No Nukes Asia Forum 2011: Lessons Thailand must learn

nuclear enery Thailand

Nearly six months after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the No Nukes Asia Forum (NNAF) organized its annual forum from July 29 to August 7, 2011, to reiterate its position against nuclear technologies and to foster debates on its dangers.  The Heinrich Boll Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office, with its strong stance against nuclear, supported seven Thais[2] to learn and share during the forum.  Direct experiences and lessons from Japan must be learnt and taken in the Thai power development plan. 

Risks remain on people’s health and livelihoods 

What has been agreed upon among the Thai delegates was to learn and get direct experiences from Japan’s nuclear crisis and share them with the Thai public at large.  People, particularly in Fukushima, have been suffering already for nearly six months.  The impact of the nuclear power plant explosion has direct impacts on people’s livelihood.  At the moment, the radiation remains leaking but neither the Japanese government nor TEPCO are reporting about it.  Several NGOs have been involved in monitoring the radiation levels, parallel to the government.  Mr. Seiichi Nakate, the Director of Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation,  had monitored radiation levels at seven schools in Fukushima (among 1,600 schools) in April, 2011 and radioactivity per hour between 10-100 microsievert of was detected.  He was so shocked of such a high level of contamination and found it even more alarming that there were no reports and communications from the government despite the law stipulating that the areas where radiation is over 0.6 microsievert per hour (e.g. X-ray room at a hospital), which is fatal to human, a radiation warning sign has to be in place. 

“After we had stepped out of the Fukushima train station, the radiation checking gear of our Taiwanese friend showed the radiation level of 0.29 microsievert per hour.  That means, if we were living in Fukushima for a year, we would receive approximately 2.54 millisievert per year.  This is considerably high and dangerous.  According to the IAEA, the radiation exposure limit is 1 millisievert per person per year”, said Mr. Santi Choakchaichamnankit, a Thai anti-nuclear activist.

The Japanese government has announced a 20-kilometre radius no-go-zone around Fukushima.  Nevertheless, the affected areas are far beyond, particularly, within the 30 – 40 kilometers radius of the power plant.  People in this area still live their lives as normal.  The government has moreover lifted up the acceptable radiation exposure limit from 1 millisievert to 20 millisievert per year – the level that is as high as that of staff working in a nuclear power plant.  This has raised critical worries and concerns on children as they are more vulnerable than adults.  Children are at risks and easily affected by radiation.  In May 2011, many children had nosebleeds without any clues.  Dr. Katsumi Furitsu from Hyogo College of Medicine, Department of Medical Genetics, said this symptom was similar to that of the primary acute physical reaction as a result of radiation exposure at the spine.  However, there is still a need for further research to be certain on this.

 On July 31, 2011, nearly 2,000 Japanese in Fukushima organized a demonstration and public forum urging the government to become more responsible and take serious actions to the problems associated with the nuclear crisis, including compensations to families living in the areas within a 20-kilometer radius of the crisis-hit Fukushima who were forced to leave, demands on shutting down all nuclear reactors at Fukushima, as well as safe and secured solutions to prevent children from being exposed to the radiation beyond the acceptable level.

Contamination of radiation in foods and food products

Mr. Kazuoki Ohno, Agricultural Journalist in Japan shared with the Thai group that there was a case of tea plantations where radioactive contamination was found in Shizuoka province located approximately 400 km. away from Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Shizuoka has the biggest and most famous tea plantations in Japan where most farmers cultivate tea for domestic consumption nationwide.  With the contamination, they cannot sell any tea from their province anymore.  Additionally, radioactive contamination is found in meat and milk, especially the famous Japanese cow meat of which the purchase in some areas has been banned by the authority.  The cows are fed by the Japanese rice hays which are found contaminated. Nonetheless, the animal-feed business is still running as usual to feed the cows in different areas.  This has further expanded radioactive substances in much wider areas.  The most worry of all among the Japanese at the moment is the level of radiation that remains in the atmosphere.  Should a typhoon pass over Fukushima, the radiation will spread to as far as 300 kilometer away.

No and ineffective responses and plans for the crisis

The effects of the radioactive contamination in agricultural and fishery products are enormous.  The Japanese government and TEPCO still do not have any solutions for them.  There have been some attempts from farmers and fishery groups demanding the solutions from the government.  Those who have a strong network to pressure the authorities, get their needs to be acknowledged; but those who are weak have gained nothing so far.  According to the news releases, there were already two farmers in Fukushima who committed suicide whilst many suffering farmers’ voices still remain silent.

After six months of the Fukushima nuclear accident, it seems the Japanese government has failed to effectively perform an immediate response to the crisis.  It was quite clear that Japan has faced hardship to put the nuclear disaster under control, even though it is considered as one of the well-prepared countries.  Ms. Oka Ayako from Fukushima, said that many people acknowledge Japan as a technologically innovative country, but this means nothing when there is no effective management for disaster.  Normally every household has a manual of safety for disaster, but in the real situation, it does not help much.  The central government has ordered iodine to be distributed by local authorities, yet no instruction has been given to the people.  Ironically, the local authority distributes the iodine hoping that the people would be able to judge by themselves on how and when to use it.

