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n April 13, 2021, Japan announced its plan to discharge nearly 1.25 million tons of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, drawing fierce protest from local communities, environmental NGOs, and its neighboring states. Currently stored in more than 1,000 steel tanks at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, this vast body of water is officially referred to as “ALPS treated water” (arupusu syorisui) – a category that is posited in opposition to that of “contaminated water” (osensui) – a combination of seawater, rainwater, and groundwater that has been used to cool down or has come in close contact with molten nuclear fuels. The bodies of radioactive water hypostatize the ongoing-ness of a nuclear disaster that struck Japan a decade ago. Yet, they speak to two drastically different sets of sensibilities – one of catastrophic breakdown and abandonment, the other of control and progress. Containing high levels of radionuclides including tritium, ruthenium, cobalt, strontium, and plutonium that pose deadly threats to life-forms, the body of contaminated water remains a sign of fear and dread. By contrast, earning its name from a multi-nuclide removal system that works to filter out radioactive contaminants (except tritium), “ALPS treated water” has found its way to government policy reports, public relations campaigns, and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) review reports and press release that promote and authorize a message: The Japanese government’s plan to discharge Fukushima’s ALPS treated water into the Pacific Ocean is “in line with practice globally” and the disposal will be “carried out without an adverse impact on human health and the environment.”
“What happens to the water is what happens to its relations,” observes Michelle Murphy (2017: 497) in another context. What does the proposed ocean release of Fukushima’s treated water tell us about the range of relations of violence between the human, non-human, and the environment? How have the shifting relations between water, people, and the land in Fukushima and its vicinities reconfigured another set of relationality between the Pacific Ocean and the human and non-human entities inhabiting it? In this reflection piece, I employ infrastructure as an analytic to consider the centrality of Fukushima’s treated water in the making and remaking of material worlds and life worlds. I ask: What kind of sociality, relationality, and futurity has Fukushima’s treated water as infrastructure enabled or disabled, extended or inhibited?
In recent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, infrastructures are understood not simply as matter that remains invisible until breakdown (Star, 1999; Edwards, 2002; Graham, 2010), but as an analytic or method to understand the production of sameness and difference (Day, 2016; Ranganathan, 2016), power relations (Cramer and Katsarova, 2015; Salamanca, 2016; Maharawal, 2021), and intimacies (Wilson, 2016), among other things. I propose that understanding Fukushima’s treated water as an infrastructure of and beyond repair can shed light on its centrality in engendering a reorganization of space and reconfiguration of relations between humans and things in Japan and beyond. As a concept, repair entails a relation to brokenness, of things, peoples, systems, orders, and more. As a range of activities, repair and maintenance is not “incidental” to invention but instead operates as “the engine room of modern economies and societies” (Graham and Thrift, 2007: 19). Arising from the aftermath of infrastructural failures or disruptions, the work of repair might open new terrains for creativity, reconfiguring, and reassembling (Jackson, 2014: 222). Yet as Lauren Berlant (2016) cautions, “resilience and repair don’t necessarily neutralize the problem that generated the need for them, but might reproduce them” (Berlant, 2016: 393). While Berlant contends that, “[t]he repair or replacement of broken infrastructure is . . . necessary for any form of sociality to extend itself,” they are concerned with, “how that extension can be non-reproductive, generating a form from within brokenness beyond the exigencies of the current crisis, and alternatively to it too” (Berlant, 2016: 393). At stake are the “terms of transition” – conceptual infrastructures that can generate critical social forms that are at once non-sovereign and non-reproductive (Berlant, 2016: 394).
Building on these interventions, I consider Fukushima’s treated water in a twofold manner. In the first place, this body of water operates as an infrastructure of repair that animates the arrangement of relations between humans, things, and the environment in a way that restores, reestablishes, and consolidates capitalist modes of production and reproduction. At the same time, it operates as an infrastructure beyond repair that brings the very “terms of transition” arising from the brokenness of post-nuclear worlds to intense contestation. Understanding Fukushima’s treated water as such can lead to new ways of thinking about sociality, relationality, and futurity.
The conceptual distinction between “ALPS treated water” and “contaminated water” is not possible prior to the installation and operation of the multi-nucleus removal facilities – a technical system that is embedded within a massive infrastructural development at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. To manage the molten nuclear fuels, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the power station, had assembled an extensive network of pipes, pumps, tanks, and storage towers to facilitate the incessant pumping of seawater into the damaged reactors, the transfer of radioactive contaminated water to nuclides removal facilities, and the storage of treated water at steel tanks. The production and gradual consolidation of this networked infrastructure of circulation, containment, and decontamination does not exist in isolation from the material and social worlds beyond the parameters of the power station. Instead, the stabilization of nuclear fuels, along with the very production of treated water – which, according to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (2021), could be further purified to meet the international standards for drinking water – are processes that are materially and symbolically intertwined with what Ryo Morimoto (2022) has called the “half-life politics” of decontamination policies.
