By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, chairman of the Pacific Islands bloc, said that science supported Japan's decision to pump treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, but that the region may not agree on the "complex" issue.
Japan said on Tuesday it will start releasing into the sea more than 1 million metric tons of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant on Aug. 24, going ahead with a plan heavily criticised by China.
Japan has said that the water release is safe. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, greenlighted the plan in July, saying that it met international standards and that the impact it would have on people and the environment was "negligible".
The IAEA travelled to Cook Islands in July to present its findings to the Pacific Islands Forum - a regional bloc of 18 nations, whose combined exclusive economic zones span 40 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, where half the global tuna catch is found.
"I believe that the discharge meets international safety standards," Brown said in a statement on Wednesday. He added the IAEA would continue to monitor the water during the discharge process.
Not all Pacific leaders had the same position and the Pacific Islands Forum may not reach a collective position, he said.
In a region that had suffered from the effects of nuclear weapons testing by outside powers, it was a "complex issue", he said. The United States conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific Islands in the 1940s and 1950s, and France between 1966 and 1996.
"This is a demanding situation for all of us, and we need to assess the science," he said.
A Pacific Nuclear Free Zone was established in 1985 under a treaty that prevents the dumping of radioactive materials.
Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said in a speech on Monday that he supported the discharge, based on the IAEA report, and it was "fear mongering" to connect the controlled release of water over 30 years to the nuclear weapons tested in the Pacific.
The Fukushima discharge will be discussed at a meeting of the five-nation Melanesian Spearhead Group - Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia's ruling FLNKS party - on Thursday.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham. Editing by Gerry Doyle)