Fukushima : an incomplete cleanup that is coming at a terrible human price

From ToxicLeaks

After the historical nuclear disaster of Fukushima, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government would have citizens believe that everything is back to normal. Some reactors were even restarted in 2015. This is a clear sign that they have learned nothing because the crisis is far from over. The fuel from Fukushima's reactors is still out of reach and at best it will be removed in several years, with the risk that it might burn through the ground and leak into the earth and sea. The area around Fukushima has been in part decontaminated but the waste produced by that process is massive and constitutes a major hazard in itself ! Finally, the cost of Tepco and the Japanese government's mess is falling on the workers of the cleanup. And the most disgusting part is that officials from Tepco and the government don't even recognize that the health issues of these workers are caused by the radiations.

A disaster that could still get worse[edit | edit source]

Tepco and the Japanese government have been carefully building a narrative concerning the Fukushima disaster. While they made mistakes in the past and they are sorry for their part in the initial disaster, they have been doing their utmost since the disaster started to protect citizens and make things right. However, things are not back to normal and the catastrophe could still get much worse. Indeed, the nuclear fuel that melted inside Fukushima's reactors still hasn't been recovered. Even worse, no one knows where it is ! This comes directly from the horse's mouth, or in this situation, a spokesman from the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning that Tepco is a member of : “We presume that despite the meltdown, the fuel is still in the containment vessel”.

How reassuring that Tepco should “presume” to know the location of the fuel ! And they are not likely to know for sure for some time. Toru Ogawa, director of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s Collaborative Laboratories for Advanced Decommissioning Science, points out that : “it is difficult to know what is happening inside the reactors, and there are no established methods for doing so… It is not difficult to get a camera inside the reactor. The problem is the camera breaks down due to high levels of radiation”. So Tepco is still stuck on the problem of knowing what's inside. Then the real fun will begin, removing the melted fuel. And they don't know how they are going to do that either. Which means that it's going to take years to recover that fuel. Tepco admitted the extraction wouldn't start before 2021 and that is probably a very optimistic estimation ! Meanwhile the melted core keeps sinking deeper and deeper into the containment vessel and if it leaks into the ground the consequences would be apocalyptic. This risk alone makes the Japanese policy of forcing evacuees to return unacceptable. And what makes it worse is that it's not the only risk.

Nuclear waste completely vulnerable to hazards[edit | edit source]

The nuclear disaster led to a massive contamination of the Fukushima area. But in all fairness, Japan has put together an ambitious plan to clean the area. The plan entailed cleaning the areas with an 1 millisievert per year or above radiation level. This is a fairly low level and reflects that this was a serious plan. So far, the Japanese government has spent $13.5 billion for this decontamination. And there are over ten thousand workers gathering the topsoil that has been contaminated and putting it into millions of plastic bags that wait to be collected and stored in a safe place. That amounts to about 9,000,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil.

And according to estimations, there is still about 13,000,000 cubic meters of soil that has yet to be collected. But here's the problem. These bags are an incredibly hazardous way of disposing of this waste. Some of them have already been waiting several years and may deteriorate. If a tsunami were to hit (according to reliable sources, it has been known to happen in Japan) it would split them open and spread the radioactive soil all over again. Besides, groundwater and animal life keep moving the radioactivity from one place to another, which means that some of the places that have been decontaminated have been contaminated again, it's a never ending process... And that's why nuclear energy is so dangerous, the consequences of a nuclear disaster are impossible to mitigate.

Health issues for decontamination workers[edit | edit source]

The health issues of the workers that have worked close to the reactors or in the decontamination have been grossly underreported by Japanese news. These people are paying the cost of Tepco and the Japanese government's mistakes and they are not even giving the recognition that their health issues have anything to do with the work they did. Mako Oshidori, a Japanese independent journalist and head of Free Press Corporation/Japan tells a very different story. “I would like to talk about my interview of a nurse who used to work at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) after the accident… He quit his job with TEPCO in 2013, and that’s when I interviewed him… As of now, there are multiple NPP workers that have died, but only the ones who died on the job are reported publicly. Some of them have died suddenly while off work, for instance, during the weekend or in their sleep, but none of their deaths are reported.” She adds that “they are not included in the worker death count.

For example, there are some workers who quit the job after a lot of radiation exposure, such as 50, 60 to 70 millisieverts, and end up dying a month later, but none of these deaths are either reported, or included in the death toll. This is the reality of the NPP workers.” But why is the mainstream news so silent about these issues ? Mako Oshidori explains that covering the issues the Japanese doesn't want covered is a risky endeavour indeed. She recounts having been followed and intimidated : “When I would talk to someone, a surveillance agent from the central government’s public police force would come very close, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. ”

Another telling sign is that in 2013, the Japanese government made it a crime to report unauthorized information about the Fukushima plant. Mako Oshidori sums it up bitterly : “There is one thing that really surprised me here in Europe. It’s the fact that people here think Japan is a very democratic and free country.” In 2012, a parliamentary report had denounced the “collusion” between Tepco and the government as one of the causes of the disaster. Obviously the problem still remains because the Japanese government is intent on stifling freedom of the press in order to protect the nuclear industry's future in Japan. Even worse, it has appeared that many of the cleanup workers have been coerced into this work by organised crime.

Slave labour forced by Yakuza to clean up contaminated areas[edit | edit source]

As we can expect, there weren't enough volunteers to work on the Fukushima cleanup, so Tepco and the Japanese government had organised crime syndicates find them workers and keep them in line. Michel Chossudovsky, from the Centre for Research on Globalization (Canada), reports that the Yakuza is recruiting workers for the decontamination. These workers are mostly poor, sometimes homeless. And they are the ones that have the worse jobs, with a lot of risks and a low wage.

One of these workers told journalists what his task was : “My job was to help workers remove their gear when they came back from dealing with contaminated water and debris, and to check them with a Geiger counter for contamination”. For $100 a day. “The training didn’t teach us the dangers of handling radiation, so there were some people who worked with their bare hands,” that worker added. “They would contaminate not only themselves, but would spread particles to others.” And he described the organisation of the actors working on the cleanup : “TEPCO is God, the main contractors are kings, and we are slaves.” In this organisation, the workers only get a small share of the money the Yakuza receive for the recruitment and they are threatened into accepting their working conditions and low wages. Meanwhile, Tepco turns a blind eye to their misery and doesn't seem to mind that organised crime syndicates are raking in the cash at the expense of thousands of slave laborers that are exposed to dangerous working conditions.

The Fukushima disaster was a symptom of the perils of Japan's nuclear folly. Its cleanup is becoming the symbol of a much larger political and social decadence. The environmental hazards remain huge and the human cost is growing every day. Meanwhile, the true nature of the nuclear industry is evidenced by its allies : politicians that would stifle free journalism and the Yakuza that mercilessly exploit the workers that decontaminate the soil Tepco poisoned.