Fukushima: 8 years out and the disaster drags on

Fukushima: 8 years out and the disaster drags on

It’s been eight years since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and Japan is ready to move on. They’re even planning a party to celebrate and inviting the whole world. It’ll be called Tokyo 2020. The torch relay is going to start in the Fukushima prefecture to show everyone that all is well. It’s all about hope for the future, and it all seems kind of perfect…

But we can’t shake this feeling that Japan has missed a step, like they’re leaving an awful lot of people behind…

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No one can mistake the tenacity and aspirations of the people who were affected by the events of March 2011. Of course the people of Japan deserve hope, but they also deserve honesty, accountability, and respect. The citizens of Japan had real hope in 2012, when their government announced that they would abandon nuclear power by the 2030s. And it made perfect sense. Why would any country risk a second accident on this scale over something as unnecessary as nuclear power?

Japan’s decision to phase out nuclear power was (and still is) overwhelmingly supported by the Japanese people. Over 5,000 miles away, Germany made the call with no reservations whatsoever. After watching the way the Fukushima disaster spiraled out of control, Germany immediately closed half of their nuclear power plants. They are on track to complete their nuclear phase-out in its entirety by 2022, a decision that is supported by citizens and politicians across all parties.

Japan, on the other hand, started caving under the pressure of corporate lobbyists as early as 2012, cowing to business and industry leaders while ignoring the will of the people. During a government public input session at that time, 90% of the public’s comments supported the abolition of nuclear power.

Tokyo 2020

Since then, the Japanese government and nuclear industry have been working to sweep the Fukushima disaster under the rug, minimizing risks and concerns, and pressuring families to move back into the area, in part so they can flaunt Tokyo 2020 as the “Reconstruction Olympics.” It was recently reported that Japan’s nuclear industry is growing, but not as fast at the government would like. It’s not about hope, it’s about business. It’s about reputation, consumer confidence, and the desire to expand the nuclear industry. Japan is using the 2020 Olympics as an international and domestic PR campaign. They are trying to sell the world – and their own people – a false reality.

Let’s move away from the political posturing, corporate subterfuge, and PR games for a moment and simply focus on the reality of Fukushima today.

The cleanup is nowhere near finished.

Since the disaster, more than 70,000 workers have worked to remove topsoil, grass, and other contaminated natural material from the residential areas of the Fukushima prefecture. The radioactive material is bagged and left to await a ‘safe’ storage location. Today, millions of cubic meters of contaminated earth sit with no place to go. While Japan has promised the people of the Fukushima prefecture that all of this contaminated material will be permanently moved to a site outside of their area, the fact is no one is willing to take it.

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(Above: Millions of cubic meters of radioactive soil remain in the Fukushima prefecture)  

As intensive and expensive (billions in US dollars) as the bagging process has been, it is sadly inadequate. Even if Japan could find a location willing to accept all of this radioactive waste, there are still giant swaths of land that cannot be decontaminated. Consider the town of Namie. In April of 2017, restrictions were lifted and zones one and two were deemed safe for return by the Japanese government. In Namie, however, a full four-fifths of the town is mountain and forest and impossible to decontaminate. This area is known as zone three, and access remains strictly prohibited due to excessive radiation. When it rains, the radioactive cesium flows from the mountains into rivers and into underground water sources close to the town.

The plant itself is far from secure.

The cleanup of the Fukushima Daiichi plant itself remains decades out. Hundreds of tons of uranium fuel remain missing in the ruins, and TEPCO’s planned 40-year cleanup has already been delayed due to unexpected levels of structural damage and extreme radiation. One of the issues is that the technology required to deal with this cleanup still does not exist. It has taken years to develop robots that can withstand extreme radiation for any prolonged period of time.  What’s worse? Japan has no idea what they will do with the waste once it comes out of the plant.

“… the plan still lacks details regarding the duration of the melted fuel removal, how the radioactive waste will ultimately be stored and the final status of the plant itself, raising doubts about whether the cleanup can really be completed in 40 years.” – Mari Yamaguchi

Moving the goalposts and rushing recovery.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is pushing citizens to move back to the area, ending housing subsidies for self-evacuees, even raising acceptable levels of radiation for Fukushima residents by 2000%, from 1 millisievert per year to 20 millisieverts per year.

“The gradual lifting of evacuation orders has created enormous strains on people whose lives have already been affected by the worst nuclear disaster of this century… Many feel they are being forced to return to areas that are unsafe, including those with radiation levels above what the government previously considered safe.” – UN Special Rapporteur, Baskut Tuncak

The health cost is still growing.

The fact is, the health impact of the Fukushima disaster is going to last for generations and we cannot foresee all that it will entail. Just last week, CBS reported that the number of infants requiring heart surgery for Complex Congenital Heart Disease spiked by 14.2% and is linked to the Fukushima disaster. The health problems in these children will linger for a lifetime. Even with multiple surgeries, symptoms of CHD can afflict a person throughout their life.

Privatizing profit and socializing loss.

The cost of cleanup and compensation is already double the initial estimate, and Japan’s Center for Economic Research now believes that the real cost will be as high as 70 trillion yen (632.5 billion US dollars, roughly 7 times the initial estimate). A significant amount of this cost falls on the taxpayers, who, if we remember correctly, don’t want nuclear power in their country any more. The same taxpayers who are being ignored by their very own government in favor of corporate lobbyists – adding insult to injury.

On a positive note…

The owners of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, TEPCO, are now investing in the offshore wind business. In fact, they are partnering with the same Danish company (Orsted) that is also partnering with former Seabrook owners, Eversource/PSNH, on offshore wind south of Cape Cod.

“The partnership will help Tepco fast-track its ambition of becoming an offshore wind leader. Last August, company president Tomoaki Kobayakawa said Tepco was planning to invest 100 billion yen ($8.98 billion) on up to 7 gigawatts of national and overseas renewable generation, with a focus on offshore wind and hydro. The announcement followed a shift in strategy for the company, first unveiled in February 2018, from a nationally focused, predominantly thermal- and nuclear-based utility to a developer of global renewable energy projects.” – Jason Deign, Greentech Media

Read on:

  • Read an excellent piece on the ongoing human toll of the Fukushima Disaster and an unvarnished human account of the present-day situation in this Washington Post article from February 2019: “Near site of Fukushima nuclear disaster, a shattered town and scattered lives.”
  • Read a personal letter from a young Japanese woman (now in high school) who was a child evacuee when the disaster happened. She remembers shortly after the disaster when she continually suffered nosebleeds, and she talks about the fear in knowing that illness could take her at any time. (She will be required to undergo annual thyroid exams for the rest of her life.) Hers is just one of many voices who are not being heard in Japan today. Her letter can be read on the Beyond Nuclear International website.

(Images courtesy of Getty Images for nonprofits)