Uranium’s long and shameful journey to Fukushima
The signs that all is not as it should be start gently enough: weeds appear in fields, the roadside vegetation covers signs and structures, and there are few people about. The country looks peaceful, green and sleepy. Then the radiation monitor two seats away wakes up and starts clicking.
I am on a bus heading along a narrow and winding road towards the Fukushima exclusion zone. The trip has been organised by a Japanese medical group and my fellow travellers are doctors, academics and radiation health specialists from around the world. They have come to see and hear the story behind the headlines and to bring their considerable expertise to support the continuing relief and response efforts.
Fukushima is a name known around the world since the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex was shattered and radiation scattered following the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The world held its breath as images of emergency workers in radiation suits, bewildered and fearful locals sleeping at schools and grainy aerial footage of an increasingly vulnerable reactor filled our screens and press.
While the headlines might have faded, the radiation, dislocation and complexity has not and 18 months after the meltdown this trip is part of a widespread effort in Japan to ensure that the impacts and implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are neither forgotten nor repeated.
Fukushima means ‘fortunate island’ but the region’s luck melted down alongside the reactor. Over 150,000 people cannot return to their homes and last September a United Nations special report detailed some of the massive impacts: “hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage”, “serious radioactive contamination of water, agriculture, fisheries” and “grave stress and mental trauma” to a swathe of people. Lives have been utterly disrupted and altered and the Fukushima nuclear accident was and remains a profound environmental and social tragedy.
A grandmother hosts us in her new home. The cluster of caravan park style cabins on tarmac are in every way a long way from her former life in a village. Her eyes light up and her years drop when she speaks of her three grandchildren and the three great-grandchildren due later this year. But then she is asked how often she sees them and the light fades. The interpreter stumbles, the room falls silent and we all look down and feel sad and strangely ashamed.
A doctor at a nearby medical centre tells how more than 6,000 doctors, nurses and patients were re-located there from the adjacent exclusion zone. People were sleeping everywhere he says before proudly showing the centre’s new post-evacuee carpet. As he talks a group of elderly people sit listlessly in chairs or lie in beds before a happy daytime TV game-show while the hill behind is criss-crossed with red tape that marks the areas of active decontamination work.
A farmer accepts that his current rice crop will be destroyed after harvest because it will be too contaminated. But he hopes next year’s might be better. I sit by a pond in his rice paddy as he explains his hope that if the ducks eat enough worms and grubs they might remove the radiation. No one has the heart to contradict him. Beside his house is a cedar tree that is 1,200 years old and his ancestors had the honour of supplying rice to the Shogun feudal lords. The rice from those same fields is now radioactive.
As we drive from site to site we pass skeletal abandoned greenhouses, the fields are increasingly wild, houses are empty, sheds are rotting, vehicles have grass in the wheel arches and the landscape is dotted with contaminated soil wrapped like round bale hay in blue plastic. The smaller side roads are blocked by traffic cones and stern signage both to deter looting and because many are damaged. Police and relocated residents share patrols to keep thieves away but the biggest thief is invisible: radiation has robbed this region of much of its past, present and future.
An earnest teacher is happy that the local school has re-opened but sad that while once around 250 kids used to attend, now there are 16. The local mayor picks up the theme stating, “we have very few young people or children”. Radiation hits hardest at growing cells and many concerned parents have understandably moved. The old remain and the in the absence of the young the old look older.
“We have a very serious issue with the exodus of young people,” says the mayor who is running an active campaign urging locals to return home while admitting “the accident isn’t completed”.
The manager of the local store shows us sophisticated point of sale radiation monitoring equipment and warns us against eating wild mushrooms. A doctor speaks of the lack of community confidence in the official radiation data and declares that another nuclear accident would be “the ruin of Japan”. Meanwhile, the monitor on the bus keeps clicking.
Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima
Each click counts the decay of a piece of rock dug up in Australia. In October 2011, Dr Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade admitted “that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors”. Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima.
Australian uranium is now radioactive fallout that is contaminating Japan and beyond and the response of the Australian government and the Australian uranium producers and their industry association has been profoundly and shamefully deficient. Prime Minister Gillard speaks of business as usual, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson talks of the “unfortunate incident” and the more bullish of the uranium miners have called the crisis a “sideshow”.
This denial and failure to respond to changed circumstances is in stark contrast to the views of Aboriginal landowners from where the uranium has been sourced. Yvonne Margarula, the Mirarr senior Traditional Owner of that part of Kakadu where Energy Resources of Australia’s Ranger mine is located wrote to UN Secretary General to convey her communities concerns and stated that the accident, “makes us very sad. We are all diminished by the awful events now unfolding at Fukushima”.
