The Fukushima Shock

  • National Newswatch

(Français)Seeing Fukushima's evacuated area is quite a shock. It is one thing to imagine it, another to see the consequences of the nuclear disaster with your own eyes.Imagine: your home, your car, your property, your neighbourhood suddenly becoming forbidden areas. You are not allowed to go there except perhaps for an hour or two, from time to time.  Although the surrounding woods are as green and the ocean as blue as ever, an invisible blanket of death covers everything. You can't feel it, you can't smell it but it is there and will be for decades, perhaps longer.Going back home would put your health at risk. You are not even sure you escaped the danger zone in time. You fear for your family's as well as your own health. The specter of cancer haunts you constantly. What does the future hold for you? Leukemia? Thyroid cancer? A deformed baby?If you are allowed to stay home – because your neighbourhood is deemed to be distant enough from the danger zone – you are warned to not let your children play outdoors. Arenas are being built and designated for that purpose.Your daughter is heartbroken: she was going to marry a young man from another area but the wedding has been cancelled – an irradiated mother-to-be is not wanted.You are a farmer but are not allowed to sell your produce, now unfit for human consumption.You are a fisherman but the area where you once casted your nets is now banned.Those are but a few of the multiple aspects of the nightmare being lived by the denizens of Fukushima Prefecture, Northern Japan. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a huge tsunami that threw fifteen meter waves at the region, claiming 1,599 lives, destroying everything in its path and causing a nuclear accident of a magnitude unequalled since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Three reactors suffered a catastrophic meltdown and a fourth was damaged, spewing radiation in the atmosphere and ocean and contaminating a 30,000 square kilometer area – 8 percent of Japan's total land area. As a result of that nuclear disaster, 300,000 Fukushima Prefecture residents were evacuated. 130,000 are still forbidden to go home.I met some of those families while in Japan from September 30 to October 8, 2014, when I was invited by the Swiss section of the Green Cross to take stock of the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Green Cross was founded in 1993 by Mikhail Gorbatchev, following the Rio Summit. It is active in some thirty countries and one of its many noteworthy features is the attention it pays to environmental safety and security – including victims of nuclear accidents. The Green Cross is very involved in Fukushima, helping the displaced families as best it can.The Swiss section of the Green Cross gathered some thirty environmentalists and political figures from America, Europe and Asia to study the consequences of the Fukushima disaster. We travelled to a section of the evacuated area, the Resident Restriction Zone, taking all necessary precautions. The most dangerous area, the No Return Zone, cannot be visited – no decontamination has been done there. On a supposedly decontaminated street in the small town of Tomioka, we were told to get back on the bus after ten minutes because the radiation level was too high. We visited abandoned houses and businesses and witnessed the ongoing decontamination work which employs five to six thousand workers every day.Safety and security rules are two to five times stricter than those that were put in place by the Russian, Bielorussian and Ukrainian authorities following the Chernobyl accident. Cancer cases have been identified but direct causal links with the nuclear accident may not even be identifiable before 2016.The scientists who spoke to us on the health impacts of radiation are not all of the same mind on the issue, even though these impacts have been studied since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. But assuming we accept their most optimistic assessments, what does it change? Even if you are told that the radiation might be less harmful, less likely to induce cancer in the long term than what had previously been believed, would you wholeheartedly accept to live in an irradiated region?When the authorities distribute pamphlets in schools explaining that radiation is not that much of a problem, they raise more controversy than they provide reassurance. So people seek information on their own. They talk about the relative harmfulness of caesium 137, cobalt 60, plutonium 239, strontium 90… However, as it stands, psychosocial impacts have killed more people than radiation: some 1,660 lives have been lost to posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety, depression, family dislocation, precarious living conditions, displacement and suicide resulting from evacuation.We met with the Fukushima region local authorities and Members of Parliament from the ruling party in Tokyo. We were told about the measures that have been taken to help and compensate displaced persons, and to carry out food and drinking water inspection, site decontamination, radiation level monitoring and management of fast accumulating radioactive wastes and contaminated soil.The cooling