Fukushima: Week Four

April 8, 2011

The sea is radioactive, the drinking water served with a slice of thyroid cancer and vegetables now glow in the dark. Go Nuclear!

Developments at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the past weeks are too bleak not to joke about. A little gallows humour to ease the trauma.

The official response to the disaster has certainly been laughable. In a tragic and disturbing sort of way. Actually not funny at all but eliciting an exasperated breathless laughter of indignation. The Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) are recklessly placing the people of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures in great danger in order to protect the nuclear industry in Japan and prevent the Japanese public from realizing the true danger posed by the countries nuclear program.

A week after the earthquake and tsunami crippled the Daiichi facility the government raised its nuclear disaster alert from 4 to 5. Non-government and non-industry affiliated scientists were claiming a rating of 6.5 or 7 (the highest alert on the scale) was warranted. Also, from this time the same outside observers were calling, and later pleading, with the government to increase the evacuation zone to 50km’s for children and pregnant women. Other countries have been warning their citizens not to go within 80 km’s of Fukushima Daiichi. Three weeks later the Japanese government announces that it is considering expanding the evacuation zone to 30km’s!

All information released to the public has been very carefully managed in order not to ’cause panic’; a euphemism for not raising awareness.

The Japanese Meteorological Agency has been withholding data regarding the dispersion of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant on the grounds that ‘it feared releasing the data could cause public misunderstanding about radiation threats.’ (Japan Times Online). But, what they actually meant to say was that they have been withholding data because they fear that should it enter the public domain it might result in widespread public understanding of radiation threats.

The handling of all data regarding the Fukushima Daiichi accident has been appalling. Necessary relevant data for outside observers to analyse what is occurring inside the stricken reactors has not been forthcoming. Radiation levels are under reported and the health and environmental threats of radiation are consistently downplayed.

The Japanese public broadcaster NHK has uncritically repeated the official government lines on all matters  relating to Fukushima Daiichi and now the international media are starting to repeat the spin. International media outlets have been reporting that ‘low levels’ of radioactive water have been deliberately leaked into the ocean by TEPCO as part of their disaster management strategy. ‘Low levels’ that are 100 times above the legal allowable limit! The levels are relatively low compared to the radioactive water that is thousands of times above the limit that has been uncontrollably leaking into the Pacific but to simply call them low creates the impression that they are not harmful to human health and the environment – something that government spokesman Yukio Edano has repeatedly claimed – which then begs the question if these levels are not harmful why has the government set the allowable legal level one hundred times lower? (For more on the obfuscating of the true dangers of radiation see Al Jazeera ‘No safe levels’ of radiation in Japan.)

On April 5 the BBC reported that the Japanese government is undertaking a program to test radiation levels in all schools and kindergartens in Fulkushima prefecture. What the BBC reporter omitted from their article was that citizens in Fukushima have been haranguing the government to test schools before the commencement of the school year but due to lack of action by the government began their own testing program. The government, on the other hand, has been pushing for all schools in Fukushima to hold their commencement ceremonies as scheduled even though the citizens groups testing for radiation were asking for commencement to be delayed as they would not be able to test all the necessary sites in time. So, under mounting public pressure and vocal dissatisfaction with the governments handling of the situation the government will now carry out testing of school yards. Given the approach the government has taken to all data related to radiation levels in Fukushima one can’t help but wonder if this belated testing program isn’t , in fact, an attempt to take control of the data away from concerned citizens groups so it can be placed quickly in the spin machine and made confusing and incomprehensible and ‘safe.’ (For more on citizen monitoring of radiation levels in Japan see Fukushima radiation monitoring of schools and Citizen scientists help monitor radiation in Japan)

Business as Usual

From the very beginning of the Fukushima accident the nuclear industry has gone into full damage control mode. Not to control damage to human lives or the environment but to control the damage to their dirty business. This is a play they have rehearsed often as there have been many instances during the history of nuclear power in Japan when it has been necessary to cover up, clean up, pay hush money to the relatives of those killed directly from radiation exposure and undermine the cases of those dying slowly from exposure. (See Nuclear Ginza for more on this).

