The Fukushima shock

by Stéphane Dion

fukishima plantThe Honourable Stéphane Dion has been a Member of Canada’s Parliament, representing the Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent – Cartierville since 1996. During that period, he held various Cabinet portfolios. From 2004 to 2005, he was Minister of the Environment and as such, was instrumental in securing one of the greenest budgets in the history of Canada. In 2005, as Chair of the eleventh United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-11), held in Montreal, he contributed to the rescue of the Kyoto Protocol. In 2006, he was elected as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and thus became Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. In the 2008 election, he proposed a visionary plan to green Canada’s economy and strengthen the fight against climate change: the Green Shift.

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.

Stephane Dion
Stephane Dion

Imagine your home, your car, your property and 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 cast 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 15-metre 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-kilometre area – 8% 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.

police at protest in Japan
Anti-Nuclear protests in Fukushima, Japan

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 Gorbachev following the Rio Summit. It is active in some 30 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 30 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 10 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 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 about 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 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 30 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 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%) 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% increase. The Members of Parliament I met told me 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 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 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?

Fukashima image © Vampy1

police photo © Mike K.

14 thoughts on “The Fukushima shock”

  1. The UN estimates that around 7.5 million people die due to the smoke from fossil fuel and biomass energy. That’s more deaths *every day* than from every nuclear energy accident combined. By displacing fossil fuels, Fukushima saved far more lives than it accidentally took.

    • Dear Karl,
      The usual nuclearist defense is that fossil fuel kills many more today than nuclear will TODAY. Probably true, but it will NOT cause the extinction of most of life on earth.
      Eventually, the earth will rehabilitate from the evils of fossil fuels.
      Let’s say that the residual of “oil” (half Life?) is 20,000 years; the tonnes of U240 U239 U241 have a half life of 24,000 years at a minimum, lets not forget Americium and Neptunium and Plutonium have half lives of hundreds of thousands of years and bio-accumulate for hundreds of thousands of years beyond that.
      The Daiichi Plant meltdowns are manmade, and a catastrophic, extinction level, incident.
      Eventually, the other 50 plants will suffer the same fate. The earth is geologically unstable, Japan is the worst of all.
      OIL is “bad”, Nuclear is “evil”.
      no more lies about the nuclear “dream” it is as bad as oil could ever be- but nuclear is oil on BALCO.

      • @B Blaney: Spent nuclear fuel declines in its level of radioactivty by a factor of around 10,000 in around a decade.

        Three Fukushima reactors melted down and lost containment, and killed less people than fossil fuels and biomass kill every minute or so. You classifying that as catastrophic and “extinction level” is either delusional, or a sign that you’re paid by non-nuclear energy producers to spout nonsense.

  2. It is a tragedy that so many people were evacuated that did not need to be, radiophobia is a scary thing. Too many people make too much money from fear. Fear sells and gathers votes, it is a shame politicians looking for money and power exploit Fukushima in this way.

  3. M. Dion, Merci to finally talk about and bring to Canada and the rest of the world the sad reality of Fukushima, … and of Japan. TEPCO and the nuclear industry are a very tight knitted and very powerful organization around the world. There are so many lies (from saying it’s safe to using outdated and wrong studies to support inhumane decisions) and so many innocent victims (especially the kids in Fukushima), I’m glad finally someone brings it here. I was in Japan for more than 10 years and left with my young children, and I’m always afraid everyday that they may get sick this year or the next one, as we were exposed for a year (cooking pasta with bottled water… ). It would be a pleasure to talk about this as I’ve been reading and researching on this subject since March 11, 2011. Not much has been accomplished since then, considering how serious the situation was, is and will be for the coming 2-3 decades. It’s everyday, its millions of water contamination, without a solution and yet… nobody reports or talks about it! Thank you again for raising awareness.

  4. For this very reason that my family left North America. It was an easy choice compared to the inevitable. I feel sorry and helpless to those who didn’t. I’m done warning my friends and families.

  5. Many greetings from Fukushima prefecture.

    And thank you very much for telling the truth for the devastated Fukushima residents.
    I do appreciate the great efforts of all of you.

    Let us pray for a better future for ALL the affected people in Fukushima and around the world who are already suffering enough from the radiation.

    Sincerely yours.

  6. This is an impressive assessment. Little wonder Stephan was gassed by the Liberal Party hacks. All Parties are beholden to the Nuclear Cartel.
    The party must have gotten a whiff of his “doubt” about the “nuclear dream” so they had to push him out to make room for Michael “Westinghouse” Ignatieff.
    Dion was/is obviously not “on message” about Nuclearism.
    You must be a fully fledged Nuclearist to be a Party Leader so you can pledge allegiance to manmade ionizing radiation; ignoring your health, your children’s, and your pets.
    Too bad you have to be out of the government to speak against the nuclear cartel.
    The death dust came here too, and just like the USS Ronald Reagan, we in North America are being irradiated by the Fukushima NPP fallout.
    AND IT IS NOT OVER, by a long shot.
    This is fission outside of containment, and at least three full core meltdowns.
    Meanwhile, the CNSC shuts down public input (public is not a “stakeholder”, just taxpayers)that questions the industry plans.
    You cannot forget the complicity of the mainstream media who have deliberately participated in the greatest cover of the worst industrial/environmental accident in the history of man.
    TEPCO will have to pump trillions of gallons of water from the Pacific Ocean over the white hot corium(s) and spent fuel pools, for many more decades, and then send this polluted water directly back in the pacific to flow in ocean currents to our western shores and beyond.
    People say; “well, what are you going to do about it?”
    Truth, is not much; except we could start hanging the n power industry leaders for incompetence. At least we could count on the “capital punishment message” improving the safety record at facilities while we figure out what to do with the waste.
    Or we could just keep paying the n power industry workers 5 times (or more) than the average wage of any Canadian worker (not even including benefits”)
    Keep it up Stephan.

    • Spot on. I would even go further and state that no one that is not chosen and approved by the Nuclear/M/I/S/Complex will ever be (s)elected into office.

    • He was gassed by Jack Layton who ran attack ads against him and the carbon tax during the 2008 election. Never forget.


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