Only one month before the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster, another massive nuclear accident occurred in Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant became world famous overnight as the world’s second most catastrophic nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.
On March 11, 2011, at 2.46pm, a 9-Richter earthquake shook the eastern coast of Japan, causing 11 nuclear reactors at four nuclear power plants to automatically shut down. Within less than an hour later, tsunami waves as high as 14 meters slammed into the coast and caused the most catastrophic disaster in Japan since World War II. The badly damaged electricity system disrupted the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant which led to a series of explosions of four reactors over the course of four days, releasing a tremendous amount of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. The world was sent into a panic, particularly the US which is located downwind from Japan. The Japanese government declared a state of radioactive emergency and ordered an evacuation of residents living within the 20-kilometer radius around the power plant.
That was five months ago. Even though the news no longer makes headlines, radiation continues to leak from the power plant. A Japanese civic group monitoring the disaster indicated that the radiation leaked at the rate of one billion Bequerels per hour.
On July 31, at the center of Fukushima City, 60 kilometers from the nuclear plant, over 2,000 Japanese residents and activists staged a demonstration demanding the government to solve the ongoing problems caused by the explosion. They called for compensation for disaster victims evacuated from the area within the 20km-radius area around the power plant, the closure of all reactors in Fukushima, as well as other measures including helping the children being exposed to radioactivity.
According to Seiichi Nakate, a Fukushima resident and director of the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation, the critical area is much greater than the 20km-radius area declared by the Japanese government, which has refused to evacuate people living in 10km radius outside the crisis zone. Instead, it has raised the safety level of radiation exposure from 10 millisieverts a year to 20 millisieverts a year, which is the same level as that designated for nuclear plant workers. What is alarming is the impact on children, who are in their developmental years and thus more sensitive to radiation than adults. Schools are open as usual, but pupils are not allowed to use the schools’ swimming pools or to engage in outdoor sports activities as radiation contamination has been detected both in the ground and in the air.
In April, Nakate measured the level of radioactivity in seven schools in Fukushima among 1,600 schools there and found that the level is between 10-100 microsieverts/hour. This was an alarming discovery since it is hundreds of times higher than 0.6 microsieverts/hour, the level at which the law requires that a sign be posted where it is found, such as in radiation lab in hospital.
Then in May, many children were found to suffer nose bleeding with no identifiable cause although it was not detected again shortly after. Dr Katsumi Furitsu of the Department of Medical Genetics, Hyogo College of Medicine, described the symptom as similar to a sudden reaction to radiation penetrating the spinal cord. However, further investigation is necessary to determine the actual cause. At this point, the impact of radiation on people’s health remains unclear, though it will become gradually more apparent in the future.
Nakate said that currently 1.5 million people still lived in Fukushima’s danger zone, including 300,000 children. Nagate and Fukushima parents have demanded that the government immediate evacuate all children and pregnant women from the 30km area around the power plant. So far there has been no response from the government. A number of parents have decided to take their children to safer places. By taking matters in their own hands, they will be ineligible for government assistance.
Tens of thousands of residents outside the 20km radius of the power plant have moved out of their own accord. Now they are out of work and are denied government assistance. For those living within the 20km radius who have been evacuated, each household received only one million yen (about 300,000 baht) as compensation from the electric company TEPCO, a very small amount by Japanese standards. Many of them have been living in shelters without any income. They do not know what lies ahead, or when can they return home. Some experts expected that the contaminated area will remain off limits for at least a decade more. If this is the case, what will happen to these evacuees, and who will be responsible for the prolonged damage? These questions remain unanswered by concerned authorities.
“Twenty-three years ago, I was involved with the anti-nuclear campaign for three years. But in the past 20 years, I had been pre-occupied with my work and only rejoined the anti-nuclear movement at the end of last year. And then in March the accident happened,” Nakate said.
“I was devastated because we have always known that (nuclear power) is dangerous. Yet we did not try to stop it from the beginning, and now the disaster happened. We adults may have benefited from nuclear power. But when disaster happened, it’s the children, the world’s future, who suffer the most. I’ve resigned to my fate that I will suffer the consequence from radiation exposure in the next few years. But I will keep opposing nuclear energy even if it means my life is in danger.”
Apart from the suffering of the evacuees, the problem of radiation contamination of agricultural and fishery products have caused immeasurable damage. Yet it has not been addressed by the Japanese government and TEPCO.
According to Kazuoki Ohno, an agricultural news reporter who has closely monitored the situation, farmers in Fukushima were under tremendous stress, and there have been reports of two suicides by farmers affected by this catastrophe. Many villagers claimed that that there were in fact more suicides, saying these other suicides did not make the news because they did not leave any suicide note.