The nuclear power industry in Japan is one of the most powerful in the world and for the past forty years has waged a, by all measures successful, propaganda campaign to convince the Japanese public that nuclear power is safe and the only option they have. The latter statement is in fact true: nuclear power is the only option the Japanese have because nuclear power companies have a monopoly on the means of distributing power. That is, for each region of Japan a single nuclear power generating company owns the infrastructure for the delivery of electricity.

If it weren’t for the monopolizing of electricity distribution by nuclear power interests the Japanese would have numerous options available to them. It is hard to imagine a topography better suited to the implementation of small scale hydro-generation than that of Japan. There is no shortage of companies in Japan developing clean renewable energy technology (and, to counter an oft cited piece of misinformation, nuclear power is not renewable as it uses uranium, a finite resource and it can hardly be considered clean when it leaves a legacy of deadly toxic waste for 12,000 generations of humans). The renewable energy companies are waiting in line to help meet Japan’s energy needs but are prevented, by the nuclear power companies controlling the means of distribution, from implementing this technology on any kind of meaningful scale. Hence the technology remains a novelty and not a serious contender for meeting Japan’s energy requirements.

Yet a more fundamental question must be raised. Are the energy requirements, with or without nuclear, with or without solar or hydro or wind or whatever, actually realistic. The calculation of the nations future ‘energy requirements’ assumes a continuous increase in the demand for energy, so, no, they are not realistic. Our planet has physical limits. The whole argument for nuclear energy is thus based on a false problem. And we shouldn’t be rushing out to cover our hills in wind turbines either!

Small scale decentralized energy generation is far more realistic, safe and efficient. It has obvious limits and we must learn to live within those limits. In one sense the Japanese are ready for this. Solar hot water heaters are immensely popular in Japan and I see more photovoltaic solar panels in Japanese cities than possibly anywhere else I have been. But, in another sense, the Japanese seem a long way from scaling down their immense usage of electricity. This is also the most gadgetized society I have ever seen.

Turning the Tide

Cracks have appeared in the nuclear industries facade and for once the Japanese are seeing a side of nuclear power that has been carefully hidden from them. It now remains to be seen if an effective anti-nuclear movement can be mobilized to prevent the nuclear industry from patching up these cracks, a movement that can jimmy open these cracks even further and expose all the political manipulation, financial subsidies and misinformation on which nuclear power depends.

With no alternative media, a slavish mainstream media and both major political parties holding staunchly pro-nuclear stances this will, of necessity, be a truly grass roots movement against enormous odds.

The Citizens Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) in Tokyo has been streaming daily analysis of developments at Fukushima Daiichi by Prof. Goto, a former nuclear engineer for Toshiba, the company that built the Fukushima reactors, alongside other former nuclear industry insiders. These daily video streams are by far the most informative commentaries on developments at Fukushima available in Japanese but on average they have a viewership of around one thousand people – in a country of 130 odd million people. How to stimulate and facilitate public discussion is a problem we must urgently address. With all the gadgets here cell phones and social media would seem obvious places to start.

One interesting figure to emerge as an unlikely  campaigner for the anti-nuclear movement is Son Masaiyoshi the founder and CEO of telecommunications giant Softbank and the richest man in Japan. Son has already donated 119 million dollars (10 billion yen) to the earthquake relief efforts and has committed his entire earnings until retirement (he is 54 years old) to support victims of the quake and tsunami. While these acts have made headlines less covered is his anti-nuclear epiphany and subsequent efforts to encourage serious debate about the future of nuclear power in Japan. Son has sponsored panel discussions with Prof. Goto and other distinguished scientists and streamed these over the internet.

Honest and open debate about nuclear power is all that is needed, if, and this is a really big if, after such debate the general public are allowed to choose how their energy is generated. Nuclear is such a bad deal that it doesn’t stand a chance. And this is precisely why such debate is shut down by those banking on nuclear. We must not overlook the connection between nuclear power and an economic system which also ignores the physical limits of our small planet in delusions of unending growth. To go after nuclear power without addressing the long term unsustainability of the economic system is to fail to point out the most fundamental flaw in the pro-nuclear argument.


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