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PSR in Japan: Too Big to Fail

Posted by John Rachow, MD on August 30, 2012

In 2008 we learned about world financial meltdowns and institutions too big to fail.  Institutions that required taxpayer bailout; the same taxpayers who had just suffered personal losses due to the financial meltdown.  Maureen and I just finished a long day trip to Fukushima with an international group of IPPNW physicians organized by the Japanese affiliate, JPPNW, and are now traveling back to Tokyo.

An evening public symposium was held last night In Tokyo in preparation for the trip in a former Tokyo library system conference center in beautiful Hibiya Park.  We heard from a Japanese legislator, local and international physicians, including Dr. Jeff Patterson from PSR, and relevant scientists who discussed the consequences of the meltdown of four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011.  It was made clear that the meltdown and radiological contamination of Fukushima Prefecture is still an ongoing crisis. 

Today we were up at 04:50 to see dawn over Tokyo and travelled with a group of 25 IPPNW physicians, experts, and scientists to Fukushima on a Bullet Train, a remarkable experience in civilized transportation in itself.  We were met in Fukushima by a group of JPPNW physicians for a daylong inspection trip of a radiologically contaminated area in Fukushima Prefecture, Kawauchi Village, and areas just outside the 20 kilometer exclusion circle around the Daiichi reactors. 

We learned how people’s lives, health, and wellbeing were being impacted 18 months into the ongoing Daiichi reactor crisis.  Our inspection route carried us through the beautiful heavily wooded mountainous hills that were in the path of the Daiichi reactor radiation plumes.  Though hilly and wooded, this is still an important agricultural area for rice, vegetables, and livestock on multigenerational family farms.  We moved through areas from those officially designated with less to greater radiological contamination. 

Life goes on seemingly unaffected in the least contaminated areas, but in areas with higher levels of contamination, day visitors only are allowed and all dwellings are abandoned and agriculture is stopped.  The transition from the well tended verdant rice and vegetable fields to overgrown weed patches was stark.  Many villages are deserted and under also long term evacuation.  Deterioration in these ghost homes and ghost villages in just 18 months was striking.

We saw the first tentative attempts at decontamination that seem heartbreakingly inadequate as we came to understand the extent of radiation spread and the complex wooded topography and flora.  Topsoil is scraped up, put in piles in the corners or edges of fields, and covered with plastic sheeting.  Around living areas and roads, trees are felled in a 20 meter perimeter, and all undergrowth and low branches of trees well beyond the perimeter are cut and collected in giant plastic bags.  We saw field after field where the bags of contaminated organic material are stacked. 

The transition from less contaminated areas where farming is still permitted into areas that have been evacuated and are no longer farmed was wrenching.  We finally had to stop and turn back at the border of the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the Daiichi reactor complex.  By this point we realized the arbitrariness of circular exclusion zones that do not describe in any realistic way the nature of how radiation plumes travel through mountainous terrain and shifting winds.

We learned of the devastating psychological damage and social disruption  to individuals and families from long-term evacuations.  We saw the temporary housing built for those evacuated because of the radiation.  Displacement from large architecturally traditional farm houses where four generations lived simultaneously to the rows of small sterile housing developments has disrupted a way of farming life and extended families that can probably never be repaired. 

Other challenges facing local groups and the government is the piecemeal way radiation contamination has proved to be extremely inhomogeneous.  Within the same village, some areas are highly contaminated while other parts of the same village were scarcely affected.  The resulting psychological and emotional responses to the fickle deposition of radiation further damage communities. 

Not only did radiation from the Daiichi reactors not spread uniformly in a circle around the reactors, some of the highest contaminated areas are tens of kilometers outside the 20 km exclusion circle.  Accurately designating administratively manageable contamination zones probably can not be done satisfactorily.  It must be maddening to individuals who are forced out of a low contaminated area that has been designated to have high contamination merely for administrative convenience. 

In Kawauchi Village we spent time with the mayor who described how planning is proceeding to heal and stabilize this small community that had already been facing the usual problems of a rural, aging, agricultural community.  While the mayor was optimistic and has developed creative plans, the economic and social challenges are immense.  This scenario is being played out in many other small villages in the Prefecture. 

The costs of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster are incalculable, either monetarily or in terms of human suffering and damage to the land itself.  Can this suffering be balanced against the need for more and more electricity as we are told by the nuclear power industry?

What can we learn from the Daiichi disaster beyond proof that such nuclear reactor events continue to occur and cause so much human suffering?  We must not miss the fact that an advanced developed industrial that has generated 28% of its electricity from nuclear reactors can continue after shutting down all 52 reactors in less than a year.  Our inspection group was in Japan for over a week during an the hottest month of an unusually hot Japanese summer.  Air conditioning is used less intensively but we did not swelter.  Is this proof that we have been misled to believe that we need to use as much electricity as we have been accustomed to and are destined to use ever more without limit?  Is the Japanese experience over the last 18 months proof that it is surprisingly easy to institute effective energy conserving practices practically overnight without giving up our quality of life? 

Is Japan effectively telling us that the world really does not need nuclear power and contradicting what the purveyors of nuclear power have been telling us for fifty years?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then how can any government endorse or any democratic population tolerate an industry that can cause the kind of radiation catastrophes like Fukushima and Chernobyl?  Even if the answer to these questions is yes, why is nuclear power not going to go away? 

Why will governments continue to support nuclear power with massive subsidies in the face gross economic unviability.  Why will governments continue to ignore the insurmountable burden of spent nuclear fuel, the forever toxic waste.  Why will governments continue subject their population to the incalculable human cost of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl?

Perhaps the nuclear-governmental-industrial complex has become too big to fail.  In the U.S., France, and Japan the governmental leaders and regulatory apparatus have been “captured” by the nuclear industry.   Big industry lobby has also captured key elected leaders to fully institutionalize the myth of nuclear power necessity.  Very soon we can expect to hear these industry voices again raised saying that it will be too expensive to move away from nuclear power, that decommissioning monetary costs cannot be borne, that too many jobs will be lost, that we will face economic collapse of nuclear energy is phased out.  In fact, the drumbeat has already begun.

In democracies, the electorate must see to it that the firewall between industry and the government be restored.  We must all work to ensure that governments supervise the transition away from nuclear power toward the full suite of sustainable energy sources.


Beverly Findlay-Kaneko said ..

Dr. Rachow, I found your blog very interesting. Much of it echoes what my husband found on a recent private investigative trip to Fukushima to meet with local activists. Thank you.

September 10, 2012
CaptD said ..

Radioactivity that is blown by the wind can go where ever the wind blows, that is why the NRC (and others) are silly when they try and reduce evacuation zones around reactors! Anyone that watch the winds after 3/11/11 "saw" that Tokyo and Northern Japan received a big dose of Fukushima fallout...

September 4, 2012
Jeff Dillon said ..

Informative, powerful, educational, and sincere reporting, with a taste of a lively travel journal. I agree 1000%. I came here to learn about sieverts, microsieverts, and the recent appeal to lower the standard for Fukishima mothers and children. I learned so much more. Radiation does not travel on a controlled path, and could end up anywhere.

August 31, 2012

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