Arabunna man Peter Watts, whose water continues to be plundered to service BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, told a Japanese audience in Yokohama earlier this year how the company “use up the water that gives life to dig up the uranium that brings death”.
There can be no atomic business as usual in the shadow of Fukushima. The novelist Haruki Murakami has called Fukushima a massive nuclear disaster and stated “but 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. While we are the victims, we are also the perpetrators. We must fix our eyes on this fact. If we fail to do so, we will inevitably repeat the same mistake again, somewhere else.”
There is intense political debate around all things nuclear in contemporary Japan and the potential restart of the countries suspended nuclear fleet has seen unprecedented political mobilisation and action in Japan. Another growing concern relates to the human, environmental and financial cost of the massive decontamination and clean-up program and the persistent stories of cut corners, substandard subcontracting and Yakuza or organised crime connections.
One of the doctors who organised our trip put the issue sharply and starkly: “The restart debate is about nuclear power plants but it is also about democracy and the future of the nation.” The debate is live in Japan and a similar debate now needs to come alive in Australia − our shared and fragile planet’s energy future is renewable not radioactive.
We need a genuine assessment of the costs and consequences of our uranium trade. To fail to change or to learn from this tragedy is deeply disrespectful and increases the chance of Australian uranium fuelling future nuclear accidents.
Dave Sweeney is the Nuclear Free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation
Australia’s role in the Fukushima disaster
Jim Green / Friends of the Earth Australia
Sunday March 11 was the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan and the meltdowns, explosions and fires at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The impacts of the nuclear disaster have been horrendous. Over 100,000 people are still homeless and some will never be able to return. Homeless, jobless, separated from friends and family, the toll on people’s health and mental well-being has been significant − one indication being a sharp increase in suicide rates. One farmer’s suicide note simply read: “I wish there wasn’t a nuclear plant.”
Preliminary scientific estimates of the long-term cancer death toll range from some hundreds to “around 1000”. The death toll could rise significantly if many people resettle in contaminated areas. Contamination with long-lived radionuclides will persist for many generations − caesium-137 will be a concern for around 300 years.
Direct and indirect economic costs of the disaster will amount to several hundred billions dollars. It will be decades before the ruined reactors are decommissioned. Decades before the legal battles have concluded.
Come in, spinner
The Fukushima anniversary was accompanied by extraordinary spin from the nuclear industry and its supporters. They claim that no-one will die from radiation exposure from the Fukushima disaster. That could only be true if low-level radiation exposure is risk-free − a proposition rejected by expert bodies such as the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and the US Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation.
The nuclear lobby generally accepts that there have been horrendous impacts from the evacuation of over 100,000 people (in additional to the large number of evacuees whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami). They spin this issue by saying that evacuees should be allowed to return to their homes.
Sometimes government agencies are blamed for maintaining the 20 km evacuation zone. Sometimes environment groups are blamed − apparently the cruel, exploitative ‘radiophobia’ of green groups leads to governments setting unnecessarily cautious radiation protection standards. That argument is a stretch at the best of times, and completely ludicrous in Japan where nuclear ‘regulation’ has been marked by corruption, collusion, conflicts of interest, and complete indifference to the views and concerns of environment groups or the public at large.
If anything the Japanese government has been rather too keen for evacuees to return to their homes. The ‘permissible’ radiation dose has been raised from 1 millisievert per year to 20 mSv. To give a sense of the hazard involved, if 50,000 people are exposed to 20 mSv/year for five years, about 250 fatal cancers would result. For any individual receiving that radiation dose over five years, the risk of fatal cancer is about one in 200.
Evacuees want the option of returning to contaminated areas if they so choose or moving elsewhere if they choose. They want financial support to help them through the current period and to resettle in their old homes or to find new ones. They want to see a decent clean-up of contaminated areas to reduce future radiation exposure. And they want those responsible for the disaster to be held to account.
Environment groups and other NGOs have been supporting evacuees in their many battles to achieve the above outcomes. NGOs have been active in the clean-up operations. They have actively fundraised to support disaster relief efforts. NGOs such as the Tokyo-based Citizens Nuclear Information Centre (cnic.jp/english) have played a vital role in providing expert information in circumstances where, for good reasons, no-one trusts the government or Fukushima plant operator TEPCO or the so-called nuclear regulator.