As Morimoto observes, Japan’s decontamination policies and its half-life politics could be understood as an anthropocentric model of relationality that “frames contaminants as external to and isolatable from humans” (Morimoto, 2022: 73). Their underlying objective is to detach human lives from techno-scientifically measurable and quantifiable radioisotopes, drawing boundaries and divisions, both physical and imagined, between purity and danger, humans and contaminants, decontaminated landscapes and irradiated ones (Morimoto, 2022: 72). However, this half-life politics’ obsession with the artificial separability between humans and contaminants has perpetuated forms of violence and harm, acts of disconnection and severance of ties, and the production of nuclear waste in the name of nuclear safety. In Morimoto’s account, instead of eradicating radioactive harm from the environment, Japan’s decontamination policies and politics have in fact generated a million bags of decontaminated waste – from ashes of incinerated radioactive boars, radioactive soil scrapped from earth surfaces, to demolition materials and land-clearing debris – which in turn necessitated the construction of hundreds of temporary waste-storage facilities and waste-isolation sites (Morimoto, 2022: 86). In this anthropocentric model of relationality, the ties, relationships, and connections that exist prior to or beyond a life centered on radiation and nuclear victimhood are undermined and undone.
In and of itself, Fukushima’s treated water is a product of the half-life politics of Japan’s decontamination policies. It emerged from the very radiation-centered and anthropocentric model of relationality that separates the human from the irradiated environment on the one hand, and redistributes the slow violence of radioactive substances elsewhere on the other. Yet, insofar as it exists in relation to the ever-expanding volume of contaminated water generated by the process to stabilize molten nuclear fuels, Fukushima’s treated water enjoys a life that sets itself apart from other forms of radioactive substances that await disposal.
A notable case in point is the discovery of a daily leakage of approximately 300 tons of radioactive water from the nuclear power station to groundwater systems and the Pacific Ocean in August 2013. The revelation of the nuclear disaster’s uncontrollability had prompted the Japanese government to implement new policies – including the “Basic Policy for the Contaminated Water Issue at the TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station” (2013) and the cabinet decision titled “For Accelerating the Reconstruction of Fukushima from the Nuclear Disaster” (2013; revised in 2015; implemented as Basic Policy in 2016) – to mobilize national resources to upgrade the multi-nuclide removal system’s operation capacities. In instances like this, Fukushima’s treated water operates, both materially and symbolically, as an infrastructure of repair that reorganizes senses of space, time, and relationality associated with the ongoing nuclear crisis. At the material level, it embodies the technoscientific remediation and negation of the toxic materiality of contaminated water; at the symbolic level, it performs a promise that affirms the possibility of repurification after radioactive contamination. As a solution to radioactive contamination, Fukushima’s treated water serves as both the symbolic and material conditions of possibility for the reimagining of productive futures. In the words of Lake Barrett (2014), senior advisor to the Japanese government’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, “Improving the existing ALPS systems and the addition of the new supplemental processing systems are very positive steps toward complete control of the contaminated water situation at Fukushima.”
The mutually constitutive yet simultaneously contradictory relationship between Fukushima’s treated water and contaminated water has implications that reach far beyond the water situation within the parameters of the nuclear power station. Hailed as a successful operation, the intensified state regulation of the flows, storage, and decontamination of radioactive water is part and parcel of a larger state and municipality-led reconstruction project to make Fukushima clean, safe, and livable again. Administered by the Reconstruction Agency (fukkō-chō) of the Japanese government, incentives and investment have been directed at the infrastructural redevelopment of Fukushima’s decontaminated landscapes. Evacuation orders have been lifted, roads, railways, sewage system, and other public infrastructure restored, houses and schools rebuilt, and commercial centers recreated.
In their edited volume, Rebuilding Fukushima, Yamakawa Mitsuo and Yamamoto Daisaku (2017) consider the broader implications Fukushima’s post-disaster reconstruction has for other communities in Japan where nuclear power stations are hosted. They observe that government policies have favored a logic of developmentalism in the reconstruction process. Instead of channeling resources to support disaster victims and evacuees to sustain their livelihood elsewhere, the government has put great emphasis on decontamination with the aim of facilitating the gradual repopulation and promotion of economic growth and productive activities in disaster-affected regions (Yamakawa and Yamamoto, 2017: 167). Massive capital investment – both from the state and private enterprise – has also been directed towards the upgrading of safety measures for nuclear power stations. This wave of capital investment is manifested, on the one hand, in the changing built environment surrounding the power stations: massive sea walls have been built around the stations, emergency power sources and fire engines installed, and trees clear-cut (Yamakawa and Yamamoto, 2017: 169). On the other hand, advertisement campaigns that promote the safety of nuclear energy have been made to target communities hosting nuclear power stations.
Fukushima’s treated water and the relations it extends constitute an infrastructure of repair – reparative arrangements of relations that aim at offsetting the catastrophic impacts of a “glitch” (Berlant, 2016) that is the ongoing nuclear disaster. The work of repair this infrastructure performs might have helped territorialize the decontamination-oriented infrastructural and capitalist redevelopment of Fukushima and other communities hosting nuclear power stations in Japan. Yet, what this infrastructure has managed to restore from radioactive ruins and ruination (Stoler, 2016) is not without de-territorializing ramifications. As Yamakawa and Yamamoto observe, the logic of developmentalism underlying Japan’s reconstruction policies is made possible only at the expense of concrete proposals for emergency evacuation plans and long-term support for disaster victims (2017: 170). Moreover, infrastructural redevelopment projects often reanimate and reproduce the uneven distribution of resources and precariousness that has historically organized the material and social lives of disenfranchised communities (Kuletz, 1998; Smith, 2010; Salamanca, 2016).
