This article is the first of a four-part series covering the May 4 press conference held at Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Center of New York. Panelists discussed radiological health concerns that prevail one year after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster that occurred on March 11, 2011.
Occasionally, my non-Japanese friends ask how Japan is doing during these post-3/11 days because “we never hear about it anymore.” After attending a press conference on Friday, I don’t think Japanese citizens hear anything about what’s going on in Fukushima, either. According to the panelists speaking at the event, Japanese citizens aren’t receiving the truth.
Co-sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Human Rights Now, and Voices for Lively Spring, the press conference featured presentations form Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute; Dr. Junro Fuse, an internist at and the head of Kosugi Medical Clinic near Tokyo; Dr. Ken Nakayama, an orthopedic surgeon; and Dr. Andy Kanter, MD, MPH, President of the Board of Directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The gentlemen addressed the ongoing situation involving the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, emphasizing that the issues of radiation and contamination are rarely publicized in Japan and worldwide. Underreported health consequences of radiation, lax standards in food safety, and fear of the worldwide spread of radiation were the main topics of discussion. According to the press conference’s sponsors and the members of the panel, the power plant is still releasing radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the ocean, exposing residents throughout Japan to unsafe levels of radiation, yet the Japanese government is doing little to inform its citizens of the dangers.
As I listened to the speakers that day, I thought of Professor Takayuki Takahashi, the Vice President of Fukushima University. I visited Professor Takahashi in September of last year, six months after the horrific events of March 11. Although he admitted at the time that the Japanese government could have done more to educate Japanese citizens who aren’t armed with a scientific background, he was basically neutral toward Japan’s officials, in stark contrast to the nuclear scientist and doctors who sat before me in New York City. (Please read the account of my trip to Fukushima here.)
Each speaker stressed the importance of the global impact of the disaster at Fukushima, reminding me of a blog entry I wrote last year in response to ignorant statements that I had read online. A high school classmate stationed in Japan as a member of the US Navy posted a remark on Facebook days after the March 11 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear calamity, reacting to the possibility of the US military providing Japan with assistance during this time of crisis.
In addition to being incredibly insensitive, it also contains a glaring error. The still dangerous and dire situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant isn’t solely Japan’s problem. It’s the world’s problem. (I “defriended” this person moments after reading his post and taking this screenshot.)
The purpose of the press conference was to reinforce the global consequences of the way in which Japan handles information related to radiation and the spread of contamination. It was an eye-opening experience for me. While I’m nowhere near as ignorant as my former Facebook friend, I must admit that as much as I care about and write about Japan, ramen contests and ceramic art exhibitions tend to take precedence over issues involving the Fukushima Daiichi on JapanCulture•NYC. Thanks to a tip from Yumi Tanaka, co-founder of the New York Peace Film Festival and one of my anti-nuke activist friends, I heard about this press conference and felt it was necessary to attend.
It’s important to note that this was not a debate. There were no representatives from the Japanese government or Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), nor were there proponents of the nuclear power industry. The organizations sponsoring the press conference represent concerned citizens who are outspoken against the Japanese government and organizations that promote nuclear power.
Kazko Kawai of Voices for Lively Spring, a Japanese advocacy group for environmental protection, hosts seminars featuring scientists and journalists in an effort to educate the public about the impact of radiation on health. One such scientist was Hiroaki Koide, the first speaker during the press conference. On Thursday evening, Koide gave a seminar in Japanese to a full house at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and following the press conference he boarded a plane to Chicago for another presentation. He was informative – and brutally honest.
Koide began with a brief history of the nuclear industry in Japan. The first of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants, a Calder Hall-type reactor from the UK, was built in 1966. The rest of Japan’s reactor technology came from American companies GE and Westinghouse.
“The Japanese government determined that as a nation we were going to have nuclear power,” Koide says through his interpreter, Christopher Field, “and after that major industry, mass media, the academic community, and even the court system all got together . . . Those institutions insisted that atomic power was, without any doubt, absolutely safe and that there would not be any accidents . . . Because the mass media continually reported that this safety was absolute, the people believed – and they believed to their hearts – that there was no danger. That continued until the accident that occurred on March 11 last year.”
But Koide’s skepticism began long before the disaster on 3/11. In 1970 he determined that nuclear power was dangerous, and he has spent the last forty years educating Japanese officials as well as the general public on the dangers of nuclear energy.
“An atomic power plant is just another form of a machine,” says Koide. “And there is no machine that never breaks down, that never has an accident. Furthermore, the machine is operated not by gods, but by human beings. And human beings always make mistakes.”
Koide describes the existence of nuclear power plants on Japan as almost ironic.
“Japan is a country that has experienced the atomic bomb,” Koide explains. “In 1945 bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the cities were destroyed in an instant. Nevertheless, Japan thought that it wanted to proceed with nuclear power and did so. And then, on March 11 in the country that is the most prone to earthquakes than any country in the world, this major earthquake occurred.”
That earthquake, as everyone knows, measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. However, Koide notes, the energy released in the earthquake is “roughly 30,000 times the energy that was released by that atomic bomb [in Hiroshima].”
Koide described the domino effect caused by that energy and the ensuing tsunami, leading to the extremely critical situation that continues to this day at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Of the plant’s four reactors, Numbers 1, 2, and 3 were in operation on March 11. Number 4 was under periodic inspection, and happened to be offline. All of the fuel that was in the reactor at that time had been removed and placed in the bottom of the spent fuel pool.