The nuclear lobby is right that many Japanese are suffering from anxiety as a result of the Fukushima disaster. But that’s not a result of NGO ‘radiophobia’ − it is an understandable reaction to the circumstances people face. It’s difficult to know whether food or milk is contaminated. The radioactive fallout from the Fukushima disaster has been highly uneven − even within a small area the radiation readings can vary by orders of magnitude. Compensation has been too little, too late. The clean-up has been slow and contentious.
All that human misery as a result of an easily preventable disaster.
Whereas the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 were natural disasters, Fukushima was a man-made disaster. TEPCO failed to adequately prepare for and protect against earthquakes and tsunamis. The Japanese government’s Investigation Committee is blunt about the company’s culpability: “The nuclear disaster prevention program had serious shortfalls. It cannot be excused that the nuclear accidents could not be managed because of an extraordinary situation that the tsunamis exceeded the assumption.”
TEPCO’s greatest failure was that it did not properly protect back-up power generators from flooding. Without back-up generators to maintain reactor cooling, it was only a matter of time before the situation spiralled out of control as it so dramatically did with a succession of meltdowns, fires and explosions in the days after March 11.
There is no dispute that Australian uranium was used in the Fukushima reactors. The mining companies won’t acknowledge that fact − instead they hide behind bogus claims of ‘commercial confidentiality’ and ‘security’. But the truth is out. The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office acknowledged in October that: “We can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors – maybe five out of six, or it could have been all of them”.
It is likely that TEPCO has been supplied with uranium from BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine, ERA’s Ranger mine, and Heathgate’s Beverley mine.
Yuki Tanaka from the Hiroshima Peace Institute noted: “Japan is not the sole nation responsible for the current nuclear disaster. From the manufacture of the reactors by GE to provision of uranium by Canada, Australia and others, many nations are implicated.”
Mirarr senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula said she is “deeply saddened” that uranium from the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory has been exported to Japanese nuclear power companies including TEPCO.
No such humility from the uranium companies. They get tetchy at any suggestion of culpability, with the Australian Uranium Association describing it as “opportunism in the midst of human tragedy” and “utter nonsense”.
Moreover, the Association said: “The Australian uranium industry has led the global nuclear industry’s efforts to create a framework of stewardship for the safe and responsible management of uranium throughout the nuclear fuel cycle.”
Led the effort to create a framework of stewardship for meaningless rhetoric, more like it. Here’s an example of the sort of gibberish they come up with: “When the principle is actively applied, Stewardship becomes a driver for innovation in the ways we view our businesses and operate them. … Leading companies will see Stewardship not as a compliance issue but as a means to shape their future operational processes, products, services and relationships.”
To translate: uranium ‘stewardship’ means flogging off uranium, counting the money, flogging off more uranium, counting more money.
Scandals and accidents
Australia’s uranium industry did nothing as TEPCO lurched from scandal to scandal and accident to accident over the past decade. It did nothing in 2002 when it was revealed that TEPCO had systematically and routinely falsified safety data and breached safety regulations for 25 years or more.
The industry did nothing in 2007 when over 300 incidents of ‘malpractice’ at Japan’s nuclear plants were revealed (104 of them at nuclear power plants). It did nothing even as the ability of Japan’s nuclear plants to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis came under growing criticism from industry insiders and independent experts. It did nothing about the multiple conflicts of interest plaguing the Japanese nuclear ‘regulator’.
Australia could have played a role in breaking the vicious cycle of mismanagement in Japan’s nuclear industry by making uranium exports conditional on improved management of nuclear plants and tighter regulation. Even a strong public statement of concern would have been heard by the Japanese utilities (unless it was understood to be rhetoric for public consumption) and it would have registered in the Japanese media.
But the uranium industry did nothing. And since the industry is in denial about its role in fuelling the Fukushima disaster, there is no reason to believe that it will behave more responsibly in future.
Successive Australian governments have done nothing about the unacceptable standards in Japan’s nuclear industry. And since Prime Minister Gillard said the Fukushima disaster “doesn’t have any impact on my thinking about uranium exports”, there is no reason to believe that the government will behave more responsibly in future.
The Australian Uranium Associated issued a media release on March 8 titled: “Nuclear industry takes Fukushima opportunity to demonstrate transparency and responsibility”.
In fact the industry has lacked transparency − refusing even to acknowledge whether it supplied uranium to TEPCO. Nor has the industry been responsible − it has brought shame to all Australians by turning a blind eye to serious problems in customer countries and responding with mock indignation when anyone calls its bluff.
Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia and author of a detailed March 2012 briefing paper on the events leading up to the Fukushima disaster, online at https://nuclear.foe.org.au/power/