Agricultural products from many areas such as rice, vegetables and beef have been contaminated, and their sales were banned. Fishery in Fukushima and nearby provinces has also been seriously affected. Radiation leaked from the power plant has ended up in the ocean more than on land since the seasonal wind is blowing seaward. In addition, over 11,500 tons of contaminated coolant from the four damaged reactors has been released into the ocean to make room to store water with higher levels of radiation.
The case of contaminated beef reveals a complex web of problems related to contamination of the food chain. The kind of beef that is popular in Japan comes from the native cows fed with hay according to the traditional Japanese way, which has created the business of supplying hay as cow feed. When paddy fields are contaminated, the control of hay distribution is difficult, and contaminated hay has been sent to many places, which has resulted in widespread beef contamination. Contaminated cow dung has also been sold as fertilizers resulting in more contamination in agricultural products.
In June (three months after the disaster), radiation was detected in tea leaves in Shizuoka, 400 kilometers from the Fukushima power plant. This province is Japan’s biggest and most renowned producer of tea leaves. Most farmers only plant tea, and the contamination has caused all of Shizuoka’s tea leaves to remain unsold.
Furthermore, there are many other contaminated areas such as Chiba, 170 kilometers from Fukushima and 30 kilometers from Tokyo. Yuka Kikuchi, a Chiba resident, said that the level of contamination in Chiba was ten times higher than that in Tokyo because it was raining in Chiba when the radiation leaked. Radiation had made its way into the ground. In Fukushima, the central government has instructed residents to move back to the zone of 20km-30km around the power plant, but the local government has resisted this order as there is still untreated contaminated waste as well as contaminated water and utilities system that have not been repaired.
The most serious concern for the Japanese is radioactivity that is still widespread in the country. With the occasional typhoons blowing past Fukushima, radiation can travel as far as 300 kilometers.
Lessons from Japan
Although Japan is a developed and highly disciplined country, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima has been handled haphazardly.
Oka Ayako, a Fukushima resident who had to move out of the 20-kilometer zone around the power plant said that her house was just built when the disaster struck. When evacuation was ordered, she expected to return home in a few days, so she did not bring any valuables with her. The evacuees were not informed by the government about the leaked radiation but learned about it in the news days later. This meant that the residents had already been exposed to radiation for at least two days without their knowledge.
“People like to say that Japan has advanced technology, but without effective management, technology is useless,” said Ayako.
“Normally, all Fukushima households are equipped with a nuclear emergency manual, but when it actually happened, the manual was no help. The manual mentioned mass evacuation only of areas within 7km radius. As protection against radiation, the central government told the local government to make iodine available, but provided no further instruction. The local government, therefore, decided to distribute the iodine to the residents without telling them to consume it as there was no such instruction from the central government, hoping that the residents would make their own judgment whether to take it to protect their thyroid.”
Hideyuki Ban of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center said that information provided by the government was reliable but incomplete and not quite up-to-date. This is the same in every country with nuclear power plants. The people only have access to partial information about nuclear, so they have to try to monitor the situation by themselves.
“The government’s information about foods that were exposed to radiation was reliable, but by the time the public was informed, the people had already consumed those foods for some time. As for radiation contamination, the government only announced the numbers that were over safety levels, but it did not advise the public on how to avoid the danger of exposure,” Ban said.
Meanwhile, evacuation of people from danger areas is influenced by many factors, such as weather conditions, wind direction, etc. Some areas outside the 20-km radius around the plant may actually be as dangerous as those closer to the plant. As it turned out, the evacuation was extremely chaotic; some unaffected residents were evacuated while others in less dangerous areas were moved to more dangerous areas.
What happened in Japan shows that, in a nuclear power plant accident, even fully-equipped countries still struggle with mitigation of the impact and it is impossible to prevent widespread and severe damage with long-lasting consequences.
The scale of the damage resulting from the Fukushima accident is evidently beyond the capacity of TEPCO to take responsibility for. In legal terms, every nuclear power plant project must carry nuclear liability insurance. However, it is clear that the level of liability insured is inadequate for a disaster of this scale. As a consequence, the government must step in to shoulder the responsibility.
In the Fukushima case, TEPCO is in the grip of near bankruptcy. In addition, it is responsible for taking care of the six crippled reactors which requires several million yens. Initially, there was a split in opinions within the government. One side suggested the government allow TEPCO to go bankrupt and subsequently take over responsibilities. The other side, however, suggested the government keep the company afloat, fearing that not doing so would create havoc in the Japanese economy. In the end, the government chose the second option.
Thus far, there have been no estimates of the scale of damage in monetary terms of agriculture and fishery. Then there is the impact on the people’s health which will become more apparent in the future. The question is how will Japan tackle these issues?
This article has firstly published on Green Line, no. 30: September – December 2011 by Department of Environmental Quality Promotion, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment