Fukushima: Life and the Transnationality of Radioactive Contamination via The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus


II Human requirements for safety versus economic health

Beyond the concerns of contamination from melted radioactive fuel, public trust in the Government has also been a casualty of the Fukushima disaster. The Noda government (2 September 2011 – 26 December 2012) equivocated over the plan by the Kan administration to shut down nuclear power in Japan, and that plan was then emphatically revoked by the Abe government from December 2012. Instead, the latter, at least initially, vowed to export, restart and accelerate nuclear power-related production, reverting to and consolidating the LDP construction-state formula to boost economic growth.

The post facto raising of safety limits for radiation exposure on 19 April 2011 (from 1 to 20mSv) and reduction of the evacuation zone to less than 30 km from the NPP, driven by an unapologetic ‘logic’ of optimal growth, ignored the passage of radioactive concentrations beyond the official concentric circles emanating from the crippled plant. These were to denote the 20km mandatory exclusion zone (greater than 50mSv) and the 30km voluntary exclusion zone (20-50mSv).12 The continued dispersal of radioactive contaminant from the stricken and leaking NPP, waste incineration, the relaxation of food testing and re-circulation of irradiated fish from the Fukushima coast (Sōma, Iwaki), and re-use of contaminated areas by fast food chains for cheap food production, for example,13 contributes to the creation of a surplus population of humans and other living beings through the bioaccumulation of radioactive materials. This means that due to institutional policies adopted with regard to the hazard of radiation, a certain portion of the population has been factored in as part of the ‘costs’ of maintaining nuclear power in Japan.

As techniques of persuasion and confusion continue to be insinuated into public consciousness (‘Look forward with optimism!’; ‘Ganbare Nippon!’; ‘Kizuna!’), the popular nationalist drive to restore Japan to its glory days of the Meiji era, or to the Kishi administrative initiatives of the late 1950s, has made claims by affected citizens for compensated evacuation and health care more difficult. Redoubling its effort to stamp out ‘baseless rumours’ (fūhyō), the Abe government has pressed evacuees to return to their former residences. Despite a municipal government campaign to encourage residents to prioritise family, community and the land (the kizuna project), along with staged apologies, promotional drives for Fukushima produce, distribution of free dosimetry meters to potential returnees, decontamination and construction programs, and even miracle cures for cancer,14 the public are also being told to make their own decisions regarding the risks of radiation exposure. However, the ability of those citizens from the mandatory or voluntary evacuation zones (160,000 in total) to make such decisions has been handicapped by the authorities’ screening information. The same is true for those who have remained behind. They have been deprived of necessary detail and treatment concerning radiation levels in food, water and air, for sufficient protection against damage from myriad types of radionuclides.15

While sophisticated detection of radioactive matter is obviously essential (across the gamma-beta-alpha range in water, soil, air, organic and inorganic matter), the over-emphasis on a national ‘can-do’ positivity and on an economic solution by the Abe government distracts from realistic assessments and appropriate responses to the complex problems at Fukushima. Decontamination for example, can cause serious damage to the lived environment,16 and there is little guarantee that mobile radioactive particles will not re-contaminate cleaned areas. Despite the US Atomic Energy Commision (AEC) having known since 1955 from its disastrous nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands that radioactive material does not dissipate but moves in scattered pockets and streams in sea water,17 in 2013 the Japanese government and TEPCO continue to use a dispersal as decontamination method, both on land and into the Pacific ocean. The use of decontamination instead of evacuation and entombment of the reactors, has meant the award of significant contracts to construction companies to perform tasks whose true effectiveness are disputed. At the same time, general confusion prevails concerning the effects of radioactive materials, how they spread and how to protect against them.18

The subsequent creation of this surplus population in addition to those affected by the initial disaster is symptomatic of a crisis of late capitalism. In the same way that medical treatment of HIV and cancer now favours a managerial over a curative approach which benefits the pharmaceutical industry through long-term course prescriptions, monitoring and decontamination programs in Fukushima tend to defer the recognition of reality as part of the prescription. Similarly, the chronic illness caused by low-level radiation exposure leaves the person alive but in a permanently debilitated state. The concerted attempt to assuage public anxiety seems to be aimed at gradually normalising radiation as part of everyday life – studied or transformed into industrial production in some way, but not accurately diagnosed and sufficiently treated. As the sovereign appetite for power increases in lieu of trans-national market competition, projected external threats and national policy transformation, stress fractures in the social and environmental fabric are developing of which the Fukushima disaster is just one example. As people ingest radioactive materials (hot metal particles) dispersed from the reactors as a by-product of a stressed sovereign industry, their health has been and is being sacrificed in exchange for the protection and expansion of sovereign life.


V Local testimonies

Dr Hida’s thesis and the ‘downwinder’ theory may not be far-fetched.45 Cornelia Hesse-Honneger, a Swiss scientific artist, has over 20 years collected and drawn ‘true leaf bugs’ (Heteroptera) from around fallout areas and the peripheries of nuclear power plants. Characterised by their remaining within their habitat, Hesse-Honegger describes these bugs as ‘bio-indicators’ (early warnings) because they are sensitive to radiation and develop much more rapidly than mice and humans.46 Her field-work sites include Chernobyl, Switzerland (Aargau), Sweden, France (La Hague), Germany (Gundremmingen), Sellafield (Cumbria), Pennsylvania (Three Mile Island) and the Nevada desert.


Her research suggests that the official ‘low dose event’ category for Chernobyl, and its estimate of 28-32 deaths from acute radiation and 15 subsequent deaths from thyroid cancer is mistaken and should be re-calculated.47 Of the 16,000 bugs collected until 2007, she found a 30% increase in severe deformities (missing feeler sections, malformed wings, asymmetric body segments, ulcers, black spots, altered pigmentation), 10 times higher than the 1-3% norm. Rather than concentric circles used to measure the distance from the hypocenter as in the model used for Hiroshima, she found topography, wind direction and hydrology as determinants in radiation distribution.

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