I was fortunate to participate earlier this month in a study tour to Fukushima, Japan and the surrounding evacuation zones, organized by Green Cross Switzerland. There were 35 of us from the US, Europe, and Asia, including several Swiss and other parliamentarians, and we were joined by our colleagues from Green Cross Japan. Green Cross continues to be very involved in helping the large refugee populations surrounding both the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophes in the Ukraine and Japan respectively.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011 was catalyzed by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami which hit the east coast of Japan. Three of the six nuclear power reactors (Units 1, 2 & 3) at the Daiichi site experienced severe damage, what some would call a nuclear meltdown, and released hydrogen and radioactive materials in massive explosions and fires. Reactor Unit 4, which was shut down and undergoing maintenance at the time, did not melt down but lost cooling water for its large spent nuclear fuel pool which ignited shortly thereafter, also spewing radiation from its 1,500 nuclear fuel rods.
Over three and a half years later, this nuclear catastrophe continues to threaten a large portion of Japan and its inhabitants. Some 160,000 Japanese citizens remain evacuated from an area of over 47,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles), about the size of Massachusetts and Vermont combined. Radiation must still be carefully measured and monitored throughout this region, and we were all surprised to see solar-powered highway displays for real-time radiation readings, different from the typical speed readings along US highways.
The study group was able to visit with families who have been evacuated from this region, all wondering if they’ll ever be able to return to their homes. When they evacuated over 43 months ago they had to leave everything behind – houses, clothes, furniture, and cars. Because all of these things are suspected of being too radioactive, they may never be able to recover any of their personal belongings left behind. Our dosimeters and Geiger counters continued to display higher-than-normal radiation readings well over twenty kilometers away from the reactors, and we had to leave a few “hot spots” when readings spiked. We were told that the radiation readings were about 3 microsieverts/hour shortly after the accident, but were now reduced by about 50%. The readings we saw were in the 0.2-0.5 microsieverts/hour; very low but still a serious risk if one were to live full-time in the evacuated and irradiated area.
These evacuated families are continuing to live in tiny trailers set up by the Japanese government in cities such as Koriyama, over fifty kilometers from the Daiichi reactors in the Fukushima Prefecture, and about a 3-hour drive north of Tokyo. A city of some 300,000 people, Koriyama still advertises itself as a city in “harmony between people and environment” and one “full of frontier spirit.” However, since the March 2011 nuclear disaster, most evacuees refuse to allow their children to play outside, given the ongoing elevated radiation readings, so the city has now developed large indoor playgrounds to allow children to exercise. While some of these concerns about the long-term impact of low-level radiation may be unfounded, many Japanese remain very distressed about the largely unknown health consequences of radiation and are reluctant to return home, should parts of the evacuation zones be re-opened in the future. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed an estimated 15,900 people, and there are still 2,600 missing persons. Thyroid cancer, especially among children, has also spiked, far above prior estimates, and a recent Japanese government report estimates that physical losses will total over $200 billion. This will no doubt mean that almost one-eighth of Japan’s territory may take decades or centuries to recover from the 2011 catastrophe.
A nuclear engineer who used to work with General Electric, Tepco, and Toshiba on boiling water reactors and lived a few kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi site warned that radiation remained very high in Daiichi reactors 1-3 which suffered meltdowns, and there still remain enormous challenges about how best to clean the site, dispose of radioactive water, and cool down the fuel bundles. He also worried about the vulnerability of the Daiichi reactors and fuel pools to future typhoons, tsunamis, and other possible disasters that could still further exacerbate the current dangerous situation. He added that fish remain contaminated at least within an 80 kilometer radius, and that it will take at least three decades just to remove the nuclear fuel from the site. Everywhere we looked in the evacuated zone, we could see hundreds of large plastic bags of contaminated debris, including soil and vegetation, which no one yet knows how to handle or store for the longer term.
Our few days spent in Japan this month have been a sobering experience about the dangers and costs of nuclear power, the enormous and long-term socio-economic and humanitarian impacts of the nuclear fallout from the reactor meltdowns, and the unknown public health risks to millions of Japanese citizens. As one citizen commented, “we never imagined that radiation would reach us, some 58 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, falling like snow in Koriyama City. But it did, and we never want to see another nuclear power plant operating in Japan.”
Images by Jeff Duncan