Fukushima Meltdown 4 Years Later

Four years have passed since the tragic triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, and the hits keep on coming as massive amounts of radioactively contaminated water continue to flow into the Pacific Ocean and no solution exists for safely containing the ongoing accumulation of radioactive debris contaminating the prefecture.  Created in two parts, Fairewinds Energy Education presents you with a 5-minute retrospective followed by a 25-minute in-depth reflection on Fukushima Meltdown 4 Years Later.

Fairewinds Energy Education Board Member Chiho Kaneko and Arnie Gundersen discuss Chiho’s recent visit to her homeland of Japan. Born and raised in the neighboring prefecture of Iwate, she traveled to the evacuated and decimated area near the plant and met with displaced victims of this nuclear travesty.

As she shares heartbreaking stories, Chiho describes her trip through the ruined Fukushima Prefecture. She observed rusting vehicles flipped over on the side of the road, destroyed homes waiting to be cared for amidst a string of empty towns marked by devastation from the 2011 tsunami and resulting nuclear power catastrophe. Despite Prime Minister Abe’s assurances to the contrary, everything remains too contaminated by radiation for residents to return home. Warning signs along the radiation contaminated roadways instruct drivers not to leave their vehicles, not to roll down any windows, and not expose themselves to the outside air.

Attempts to clean up the once fertile farmland surrounding the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site are seen along road after road in huge trash bag bundles stacked like fortresses. These bundles contain the radioactive top layer of soil, branches, bushes, and other land debris slowly being cleared in a futile effort to decontaminate the soil and possibly make the prefecture habitable again. More than 70,000 of these debris-laden sites are spread throughout the Fukushima Prefecture with no permanent method for disposal of this waste that is temporarily stuffed into deteriorating trash bags littering the once fertile and pristine countryside.

The catastrophic nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi decimated communities and dislocated an entire population from their homes and families. It exposed innocent people to extreme doses of toxic radiation that cause cancer and carry a death sentence,, and it forcibly removed those people from the mountains, ocean, rivers, forests, and land that they loved. “No disaster like this should ever be allowed to happen,”a victim told Chiho. “But, as long as nuclear power plants are allowed to operate, we cannot guarantee that a disaster like this will never happen. You cannot guarantee.”



AG: Hi. I’m Arnie Gundersen from Fairewinds. And March represents the fourth year since the beginning of the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. These were disasters that were manmade. Tokyo Electric would have you believe that they’re the victim of an unimaginable tsunami that rose up from the ocean and destroyed the plant. But in fact, they are the perpetrators of this disaster. They knew in 1965 that a tsunami this size or even bigger could rise up and they chose to keep the tsunami walls short to save money. This same sense of skewed priorities occurred while the disaster was occurring. Tokyo Electric underestimated the releases; they underestimated the exposure to people; they underestimated the time to recover and the cost to recover. Does that mean that Tokyo Electric is incompetent? I don’t think so. I’ve seen this same behavior occur at Three Mile Island, at Chernobyl and now at Fukushima. The response of a bureaucracy in a disaster like Fukushima is to save the bureaucracy and to save nuclear power. Nuclear power means a lot more to the bureaucrats than the health and safety of the people that they’re supposed to be protecting. Why is this? I’m reminded of the Watergate movie with the famous quote, “Follow the money.” It will happen again because this mentality infuses the nuclear industry. Costs and the success of nuclear power are more important than the health and safety of the public. With us today is Chiho Kaneko. Chiho is a member of the Board at Fairewinds and recently returned from Japan. Hi, Chiho.

CK: Hi, Arnie.

AG: I wanted you to share with us your impressions, having just come back four years after this disaster.

CK: If you just go to Tokyo, you wouldn’t know that a big disaster like Fukushima Daiichi happened. Everything looks pretty normal. But if you travel to Fukushima and especially to the towns and villages near the nuclear power plant, the life there has completely changed. In many towns and villages, people still are not allowed to return, so there are ghost towns. And on the coast you still see upturned cars from the tsunami disaster, untouched, unclaimed, still left after four years.

