (1993), pp. 1-73 Stable URL: Accessed: 28/03/2009 20:32
Nadesan (that is me, see: 2013 and 2016) documented through her analysis of financial and energy sectors that this general practice of privatizing gain and socializing losses tend to be enjoyed by institutionally vested corporations with close ties to government. 

Nadesan also points out that net effect is typically the “privatization of risk” as individuals ultimately are forced to assume myriad economic and social costs incurred by the corporation’s risky behavior. In the Fukushima disaster we see how the allocation of risk in the wake of the disaster has systematically disadvantaged citizens while promoting the economic welfare of the corporation responsible for the disaster as risk was both “socialized” and privatized.... 

TEPCO is in a very material way socializing costs by incurring potential international liabilities for Japan as a nation as the government allows TEPCO to contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive water in potential violation of several international accords, especially the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (a.k.a., The London Convention). The question of whether Japan had violated the convention arose first in April 2011 when TEPCO reported that it had intentionally dumped 11,500 tons of highly radioactive water into the sea.[i] 

The answer as to whether this dumping constituted a violation of London Convention was uncertain because of a special clause concerning radioactive materials. The clause stipulates that the convention’s compliance group for radioactive violations does not include land-based discharges within its purview. Rather, the group’s purview is limited to dumping from vessels, aircraft and other human-engineered structures at sea as verified by IAEA investigation. Consequently, jurisdiction resorts to the nation-state within which the discharge occurs. The nation-state of Japan, therefore, appears to assume legal responsibility for TEPCO’s land-based discharges.

A 2012 review of Japan’s legal liability by Yen-Chiang Chang and Yue Zhao published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin [ii] considered whether allowing the discharges violates international law and whether Japan bears state liability for discharges, concluding that Article 198 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Article 2 of the 1986 Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident requires notification to other states potentially impacted by radioactive accidents while Principle 21 of the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and Principle 2 of the 1992 Rio Declaration of Environment and Development require states to ensure activities under their jurisdiction or control be conduct without damaging the environment of other states or areas beyond their jurisdiction, essentially preventing “transboundary harm.”

The question of whether Japan’s legal responsibility for allowing land-based discharges simultaneously incurs international legal liability is still unresolved, but sustained environmental contamination from the plant, both intentional and unintentional have raised international concern and increases the likelihood of transboundary harm. Legally transboundary harm requires clear evidence of material damage of tangible consequences. Although evidence of transboundary harm hasn’t been raised, it is well established that TEPCO has been deliberately dumping radioactive water into the ocean for over 5 years now, although the company was able to eliminate all radionuclides except for tritium in 2014 after 4 years of wrangling with equipment that couldn’t filter strontium. 
Inadvertent releases add to the ocean contamination. Heavy rains frequently inundate the plant, which is water-saturated already from TEPCO’s deliberate water injections aimed at cooling melted reactor fuel. Japan’s frequent typhoons over-saturate the site, leading to significant ocean spillage, as illustrated most recently in the fall of 2016 following the passage of Typhoon No. 16.[iii] 

TEPCO’s efforts to build an ice wall, an expensive endeavor whose costs will be socialized, were deemed a failure weeks before this latest typhoon blew through. The ice wall project had been criticized from the start as an inadequate “cheap solution” likely doomed to failure given plant conditions.

What liability does Japan hold for failing to mitigate ongoing contamination with no end in site? In July of 2016 Greenpeace reported detecting radioactivity levels in the seabed off of Fukushima hundreds of times higher than prior to the disaster while streams contained levels yet 200 times higher than found offshore the plant in the Pacific Ocean seabed.[iv] Its difficult to know how much radioactive water is being produced but TEPCO has estimated that 300 tons a day are being produced, every day since 2011. 

However, TEPCO has a poor record of transparency linked to monitoring of radioactive ground water at the site,[v] leading to speculation that ocean contamination may be worse than reported. For example, in September of 2016 former premier Junichiro Koizumi alleged that Prime Minister Abe’s claim that the plant was under control, a claim made to secure the Olympics, was a “lie” because efforts to contain contaminated water, including the ice-wall, have failed.[vi] 

Japan faces potential future liabilities for its failure to prevent protracted ocean contamination under international law. As with the costs of the Fukushima disaster, the costs from these liabilities are likely to be socialized in the form of higher taxes on citizens. Japan's legal liabilities are reinforced by its own Atomic Energy Act, which holds PLANT OPERATORS exclusively responsible for nuclear accidents. Units 1 through 3 at Fukushima Daiichi were based on a flawed Mark I reactor design.

[i] Eben Harrell. April 6, 2011. Fukushima Dumping: A Violation of International Law? Time,
[ii] Yen-Chiang Chang and Yue Zhao. The Fukushima Nuclear Power Station incident and marine pollution. Marine Pollution Bulletin 64 (2012) 897–901
[iii] KOHEI TOMIDA TEPCO: Possible water leak at Fukushima plant during typhoon. The Asahi Shimbun September 21, 2016 at 17:15 JST
[iv] Radiation levels in seabed off Fukushima ‘100s of times’ higher than prior to disaster – Greenpeace Published time: 22 Jul, 2016 06:23
[v] “TEPCO Withheld Fukushima Radioactive Water Measurements for 6 Months,” The Asahi Shimbun, January 9, 2014, accessed January 10, 2014,
[vi] Linda Sieg and Megumi Lim; Editing by Nick Macfie. September 7, 2016, Abe's Fukushima 'under control' pledge to secure Olympics was a lie: former PM. Reuters,


  1. Yes, you are right on the mark about the "concentration of liability" of plant operators and there is an ongoing battle in Tokyo's courts to have the reactor/plant makers also accept some of the liability, but this is very much uphill going as 1) of course the makers cite this law as making the lawsuit irrelevant, and 2) there are hints that the courts are being compromised by pressure from outside the judiciary. The plaintiffs are determined to battle it out, though.

    1. Its good to hear the plaintiffs are not stepping down in their efforts!