water used in the Daiichi plant reactors needs to be stored somewhere. It is estimated that if all goes well, some thirty years will be needed to remove the radioactive fuel from the reactors. In the meantime, a way must be found to prevent the fuel from leaking again into the ground and ocean. All that calls for highly trained personnel and huge expenses including, paradoxically, for electrical power. But to what avail? Some municipal representatives told us that the technology is not up to par and that radioactive leaks continue to happen, contaminating the Pacific Ocean waters and fish stocks. Interim solutions are still being applied to a problem that will be around for decades and risks affecting many neighbouring populations in Japan and elsewhere.Following the Fukushima accident, Japan shut down its 54 nuclear reactors. These accounted for over a quarter (29 percent) of Japan's electrical power production. This energy source had to be replaced with wind and solar energy but above all, by imported hydrocarbons – natural gas and coal. A consequence of this increased reliance on hydrocarbons is that Japan, which had committed to a 25% reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, now forecasts a 3 percent increase. The Members of Parliament I met told me that the Japanese Government will not commit to a new reduction target for 2030 until the future of nuclear energy is settled.It costs almost as much to keep the nuclear plants dormant as when they were running. For the time being, the government is thinking of restarting two nuclear reactors in Southern Japan, based on what it believes to be an extremely prudent and thorough scientific assessment. But quite understandably, that perspective raises much resistance and apprehension in the population.One of the most unfortunate consequences of the Fukushima disaster is a weakening, in a large segment of Japan's population, of the trust between the people and their government. The Japanese appeared to me as I imagined them: smiling, courteous, hardworking, inventive, disciplined and very respectful of authority. Historically, in previous occurrences of the type of natural disaster that regularly strikes the country – typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions – they have viewed the government as a protective father or mother figure. But after the Fukushima nuclear accident, for the first time, the government's good faith has been cast into doubt. Hadn't it promised that such an accident would never happen? The failures of Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission and the now proven falsifications perpetrated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – owner of the power plant – have been pointed out. To avert a panic, the government kept making reassuring statements which were cast into doubt and perceived as a form of manipulation, generating a feeling of resentment and bitterness that is still very strong today.Yet even in adversity, humour – or at least bitter irony – finds its place. Some Japanese will tell you the story of the TEPCO scientist who, in an attempt to reassure the population, went as far as to declare: "Smiling people are not affected by radiation. Only worried people are. That has been proved in animal testing."It would be hard to find a country that combines, better than Japan, strong organization skills, individual and collective discipline, social cohesion and technological expertise. Japan thought it was immune to nuclear disaster. Yet it happened, albeit as a result of an unprecedented natural disaster. What country can feel assured that it would have dealt better with the consequences of such a crisis than Japan? When you think that some much less organized or politically stable countries than Japan also want their own nuclear plants, how can you not think that we are rolling the dice? Explosive dice!Fukushima is here to testify to the damage an overly reckless humankind can inflict on itself. Will we know how to draw the right conclusions?Stéphane Dion was Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs between 1996 and 2003, longer than any other Canadian since Confederation. In that capacity, he was instrumental in bringing countless federal-provincial negotiations to fruition and played a major role in the promotion of Canadian unity. As Minister also responsible for Official Languages, he crafted a renewal plan that was very well received in the community.As Minister of the Environment from 2004 to 2005, he secured one of the greenest budgets in the history of Canada and contributed to the rescue of the Kyoto Protocol while chairing the UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Montreal in 2005.In 2006, having been elected as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and having become Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, he proposed a visionary plan to make Canada richer, fairer and greener. Following the 2008 election, he retained his seat as Member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, a seat he has won seven times in a row since 1996.At the present time, Mr. Dion acts as Liberal Critic for Intergovernmental Affairs, the Queen's Privy Council of Canada, Canadian Heritage and Official Languages.