AG: So these buildings that are destroyed from the tsunami can’t be repaired because they’re also radiologically contaminated.

CK: Correct. And also communities with people, they are destroyed. Physically, people are not living there – a lot of people are not living there. And even though in towns where people are allowed to return, people have trouble going back to their homes because maybe they no longer have work, jobs that they used to have, or maybe hospitals and schools that they used to go to were in the nearby towns, which might be a not-allowed-to-enter kind of area. So the infrastructure that supported their life – daily life – is no longer there.

AG: (3:35) But yet there’s a pressure from the Japanese government to bring these people out of the disaster relief zones and push them back into their own villages.

CK: Yes. I think that there are incentives for people to go back. And I wonder – myself, I wonder why that is. In some ways, I think the municipalities, they’re really worried about their towns and villages just disappearing completely, just going out, which is a palpable sort of a reality. And then also people’s love of the place, which is different from their love of the town or village, but their love of the mountains and the rivers. That’s a very strong desire. So in some ways, I think by encouraging those people to go back, the government can save money, of course, because instead of paying hundreds of thousands of people to just live outside, compensation, if people can actually return there in the contaminated area, the government can save money. And in a small country like Japan, that’s a temptation.

AG: How are the people in the state of Fukushima – Fukushima prefecture – how do they feel having to leave the area where they were born and potentially now come back into an area that’s highly contaminated from a radiological disaster?

CK: I think they are confused and they’re worried, especially people with small children in the family. They’re very worried. I’ve heard many people – older people – say they may be able to eat contaminated food but they would never want their grandchildren to eat. Those stories you hear over and over. But it’s very difficult to sort of see what’s actually in your food, so people are kind of second guessing. And there’s confusion.

AG: As I understand life in Fukushima prefecture before the disaster, there were communities that were there for tens of generations, where ancestors are buried for tens of generations, where people worked for generation after generation on family farms. It would seem now that that’s all been thrown up into the wind.

CK: Right. People still have gravesites and graveyards. I spoke to a man from the Village of Kawauchi, which is 20 to 30 kilometers, so 12 to 18 mile zone – currently, he’s living in a temporary refugee unit in Koriyama. He said his wife died in 2011 sometime in the fall. She could not take all the relocation from one shelter to the next and finally to the temporary unit because she had some physical condition. And so he said he buried her in the old village even though he’s not living there.

AG: And as I understand it, it’s important to honor your ancestors, at least on the yearly holiday, but in addition, there’s a deep connection to ancestors that is broken now because of the disaster.

CK: I think that the people’s love of the place was mountains and rivers and just natural – the four seasons, beauty – that is really strong, even today. People really long for their home. And yet their sense of like being part of a community, like a municipality for instance, I think that’s crumbling, because the town or village or whatever, a municipality, it’s not functioning enough physically and also emotionally. In some areas a municipal head like a mayor or something, is as odds with its people because people felt like the mayor could be in interest of keeping the village structure intact ahead of people’s lives. So that kind of a community fracturing is happening all the time, as well as within the family, people are fractured, not intentionally but out of necessity. I spoke with a woman who owns a gas station with her son in the Village of Kawauchi. She returned there with her son soon after the disaster, only to just – she wanted to feed her daughter’s cats. So she just – at that time apparently she was able to return even though the evacuation order was in place. And as she was also visiting the coastal town of Tomioka where her son used to live, because everybody just kind of left in a rush as soon as they realized that the nuclear power plant was just blowing up. So she was going into the highly contaminated areas to pick up stuff for her son and his family, which itself is kind of mind-boggling. It’s almost like – that that was allowed to happen is mind-boggling. But my point is that she and her son actually returned to the gas station in the village of Kawauchi. Why? Because the son felt like he really wanted to take care of the old folks who stayed there. Apparently, there were some people who just couldn’t go or something. And he wanted to make sure that they were kept warm. So out of their commitment, and I think out of the love for the place – not the town, per se, but for the place and the community, they returned. And the sad thing is that her son has a wife and a child, now a third grader – so the son’s wife and the daughter, they now live outside of Tokyo because they’re concerned about the radiation effects on the little girl. And so – which is a really difficult thing. The wife and the daughter visit him maybe a few times a year, and every time they have to leave, they cry, because they love – the girl loves the dad. And the woman whom I talked to said that’s the hardest thing to see. What’s the most important thing? I think it’s the family, she said. And she said unequivocally the fact the Japanese government is trying to restart nuclear power plants is completely outrageous. It’s out of the question. She doesn’t want anybody else to suffer like this any more. No disaster like this should ever be allowed to happen. But as long as nuclear power plants operate, you cannot guarantee that a disaster like this will never happen. You cannot guarantee.

AG: No, and this is a society, and I said it when I was in Japan three years ago, that the beginning of the atomic age with, unfortunately, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the opposite bookend could be Fukushima Daiichi. It could begin in Japan and it could end in Japan. And yet, there’s pressures on the people to allow these plants to start up. It just seems so sad to me.

CK: This same woman who owns the gas station actually said something rather macabre. She said she was shocked once when she was watching the television. A boy – I think a junior high school student or something – from the town of Okuma, which is the host community of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – the boy from that town on camera said that well, I think nuclear power plan and TEPCO, they have been a sort of lifeline of my family, indicating that maybe his family member might work there or something; therefore, I think restarting nuclear power plants in Japan probably is necessary in order to bring back the sense of security and prosperity.

AG: You know, I’ve found that a lot where if you believe that a nuclear disaster is not going to happen again, then you can buy into that mentality, that let’s start them back up again. But history has shown that we’ve had five meltdowns in 35 years. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and three at Fukushima in 35 years. So that means that once every 7 years there’s going to be a meltdown somewhere; and yet people say well, it won’t happen in my plant so it’s okay to start my plant back up. I just do not understand that mentality. I’d like to talk a little bit about the collection of all of this radioactive material all throughout the state of the Fukushima prefecture. Can you tell us what you saw? CK: Well, especially in sort of 11 or so municipalities in and around Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but even outside that, too – so you’re talking about many, many cities, towns and villages. In Fukushima, you have this huge bales that contain – like plastic bales I think – that contain radioactive soil and maybe some grass, piled up, in some cases alongside public roadways. In other areas maybe just in abandoned rice fields or something.

AG: And you know, the bags are designed to last for three years, but the radioactivity inside them will last for 300 years. So as the bags break down, that radiation then gets into the groundwater and re-contaminates the communities that are supposed to be now cleaned.

CK: Well, apparently the central government promised the Fukushima municipalities that those bales are going to be removed to a little more permanent location within three years. So they promised that over three years ago. So now the towns and village heads are getting frustrated, because now it’s been three years or more and those bags are still sitting there. But the idea is that ultimately those contaminated soil and debris, whatever, will be transported to just around Fukushima Daiichi site where now they’re going to build a temporary nuclear waste facility.

AG: (16:52) A lot of those drums are put into holes in the ground that are then lined. We actually did a story about two years ago where a cut in the liner that’s only an inch long will leak 60,000 gallons of water a year into the groundwater. So there’s no way that a liner can be perfect. And so as these drums or bags are thrown into this pit, if the liner has one rip in it that’s an inch long, 60,000 gallons of contaminated water will leave that and get into the groundwater.

CK: Well, I don’t know how they’re going to, then, safely transport all the bales to the temporary repository because they’re going to have to. And I think they’re going to start experimenting with the transporting of it pretty soon.

AG: The other piece of that is the waste that’s being burned in incinerators. The bags of tree limbs and the grass and dirt are one issue, but now there’s larger pieces that are being burned throughout Japan. We did a story about three years ago about the incineration of waste in Japan. And it’s not safe for two reasons. First off, there are filters on the building, but the filters don’t get all the radiation. The particle size – and I’m getting geeky here, but the particle size of the individual Cesium atoms is so small that it blows right through the filter. So they’re essentially taking contamination from the soil, throwing it back up in the air again, to have it land on areas where they’ve already cleaned out.

CK: This incinerating radioactive waste is actually a huge problem, and it’s not just a problem for Fukushima. I’m from Iwate which is 120, 150 miles north of Fukushima, but we, too, have radiation fallout from the meltdowns. And so there are a lot of radioactive grass, hay and logs to make shitake mushrooms as well as shitake mushrooms themselves. Once they’re deemed above the limit for the government set standard of radiation, they’re going to be treated as nuclear waste. And what the environment ministry is trying to do is to reduce the volume by incinerating it. And – but then that is, like you said – and their point is that the 99.99 percent of the Cesium will be capture in those filters. But a lot of citizens are now standing up to protest the burning because they don’t believe that everything is going to be captured and they think that this is going to cause secondary radiation fallout, unnecessarily.

AG: Yeah, I would support them absolutely. The filter size is too big and the atoms are too small and they will go right through those filters and redeposit. So it’s not just the mushrooms that are contaminated, though. As you work your way around Japan, I imagine there’s contaminated rice, contaminated fish, contaminated beef. How do people feel about eating Japanese grown products?

CK: I think to be really blunt about it, people are less worried today compared to four years ago, except there are some people who still really scrutinize the origin of the sort of produce and some people say they will never eat anything that comes from Fukushima or the vicinity. But that’s a tricky thing because food monitoring is happening in Fukushima and even in my home prefecture to some extent, which as I said is 120, 150 miles away from Fukushima Daiichi. They are still testing school lunches in my area, too, and – but then if the food monitoring shows that this food is under the sort of a government set threshold of like 100 becquerel per kilogram, then it might contain some radioactive matter, but it can be sold. So if you think about it in food you take directly in your body, so whatever small amount of like Cesium or Strontium 90 or whatever, if it lodges in your body, then it doesn’t matter how small the amount is, it will keep emitting radiation and it can damage your DNA. So that is a concern – internal radiation exposure – that is a concern. And especially mothers with small children, they’re very concerned.

AG: (22:13) I’ve run into a lot of people who say – who don’t really realize that the American standard for radiation in fish is 12 times higher than the Japanese standard. So what the Japanese won’t eat they could, if they wanted to, ship to America and they could sell it here, that it’s unfit to be eaten in Japan. It’s truly a double standard of horrendous proportions.

CK: I do not like to think that, but I guess technically that’s permissible, right? In America.

AG: Yeah, it’s sad. The other issue is down blending of rice. For instance, if some rice is contaminated so that it can’t be sold, if you take that rice and you spread it out into more rice, you’re okay.

CK: And you mix it in with the not-so-contaminated rice, and it dilutes the sort of radioactivity; then repackage it.

AG: From a health physics standpoint, though, the same number of people are going to get cancer. You’re more likely to get it from the one bag, but as you spread that radiation out among more bags, the number of people exposed increases, but the amount they take in decreases. The net effect is the same. The same number of people are going to get cancer from that rice. It’s just that they’ll be further away from Fukushima prefecture and it’ll be harder for the statistics to catch it.

CK: That’s true.

AG: I have to go back to the remarks I made at the beginning of the hour. It’s really all about following the money. And this is an industry that protects itself and protects the bureaucrats but really, really doesn’t look out for the people.

CK: And I’d like to add that what I have witnessed in the past four years really reinforced the impression that once a nuclear disaster happens, nobody – nobody, not a government, not the nuclear industry – nobody can control the result. Its spread, its time span, its effect on communities, they cannot control.

AG: The genie is out of the bottle. Thank you. Thank you very much.

CK: I’m sorry.


Japanese Translation by Chiho Kaneko and Yuka Saito

Fukushima Meltdown 4 Years Later


March 3rd, 2015


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FAIREWINDS ENERGY EDUCATION – Chiho (transcribed 2-25-15)

フェアウィンズ エネルギー エデュケーション — 金子千保(逐語録作成:2015年2月25日)