This time no one dropped a bomb on us. . . . We set the stage, we committed the crime with our own hands, we are destroying our own lands, and we are destroying our own lives.
—Haruki Murakami, Japanese novelist
In Japan, as in every other nuclear nation, the unresolved problems and unthinkable consequences of nuclear energy were ignored, minimized, or hidden. The former residents of Fukushima now are paying the price for the hubris and denial that fueled the Atomic Age. Tragically, the fallout damage from the Fukushima disaster might have been minimized had Japan’s nuclear watchdogs placed a greater priority on public health than private profit. For example, as the Kyodo News newspaper revealed, Kenkichi Hirose, head of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), successfully asked the country’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) to cancel a May 2006 safety study that called for a larger “disaster mitigation zone” around nuclear plants “for fear of spreading concerns about nuclear power.”
For the most part, the 100,000 people who fled their homes (and the 1.5 million affected by dangerous fallout levels well beyond the official 12.5-mile evacuation zone) were left to their own devices. Worried parents were forced to buy their own Geiger counters and dosimeters. In the early days of the crisis, government officials failed to alert the populace to the mounting radiation dangers, and when Tokyo did respond to the problem, it was simply to announce that the official “acceptable” level of radiation in food was being increased by a factor of five.
When troubling levels of radioactivity showed up in tap water at Tokyo schoolyards, the government responded by increasing the level of “permissible” radiation exposure for children 20-fold. This proved too much for Japan’s radiation safety advisor, who resigned, calling the new rules “inexcusable.”
By July 2011, it was clear the radiation had entered the human food chain. Radioactive cesium was found in the breast milk of one-third of 27 women tested near Fukushima Prefecture in May and June of 2011. Tea leaves picked by Tokyo schoolchildren were found to contain 6,000 becquerels per kilogram (Bc/kg) of cesium-137. Straw collected 45 miles from Fukushima was contaminated with radioactive cesium at levels equal to those found around Chernobyl. In July, after recalculating its estimates of radioactive releases, TEPCO warned of a dramatic increase in “hot particles”—the potentially deadly particles that cause a “metallic taste” when inhaled or swallowed.
In October 2011, radioactive strontium was detected in Yokohama, 155 miles from Fukushima, and mushrooms in Yokohama (165 miles from the stricken reactors) were seriously contaminated with radioactive cesium. The news came too late to protect the 794 people (including 258 children) who picked and ate the mushrooms.
Eight months after the disaster, a joint study by Tokyo University and the University of Tsukuba revealed that water from the Abukumagawa River watershed was still pouring 50 billion becquerels of cesium-134 and cesium-137 into the ocean every day. Cesium-137 was even detected in whales swimming offshore. And rice in five locations 35 miles from Fukushima registered unsafe levels of cesium, forcing more than 150 farms (supplying 192 tons of rice) to halt operations. Across Japan, cattle were contaminated with cesium-137. Between August and December 1, cesium-contaminated beef reportedly was served to 433 schools and 26 kindergartens in 18 prefectures and 46 cities. School lunches in Miyagi Prefecture included beef spiced with 1,293 Bq/Kg of radioactive cesium. After revelations that 180,000 students had consumed cesium-contaminated beef, the government finally agreed to purchase radiation monitors for use at schools.
A year after the Fukushima meltdowns, downwind residents were still complaining about the government’s failure to test their children for radiation exposure or thyroid cancer. In wasn’t until February 2012, that the Education Ministry finally began monitoring radiation levels on a real-time basis at schools, parks, and playgrounds.
In March 2012, Tokyo announced a 20-fold reduction in the amount of cesium isotopes allowed in children’s food. In April 2012, Tokyo finally bowed to public outrage and lowered the “safe” level of cesium radiation in food from 500 to 100 Bc/kg. Levels of “permissible” cesium in milk were lowered from 200 to 50 Bc/kg, while levels in drinking water were reduced from 50 to 10 Bc/kg. By this point, however, distrust of the government had grown so pervasive that Aeon, the country’s largest supermarket chain, had begun its own independent program to monitor food for radiation.
A Legacy of Poisoned Land
The fallout over soil, forests, and waterways has left the government facing an unprecedented (and, quite likely, impossible) cleanup challenge. In Fukushima Prefecture alone, one-third of the land—an area the size of Rhode Island—is contaminated by fallout. The region’s $3.2-billion-a-year agricultural sector has been wiped out. While some land clearly will remain uninhabitable for generations, the government expects it may be neccesary to remove 100 million cubic acres of poisoned soil from 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles). With much of the fallout absorbed by trees, vast tracts of forests face clear-cutting and the arrival of spring now brings a new risk—radioactive pollen blown through streets from city trees.
Japan’s Environment Ministry believes radiation levels in the evacuation zone will fall 40 percent within two years but, even with a cleanup, the health risks of long-term exposure to remaining low-levels of radiation are unclear. The International Commission on Radiological Protection insists the general public should not be exposed to more than 1 to 20 mSv a year. (Tests conducted in December 2011, showed Fukushima residents were being exposed to annual doses exceeding 9 mSv.) Even with a massive decontamination effort, cesium-137 that has migrated into the soil will continue to resurface in plants and crops. The deeper you dig, the more contamination you remove—but this comes at a cost. As Atomic Energy engineer Shinichi Nakayama observes: “You take away the deeper layers and [radiation levels] fall more. But you take it all away and the ecosystem is destroyed.
Tokyo spent $3 billion on decontamination work in 2011 and expected to spend twice that amount in 2012. The cost for decontaminating the area around the damaged reactors is projected to exceed $13 billion and take 40 years. Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama of the University of Tokyo’s Radioisotope Center projects that a responsible cleanup all the land poisoned by TEPCO’s fallout could cost nearly $10 trillion.
Although the government utterly failed to accurately inform the public about the radioactivity contained in food and certain consumer goods, Tokyo’s leaders now insist that it is safe for some refugees to leave their relocation squats and begin returning home. To justify this, Tokyo has determined that radiation levels 10 times greater than pre-accident background radiation can now be considered “safe.” Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato urged displaced residents to return to their homes and even offered returning evacuees the promise of job opportunities. These include “decontamination jobs.”
Fallout in the Waves
While the ocean’s impact on Fukushima was sudden and specific, Fukushima’s environmental impacts on the ocean will be widespread and long lasting. In the first, desperate days of the reactor calamity, the failure of emergency cooling systems on the General Electric Mark I reactors forced TEPCO to cool the seething reactor cores with seawater. With no place to store the irradiated coolant, TEPCO dumped a million gallons (11,500 tons) of seawater back into the Pacific Ocean—with radiation levels 7.5 million times the legal limit. TEPCO told the public that no more than 15,000 terabecquerels had been released into the ocean, but the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) subsequently placed the estimate closer to 27,000 terabecquerels.
China’s State Oceanic Administration reported finding nearly 100,000 square miles of the Pacific tainted with radioactive iodine, strontium, and cesium at levels 300 times above normal. (Cesium-137 is absorbed by phytoplankton, zooplankton, and kelp that are ingested by fish, marine mammals, and humans.) On December 1, 2011, the IRSN reported that the Fukushima disaster had caused the worst ocean contamination in world history—100 times greater that Chernobyl’s pollution of the Black Sea.
In the first days following the accident, nearly 13,500 terabecquerels of seaborne cesium-137 were expected to pass the Philippines before turning north and heading east along the Kuroshio current.Computer models indicated that the huge swirl of radioactive water was heading for Hawaii and could reach the West Coast of North America by early 2013. But it took only a month for airborne radioactive iodine-131 to show up in kelp beds off the West Coast; California State University scientists found levels 250 times normal in kelp sampled in the waters off southern California.
Fukushima: One Year Later
A year after the meltdowns, high levels of radioactivity continued to be found throughout Japan. In March 2012, dangerous levels of alpha radiation were reported in Iwaki City, 31 miles from Fukushima. Concentrations of cesium isotopes were rising in Tokyo Bay, and one-third of the fish caught in Onuma Lake contained dangerous levels of radioactive cesium. Meanwhile, the simmering remains of Fukushima Daiichi continued to pose a threat of airborne iodine-131 and strontium-90 exposure in the United States.