The plant at Fukushima, like any nuclear power plant in the world, has safety measures in place in the case of an emergency, and the nuclear fission process was the first thing that workers stopped. However, the earthquake destroyed power lines going into the plant, so there was no way to receive backup electricity. The next plan was to use the diesel generators on site, but the tsunami arrived approximately one hour later, putting those generators out of service.
Since there was no electricity, there was no way to cool down the heat generated by the by-products of fission reaction.
“As a result,” says Koide, “large amounts of hydrogen were released, leading to an explosion that blew apart the buildings and the spreading of large amounts of radioactive material into the environment.”
The explosion also put the power plant in an even more precarious position. The spent fuel pool in Number 4 contains 5,000 times the amount of Cesium-137 as the Hiroshima bombing. That spent fuel pool tilted in the explosion.
“If that pool breaks down, falls apart, or falls down, there is a danger that a large amount of radiation will be released,” says Koide, who acknowledges that TEPCO is working on difficult reconstruction projects to prevent the pool from falling apart.
“The status of the worksite is so contaminated that workers are unable to spend the necessary time to carry out the work,” says Koide, adding “the cores in Numbers 1 through 3 melted down, but because of the radiation, they don’t know where it is.”
The dismantling of Number 4 and the removal of the spent fuel rods are delicate process that will likely take a year and a half. With the danger of constant aftershocks, it may take longer.
“There are a tremendous number of difficulties that are obviously right in front of us that have to be resolved,” says Koide.
Meanwhile, in Koide’s opinion, the Japanese government underestimated the amount of Cesium-137 that was released into the atmosphere as a result of the accident. The report submitted by the Japanese government to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was approximately 15,000 terabecquerels (T Bq). Koide believes that amount to be closer to 170 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Not included in this amount is what was released into the ocean. (One Bq = the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.)
“The circulation in the atmosphere has resulted in large amounts of radiation being spread around the world,” says Koide. “That radiation has already reached the United States and Europe.”
In addition to radiation in the air, Koide shares concerns with many others regarding the world’s food supply.
“The fishermen who live and work near the Fukushima Daiichi plant have on their own initiative refrained from fishing; they have held back from bringing in a catch,” says Koide. “At some point these fishermen will have to start up again, and their fish will end up on dining tables around the world.”
When asked how we can ensure that we have access to “clean” food, Koide responds, “Unfortunately there is no such thing anymore as clean or safe food. There is, however, a continuous distribution going from extremely contaminated food to relatively contaminated food. Our own choice is whether we accept that. I do have one proposal. The first one is that the people who advance nuclear power are made to eat the extremely contaminated food. People like the managing directors of Tokyo Electric, or the Diet, the academics who promoted nuclear power. But that’s not enough. I also have a proposal that the relatively contaminated food be fed to the generation of adults who have accepted and promoted this nuclear power industry, and that the relatively uncontaminated food be fed to the children. That can’t be done unless we have an accurate understanding of which food is contaminated and which isn’t.”
Koide’s response may have been slightly tongue-in-cheek, but he’s serious about the huge task at hand to make sure Japanese citizens – and the rest of the world – aren’t consuming irradiated food.
“The most important thing is that we insist to the government and to Tokyo Electric that they provide clear information of measurement of which food is contaminated and by how much,” Koide says. “Which is an enormous undertaking. There is obviously a huge amount of food – there’s rice, there’s meat, there’s fish, there’s vegetables – to measure all of that, which is what we need to do in order to protect our children.”
The onus, Koide insists, lies upon TEPCO.
“Tokyo Electric is a representative, massive Japanese company which has, up until now with its power, dominated mass media and politics,” says Koide. “But even for a company of that scale to undertake what I’m talking about would probably cost enough money to bankrupt the company. The contamination that we are fighting today is all contamination that was contained in the nuclear power plant that belongs to Tokyo Electric. So this material is property owned by Tokyo Electric, and so I believe it is their obligation to tell us where their property is. It would probably bankrupt Tokyo Electric, but I believe that it’s absolutely imperative that we do bankrupt them.”
Of course, not all of the responsibility is on TEPCO; Koide is also of the mind that the Japanese government must do its part.
“Japan is a country that has insisted for many years that it is a country of laws, that criminals are prosecuted and it is therefore a safe country,” says Koide. “If that’s true, I believe that it is a minimum obligation of the government to enforce its own laws. Needless to say, there are many laws pertaining to radiation in Japan. For example, there is a law that says that we normal citizens are not to be exposed to more than one millisievert of radiation per year . . . In fact, if that law were to be followed, then the amount of area that needs to be evacuated is approximately 20,000 square kilometers. Twenty thousand square kilometers in Japan should be devoid of people. That amount of land corresponds to five percent of the entire land area of the country of Japan. So the Japanese government made the decision that that wasn’t possible.”
If what Koide says in his presentation is true, it’s certainly disturbing that the Japanese government isn’t releasing straightforward information to the public regarding important health and safety issues. However, reporting true contamination levels would be detrimental to the already suffering tourism and export industries. But is keeping quiet about how dangerous things really are in Japan worth putting citizens and visitors in harm’s way? In the meantime the people of Japan are continuing to deal with a dangerous situation that affects all of us around the world.
“What awaits us is a very long battle to somehow find a way to enclose this large amount of radiation,” says Koide. “This is something which humanity as a whole has literally never experienced. So we are going to be fighting this radiation for on an order of tens, maybe hundreds of years.”
Part 2 of the press conference will focus on the reports from Dr. Junro Fuse and Dr. Ken Nakayama on internal exposure to radiation, food safety standards, and the disposal of contaminated debris from the earthquake and tsunami.