“The information released by our government is reliable; however, authorities don’t have immediate response measures; nor sufficiently reveal all important information and inform the public.  Such a crisis like this can happen anywhere in the world or in any country where a nuclear power plant is operating.  The ordinary people need to closely follow up and monitor relevant information  parallel to the government”, said Mr. Hideuki Bun from Citizen’s Nuclear Information Centre (CNIC).

People become homeless; no plans for relocation, compensation and recovery

Since the nuclear accident has occurred, thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes.  Approximately 50,000 people living out of 20-kilometer radius of nuclear power plant area have decided to relocate themselves elsewhere.  The latter group of people has not received any compensation from the government and most of them are jobless.  For those who have been evacuated from the area within 20-kilometer radius of nuclear power plant, TEPCO has provided a compensation of 1,000,000 Yen (approximately 300,000 Baht) per family.  However, they are still living in a shelter and earn no income.  They still have no clue on their future-- when they will be able to return home.  Some nuclear experts said that the radiation affected areas might have to be closed down for at least 10 years.

Critical concerns on nuclear wastes

In general, nuclear wastes from the plants in Japan will be reprocessed.  However, for the case of Fukushima, it was not so clear how the wastes and other contaminated materials will be dealt with.  This is one of the major concerns among the local people.  The radioactive contamination has already been spread in huge areas.  It will not be an easy task to decontaminate and bring back the normal situation in such a short time.  According to Mr. Hideuki Bun (CNIC), only about 60 percents of tonnes of contaminated water has been able to be decontaminated.  The treatment for the remaining has not been clear or even unknown.  Moreover, it has been reported that more than 11,000 tonnes of contaminated water has been directly released into the ocean from the nuclear power plant.  Once it is widespread into the surrounding environment, decontamination of soils, water, forest areas and etc. will be even more complex.

 Insurance is only marginal; government has to bear the cost via people’s tax money 

In general, the affected people and the cost of Fukushima’s nuclear accident are not solely the responsibility of TEPCO alone.  Under the nuclear liability condition, all nuclear power plants worldwide are insured fromthe beginning of the project operation.  Yet, the insurance limits cannot cover the cost of severe accidents.  Therefore, the government unavoidably takes the responsibility for the incident together with the nuclear industry.  In the Fukushima’s case, TEPCO almost turns into bankruptcy from the accident as they have to pay for maintaining the six remaining reactors, compensations to affected families, compensation to farmers and fishermen, decontaminating affected areas and the environment and other costs which still have not yet been able to estimate.  Finally, the Japanese government decided to give financial support to TEPCO.  This is a great example that at the end, the cost of nuclear accidents will be shouldered by people’s tax and not entirely by the nuclear industry.

Currently one third of the nuclear reactors in Japan has been shut down.  The Japanese government has announced its energy saving policy, particularly during the peak time in summer.  Notably from this trip, the Thai delegates had an opportunity to travel to four other provinces in Japan, including Tokyo, Fukushima, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi, to experience how people were living.  The Japanese did not find it difficult to maintain their daily life under such a policy.  One of the Japanese friends shared that this was the indicator that Japan does not need to depend on nuclear power as long as Japanese people are aware of energy efficiency and energy saving.  Simply to say, Japan can shut down all nuclear reactors without any problems.

On August 2, 2011, the No Nuke Asia Forum networks have met with TEPCO’s representative at the company headquarter in Tokyo. They requested the company to stop exporting nuclear technology to other countries and the company had made their promise.  However, the promise of TEPCO had nothing to do with the Japanese government.

In Thailand, nuclear experts occasionally commented that the nuclear accident in Japan was mainly caused by natural disaster --earthquakes and tsunami.  However, first hand experiences through the NNAF trip have presented to the Thais that the accident was directly related to the planning and the construction of the nuclear power plant. The nuclear technology at Fukushima plant was the latest kind available 40 years ago and it was built to ensure enough strength to withstand a certain level of natural disaster.  But obviously, what is learned now is that no nuclear technology or emergency plans are able to immediately respond to unpredictable natural disasters.  Thus, a nuclear power plant, no matter how modern the technology is, cannot be claimed as a “safe” technology.

A number of countries - Germany, Italy, Switzerland and others - have decided to phase out nuclear, moving toward nuclear free societies.  Thailand must learn from this critical moment and remove nuclear out of the power development plan whereby shifting to the development that will be powered by renewable energy and energy efficiency.  Thailand must no put its people at high risks.  Lessons from Japan must be learnt. 

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[1] From a discussion with Mr. Santi Chokechaichamnankit, Nuclear Monitor, Thailand, one of the Thais participating in the No Nukes Asia Forum 2011 during July 29-August 7, 2011, with the support of Heinrich Boll Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office, based in Bangkok, Thailand.

[2] The seven Thais included three local villagers from three provinces of Ubon Ratchathanee, Trad and Chumporn, where nuclear power plants are proposed; one nuclear activist, and three media.