In the case of Fukushima, the asymmetries and unevenness in resource distribution along infrastructural lines have much to do with the Japanese government’s role in facilitating the circulation of capital – both fixed and mobile – in and around sites that are deemed underdeveloped and unproductive (Matsumura 2011). The radioactive fallout that devastated Fukushima, as Wendy Matsumura (2011) writes at the onset of the disaster, “is a reminder of the economic role unproductive spaces play.” These unproductive spaces “often overlap with other spaces – rural spaces or newly built industrial-scientific complexes – that serve to resolve energy crises caused by cities through building nuclear and other power plants” (Matsumura, 2011). Sacrificed for the processes of capital extraction, accumulation, and expropriation by state and corporate-led nuclear-related projects, these spaces “may be rendered uninhabitable, but their value to the nation-state, industry and science are great” (Matsumura, 2011).
A decade after the nuclear disaster, the territorialization of reconstruction policies and capitalist redevelopment that Fukushima’s treated water as infrastructure helped facilitate has come to entail not only the differential distribution of resources and capital across Japan. It also signifies the deterritorialization of indigenous life-worlds and relationalities to land and water across the Pacific Ocean. In 2020, the Japanese government’s Subcommittee on Handling of the ALPS Treated Water found the continued storage of treated water both within and beyond the parameters of the nuclear power station to be infeasible, setting the stage for the government’s implementation of what was framed as an “unavoidable” decision to discharge the water into the Pacific Ocean. The subcommittee reasoned that, on the one hand, there is a limit to the “on-site” space of the power station available for the installation of new storage tanks for the treated water, while on the other hand, the acquisition of land “off-site” to satisfy storage needs is proven to be impractical. It stated, “as the storage of the ALPS treated water means the handling of radioactive material, it would be necessary to obtain business permission as radioactive waste storage facilities based on the ‘Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors’ . . . Installment of new radioactive material storage facilities will require proper equipment, a wide range of advanced coordination and an approval process, which will take a considerable amount of time.”
The momentary hesitation over the treatment of Fukushima’s treated water is revealing. It renders legible the water’s dangerous radioactivity, foregrounding the potential risk and harm its toxic materiality could have posed to the human and the environment. This revealing moment, however, ultimately failed to undermine the myth of safety and control that the Japanese government, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, and international regulatory organizations for nuclear energy have deployed around Fukushima’s treated water. The proposed ocean discharge method precisely illustrates the complicity between state and non-state actors in disavowing the violence undergirding the capitalist social relations that Fukushima’s treated water extended and consolidated. If the emergence of the conceptual distinction between contaminated water and treated water has allowed the reimagining of productive futures for Fukushima, the mandate to expedite the discharge of treated water into the Pacific Ocean has worked to reproduce the symbolic and material conditions of possibility for that very futurity by deterritorializing the life-worlds and material worlds, relationalities and futurities that could have been made and remade otherwise across the Pacific.
The social relations, spatial order, and life-worlds that Fukushima’s treated water reassembled and remediated is by no means fixed, however. Japan’s proposed discharge of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean has been met with a chorus of dissent and resistance, both from domestic and international parties, that calls for alternative ways to grapple with the infrastructural glitch of the nuclear present. Importantly, Pacific Islander communities and nations have been at the forefront of counteracting Japan’s technoscientific disregard of the treated water’s ecological impact over the marine and terrestrial environment of the Pacific. As Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum contends, “steps have not been sufficiently taken to address the potential harm to our Blue Pacific Continent, including possible environmental, health, and economic impacts. Our fisheries and ocean resources are critical to our Pacific livelihoods and must be protected.” Sheila J. Babauta, House Representative of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), had introduced House Joint Resolution 22-11, arguing that together with the historical legacies of foreign powers’ nuclear activities in the Pacific, the Japanese government’s and the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s lack of transparency in disclosing the full range of dangers and risks of the ocean discharge proposal has rendered Pacific environments “inhospitable for terrestrial and aquatic life and Pacific peoples have been stricken with maladies ranging from cancer to birth defects over generations.” Maureen Penjueli, Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalization, added, “For us in the Pacific, the Pacific Ocean has become a proving ground, a theater of war, a highway for nuclear submarines and waste. The Pacific is not a dumping ground for radioactive wastewater.”
What does Fukushima’s treated water’s infrastructural making of sociality, relationality, and futurity look like when we take into account the dissenting words and life-worlds of Pacific Islander communities? How might indigenous contestations of the movements of treated water generate new “terms of transition” for decolonizing our modes of existence within the broken nuclear world? Infrastructures are inherently relational. It is within our relations to the illuminating flows of radioactive ruins that a decolonial politics of repair becomes thinkable.
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Sabrina Teng-io Chung is a PhD candidate in East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.