Despite Tokyo’s December 2011 announcement of a “cold shutdown” of the three damaged reactors at Fukushima, University of California researchers testing milk in the San Francisco Bay Area on January 16, 2012, continued to record rising levels of Fukushima fallout—including the highest cesium levels in six months. At the same time, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency was reporting a “radiation cloud” over the country’s east coast with radiation levels “eight times normal.” University of California tests released on February 7, 2012, showed even higher fallout levels, with radioactive cesium in Bay Area milk registering 150 percent of the EPA’s safety limit, and the April 2012 readings were nearly double the EPA limit. Researchers explained that the increase was due to the long half-lives of cesium isotopes and the fact that the milk was obtained “from a Bay Area organic dairy where the farmers are encouraged to feed their cows local grass.”
On January 24, 2012, TEPCO confirmed that radioactive cesium was still leaking from Units 1 and 3 at the rate of 70 million becquerels per hour, a 20 percent increase over December levels. Possible explanations included “agitation” stemming from the January 1 earthquake and—a more troubling prospect—leaks from broken containment vessels.
The Human Impact
A year after being driven from their homes, farms, and businesses, Japan Today reported, “tens of thousand of evacuees are still in limbo, unable to return.” More than 150,000 evacuees were forced to survive crammed inside government-run relocation camps. “Some say we can go home after 20 or 40 years,” one displaced resident complained, “but what are we going to live on until then?”
With nearly two million people demanding compensation, TEPCO offered an initial payment of 120,000 yen ($1519) per month for “mental suffering” but required evacuees to reapply for the payment every three months. TEPCO discharged some of its “obligations” with a single one-time payment of $13,045. To apply for additional reparations, survivors needed to wait six months and then fill out a 60-page TEPCO application that came with 150 pages of instructions. TEPCO offered the 1.5 million affected people living outside the exclusion zone a lump-sum payment of 80,000 yen ($1012) (400,000 yen, or $5062, for children and pregnant women), but these payments were only in effect until December 31, 2011. TEPCO insisted that anyone accepting payments had to agree not to seek additional compensation in the future—that is, when the inevitable onslaught of cancers would begin to emerge.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Japanese citizens are starting to show early symptoms of radiation poisoning, including lethargy, nausea, hair loss, skin rashes, and loss of teeth.Five months after the meltdowns, physicians at the Funabashi Futawa Hospital (located in Chiba Prefecture, 124 miles from Fukushima) were reporting “increased nosebleeds, stubborn cases of diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms in children.”On February 28, 2012, doctors reported that one-third of Fukushima’s children were found to have developed “lumps” in their thyroids.
Looking to the Future
While Japan’s new prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has pledged to pursue alternative energy, he also reserved the option to resurrect a “safe” nuclear power program. In September 2011, only six months after the Fukushima meltdowns, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Noda was “insisting that a stable electric power supply utilizing nuclear power plants is essential for economic growth.” On March 11, 2012, the first anniversary of earthquake and tsunami, Noda delivered a national address that made no reference to the ongoing nuclear crisis. It was another story when 78-year-old Emperor Akihito (who also is a world-renowned biologist) delivered a national address on the same day and proclaimed:
“As this earthquake and tsunami caused the nuclear power plant accident, those living in areas designated as the danger zone lost their homes and livelihoods…. In order for them to live there again safety, we have to overcome the problems of radioactive contamination, which is a formidable task.”
What happened next unleashed a tsunami of public anger. Japan’s corporate and state-run TV stations censored the emperor’s speech, deleting his every mention of the “nuclear power accident” and the “formidable task” of dealing with “radioactive contamination.” On March 20, demonstrators descended on the Tokyo offices of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), accusing Japan’s state-sponsored TV of silencing the emperor in order to protect the interests of the powerful nuclear industry. The censorship controversy served to further deepen the average citizen’s distrust of government, industry, and the mainstream media.
Undeterred by growing public opposition, on June 16, 2012, Noda ordered the restart of two reactors at the Ohi nuclear facility in western Japan. The fate of Japan’s other 48 idled reactors will be determined once Japan’s discredited nuclear regulatory agency is replaced by what the public hopes with be a “more independent” successor.
There are encouraging signs that the nuclear-industrial clampdown on the media is finally starting to bend under the pressure of mounting public anger. In the past, the power of the nuclear establishment has been so entrenched that, prior to Fukushima, the Japanese government legally required school textbooks to extol the virtues of “safe, clean” nuclear power. Now, as Greenpeace International blogger Christine McCann has noted, “numerous publishers have submitted requests for updates to high school textbooks . . . in order to add information about last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and the ‘myth of safety’ pertaining to nuclear power.”