Three months after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan, new radiation "hot spots" may require the evacuation of more areas further from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has now admitted for the first time that full nuclear meltdowns occurred at three of the plant’s reactors, and more than doubled its estimate for the amount of radiation that leaked from the plant in the first week of the disaster in March.
A recent law school graduate, Takanori Eto, has become the first to file a lawsuit against the Japanese government over its handling of the crisis.
Eto said: “There are dangers inherent in the government’s nuclear policy ... We also found out that, even after the accident, the Japanese government was unable to properly protect its people.
“So I decided, rather than remain silent, I needed to bring to light these lapses in judgment in a lawsuit.”
There have been media reports that the harsh economic conditions are driving labourers to Fukushima for work at the plant despite the dangers. In early June, a robot sent into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility detected the highest levels of radiation since the onset of the crisis.
Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, from United States-based progressive media outlet Democracy Now!, spoke on June 10 to Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser to the US Secretary of Energy and a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Japanese activist Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Green Action.
The interview is abridged from www.democracynow.org .
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What does the news of three full-scale meltdowns mean?
Rovert Alvarez:: I think it means that the accident was much more severe [than first acknowledged], and its radiological consequences are going to unfold in a more serious way. The contamination of land nearby, or not so nearby, is proving quite extensive.
The reports that I’ve seen suggest that land contamination, in terms of areas that are technically uninhabitable because of cesium-137 contamination, is roughly 600 square kilometers, or about 17 times the size of Manhattan Island.
Aileen Mioko Smith: There is an incredible concern [in Japan], especially among parents in Fukushima prefecture. But concern is now spreading among parents in Tokyo, which is quite a far from Fukushima.
What’s been happening is that citizens have been monitoring [the fall out]. And after they find high levels [of radioactive contamination], they demand local authorities and the government look at those contaminated areas. Then the government looks, and it is contaminated.
So it’s very much citizen-oriented. There are people going in all the time. There are radiation monitors all over.
And a new study is being done by the Fukushima prefecture?
AMS:Yes, we’re very concerned that a health study is starting at the end of June. This concerns the effects on Fukushima residents. It’s headed by a Dr. Shunichi Yamashita, who’s at the Atomic Bomb Research Institute. He’s the radiological health safety risk management adviser for the prefecture and always says there’s absolutely no concern with the levels of radiation in Fukushima.
He says that mothers, even mothers exposed to 100 millisieverts of radiation and even pregnant mothers, will not suffer any health effects.
The Soviet Union required a mandatory evacuation during the Chernobyl disaster at an exposure level of five millisieverts.
This doctor is quoted as saying: “The effects of radiation do not come to people that are happy and laughing. They come to people that are weak-spirited, that brood and fret.”
And he’s heading the study. So, the citizens in Fukushima are very concerned.
RA: My report dealt with the vulnerabilities and hazards of stored spent fuel at US reactors in the US. The US shares similar reactor designs as the Japanese reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station.
The explosions at the Daiichi station showed that the spent fuel pools were exposed to the open sky. We, in the US, are storing as many as three to four, five times more radioactivity in our pools than in Japan. The amount of radioactivity that we are storing in unsafe, vulnerable pools constitutes the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.
In 2008, my colleagues and I issued a report after the 9/11 attacks. We became very concerned about the vulnerability of these pools and pointed out that if somebody or something were to cause the water to drain, it would lead to a catastrophic radiological fire that could render an area uninhabitable far greater than that created by Chernobyl.
Chernobyl created an area that’s currently uninhabitable that’s about the size of half of the state of New Jersey.
We don’t have a final resting place for these wastes. We’ve been trying to find a disposal site for these wastes for the past 55 years. These wastes are going to continue to accumulate at US sites, and the reactor operators are going to continue to squeeze spent fuel into pools that have nowhere near the level of protection of reactors. These pools are contained in structures that you would find at car dealerships or big box stores.
Greenpeace has been reporting that dangerous contamination levels have been found as far as 50 miles out from the shore. What has been happening with the fishing industry in Japan and the reaction to the possible contamination of huge swaths of the ocean off the coast?
AMS: There are estimates the ocean contamination is 10 times greater than Chernobyl.
The National Fisheries Association came out very early on after the accident demanding the closure of all nuclear power plants in Japan. This is an incredible statement, because the industry has never been concerned about nuclear power before.
Can you talk about changes in Japan about what is considered acceptable radiation limits at schools?
AMS:: There’s been a big fight. Fukushima residents came to Tokyo in busloads on May 23 and met with the education ministry. The whole building was encircled by people as negotiations went on inside the building.
The residents made the ministry say they would aim for returning the level considered safe back down to the one millisievert standard as much as possible, compared to the twentyfold increase that they were allowing in Fukushima prefecture for the children.
Twenty millisieverts is much higher than what triggers a radiation-controlled area inside nuclear power plants. In Japan, workers have been able to get compensation for exposure to levels as low as five millisieverts.
We demanded that it be brought down as close to one. They agreed.
In these disasters, the public often confronts governments that misrepresent, or even lie about the scale and effects of such disasters. This occurred in the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, at Chernobyl, with the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and now Japan. Doesn’t this lead to general mistrust in what governments is saying in these disasters?
RA: Yes, of course. I think the nuclear industry has a very long history of withholding information and misleading the public about the hazards of its activities. It doesn't consider it in its interest to be candid with the public.
I worked in the energy department for six years and was a former “nuclear insider”. And the mindset I encountered was that “we can’t scare people”.
The US nuclear industry says it doesn’t expect any health problems among Japanese people as a result of the nuclear accident?
RA: It’s just public relations arm waving, because we won’t know what the full truth will be for decades to come. We do know that based on past accidents, such as Chernobyl, there is bound to be a significant increase in the risk of cancer, and most likely other diseases.
The Soviet Union claimed that about 50 million curies of radioactivity was released into the environment. This is roughly comparable to what the Japanese government has so far admitted.
[The Fukushima Daiichi plant] continues to release significant amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, nowhere near as large as during the first week or two, but still quite significant.
I was astounded to learn that about 5000 workers [from the plant] have positive evidence of internal exposure to radioactive materials. This is a huge number of people to be exposed over such a short period of time.
The impact on the workforce, the emergency workers, is something we need to watch very closely. That will give us some important clues about what we might expect for the health consequences to the public.
News reports say that there’s no trouble recruiting people to go and work on the cleanup because of the high pay that they’re offering and also the economic dislocation as a result of the tsunami and the nuclear accident
AMS: Yes, that's correct. We’re very concerned for the health of the workers. The knowledge that so many workers have received internal exposure is also a concern for the public.
The Japanese government refuses to recognise any potential internal exposure of the residents of Fukushima. Citizens have demanded whole body counts. A few have actually been able to get them at the Atomic Bomb Research Institute, but are refused the results.
They’re just told “no problem” but aren’t given the data. They’re demanding that the data be released.
This is still an ongoing accident. At Fukushima, there is still an exposed spent fuel pool.
We’re concerned about possible aftershocks. There are people that are still living 12 miles outside of the radius of the plant.
And that’s why we’re demanding the evacuation of residents ― pregnant women and young children.