Learning the tragic lesson of Fukushima: No nuclear restart at Sendai

Bags of contaminated soil, mud and grass at a playground of an elementary school in Iitate village. 10/27/2014 © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace

In March 2011, Japan suffered the worst nuclear catastrophe in a generation, with triple reactor core meltdowns and exploded containment buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The catastrophe was a stern warning about the perils of depending on nuclear power.

Legislation to promote renewable energy has meant the number of solar power installations has rocketed. With reactors going offline and being unable to restart due in large part to public opposition, Japanese citizens have enjoyed over a year in which no nuclear power plant has operated.

This progress could be reversed if the Abe administration gets its way and begins restarting reactors. The first two to be promoted for restart are at the Sendai nuclear plant in the Kagoshima prefecture, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. These proposed restarts are not a done deal, as some news reports have suggested. Greenpeace wants Governor Ito and his officials in Kagoshima to respect the opinion of the majority of the prefecture’s residents – and the Japanese public at large – and step in to keep Sendai closed.

It’s a simple question of public safety: no reactors should be restarted. And especially not the two at Sendai which are situated in a coastal seismic zone next to a super volcano.

I was a member of the team of Greenpeace radiation experts that went to the Fukushima disaster zone 10 days after the catastrophe to investigate and expose the extent of radioactive contamination.

This week, we returned to Fukushima prefecture to continue to document the continuing nuclear crisis. Seeing the tragic reality of the people living there made us think about the people living in the shadow of the Sendai reactors.

A nuclear disaster is an unsolvable problem and ordinary people end up paying when they lose their livelihoods and communities.

Decontamination efforts at Fukushima, which began in 2012, have proved massively expensive and hugely intensive. Thousands of workers have invested tens of thousands of hours removing soil and cleaning houses, unfortunately with very limited success.

One result of the decontamination effort is clearly visible. Immense quantities of radioactive waste have been generated, and it keeps on multiplying. Along the roads, piles of large black bags. each holding around a cubic metre of radioactive waste, await transport to larger temporary storage sites.

We visited one of these sites in Kawauchi. In the breathtakingly beautiful setting of forests and mountains our first sight was of an immense area filled with bag upon bag of radioactive waste. At just this one site no less than 200,000 of these cubic-metre bags lie covered by green tarpaulins.

Around Fukushima there are thousands of similar nuclear waste storage sites.

The supposed ‘decontamination’ has succeeded only in relocating the radioactive contamination. It’s a huge problem without any real, safe solution.

Even these large-scale efforts are proving inadequate in lowering radiation exposure levels to government targets. As evacuation orders are lifted, people are moving back into areas that are still dangerously contaminated. Many residents are effectively being forced to return home, because within a year of the order to return they risk losing their already meagre compensation. Those living in contaminated areas face a terrible dilemma.

This week we again visited Myiakoji, the first village to have its evacuation order lifted. We were there a year ago when former residents were beginning to come to terms with the impact of the lifting of the evacuation order. 

Last year our monitoring work found radiation levels were still higher than the government target despite a decontamination effort that had involved more than a thousand workers whose focus was on 200 homes.

A member of the Greenpeace radiation monitoring team measures the level of radiation in front of Miyoko Watanabe's original house in the Miyakoji district of Tamura City. 10/25/2014 © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace

Little in Myiakoji has changed. Radiation levels are similar to those in 2013. Of 5,600 measurements we took along the road, 34% were above the government’s radiation target. Away from the roads, where no decontamination had been undertaken, we discovered considerably higher radiation levels.

In Kawauchi, another area where the evacuation order was lifted only a few weeks ago, 59% of our radiation measurements were over the target level and, again, we measured higher levels away from the roads.

Many of those who can afford to are staying away. Like Mrs. Watanabe who will never return to her beautiful home and mountain orchard that have been heavily contaminated by the Fukushima disaster. They are lost to her forever. She would rather live in relative safety in a tiny flat, and bear the heavy cost of building a new house elsewhere, than put her health at risk by returning to her mountain home and the land that she once so cherished. 

It’s the same story in Fukushima City, 60 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Initial measurements we took in a parking lot suggested it had been well-decontaminated. Compared to last year this was the first real progress of decontamination that we had observed.

But six metres from our first measurement point radiation levels jumped to way above the government target. There we found the ground was contaminated with approximately twelve and a half times more radioactive caesium than the level which would lead the Japanese government to classify it as radioactive waste. Officially, the levels of radioactivity in this parking lot would demand wearing radiation protection and approval by authorities to handle it.

As with everywhere else undergoing decontamination operations, radioactive waste is piled up throughout Fukushima City. On the outskirts, much of it has been shovelled into what were once citizens’ gardens.

We also returned to the village of Iitate. We’d taken measurements back in 2011, ten days after the start of the disaster, when citizens had not yet been evacuated. It was still heavily contaminated, having suffered the full extent of the explosions at Fukushima with no shelter from any surrounding mountains that could have blocked some of the radioactive fallout.

The first thing that struck me on returning to Iitate was the heavy traffic – only this time the cars were mostly full of decontamination workers, and the trucks were filled with radioactive waste. Hundreds of workers were labouring intensively in a vain attempt at decontamination. At a rough guess, I would say that over 1,000 workers are engaged in trying to decontaminate this one place.

It appears to be a political operation, one designed to give the impression that even after a nuclear disaster the problem is “manageable”. Radiation levels in Iitate show no prospect of falling to what is deemed acceptable. At no less than 96% of the locations we monitored radiation levels that exceeded the government’s target level.

This is the overwhelming and unsolvable nature of a nuclear crisis. When a major nuclear disaster occurs, the damage is long-lived, pervasive, and impossible to rectify. It generates enormous amounts of waste for which there is no safe storage. It literally destroys entire communities and people’s way of life.

Fukushima’s citizens are having to live with the gross injustice of having lost everything to a nuclear disaster for which they were in no way responsible. Now they are being stripped of the meagre and inadequate support they received as they are effectively forced back into radioactively contaminated areas.

They are being offered up purely for political reasons amid the Japanese government’s effort to restart nuclear reactors. From the perspective of public safety and human rights there is only one just and fair policy: if citizens do not want to return to contaminated communities, where they cannot work safely in the fields or forests as many once did, they should receive adequate compensation that allows them to establish new lives for themselves elsewhere.

But, if the Abe government gets its way, not only will more Fukushima victims be stripped of their already inadequate compensation, but more Japanese citizens will continue to live with the looming threat of a similar disaster and the same grossly unjust and inhumane fate.

Japan has been nuclear-free for over a year, and no electricity blackouts have occurred. The Japanese government should turn its back on nuclear power and instead opt for an energy policy based on improving energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy. This would protect its citizens from a repetition of the horrors of Fukushima and set the country on track to meet its climate commitments by 2020.

Governor Ito, and his officials in the Kagoshima prefecture where the Sendai nuclear plant is located should heed the lessons of the Fukushima catastrophe and go all-out for a clean and risk-free energy future.

Jan Vande Putte is a specialist in radiation safety who trained at the Technical University of Delft. He has participated in environmental surveys of radioactive contamination in Belgium, France, Japan, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. He is an energy campaigner with Greenpeace Belgium.

via Greenpeace news http://ift.tt/1to9ipk http://ift.tt/107Qjnn

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