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. More than 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 rise 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 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 about 300 years.
Direct and indirect economic costs of the disaster will amount to several hundred billion dollars. It will be decades before the ruined reactors are decommissioned and decades before the legal battles have concluded.
The Fukushima anniversary was accompanied by extraordinary spin from the nuclear industry and its supporters. They claimed no one would 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 (on top of the large number of evacuees whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami). They spin this issue by saying evacuees should be allowed to return to their homes.
Sometimes government agencies are blamed for maintaining the 20 kilometre 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. But it is 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 a year to 20 millisieverts.
To give a sense of the hazard involved, if 50,000 people are exposed to 20 millisieverts a year for five years, about 250 fatal cancers would likely 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 supported evacuees in their many battles to achieve these outcomes. NGOs have been active in the clean-up operations. They have actively raised funds to support disaster relief efforts.
NGOs such as the Tokyo-based Citizens Nuclear Information Centre have played a vital role in providing expert information in circumstances where, for good reasons, no one trusts the government, 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 is a result of an easily preventable disaster.
Whereas the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 were natural disasters, Fukushima was a human-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 was 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 comes from the uranium companies. They get tetchy at any suggestion of culpability, with the Australian Uranium Association (AUA) 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 and 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 more than 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 the future.
Successive Australian governments have done nothing about the unacceptable standards in Japan’s nuclear industry. And since Prime Minister Julia 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 AUA 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 briefing paper on the events leading up to the Fukushima disaster available at Friends of the Earth's website.]