15 July 2019
In March – on the eighth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster – Time magazine published an article with the headline: “Want to Stop Climate Change? Then It’s Time to Fall Back in Love with Nuclear Energy”. In it, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix, evokes the imminent threat of climate catastrophe to argue, “There are paths out of this mess. But on March 11, 2011 [the day of the Fukushima disaster], the world’s course was diverted away from one of the most important. I am talking about nuclear energy”. He continues by criticising public fears of nuclear as irrational: “Plane crashes have not stopped us from flying, because most people know it is an effective means of travelling”. Blix speaks for the global nuclear industry, which is increasingly attempting to present itself as the solution to climate change.
But plane crashes do not kill untold numbers and spread deadly poisons over huge areas of the planet. Fukushima was and still is a horrific and ongoing human and environmental catastrophe, exposing the horrendous risks to which the powerful are willing to subject people and the planet. It should be remembered every time a pro-nuclear bureaucrat or politician exploits genuine concern about climate change to promote this deadly industry. It should never be forgotten.
Then disaster struck. The force of the giant waves disabled the generators powering Fukushima’s cooling system. A failed cooling system allowed temperatures inside the reactors to skyrocket, reaching up to 2,300°C. Nuclear fuel rods, requiring intense underwater cooling, quickly melted. The uranium sludge (known as corium) ground through the floor and rendered three reactors an impenetrable wreck of magmatic steel, concrete and nuclear waste.
Hydrogen explosions indicated the point of no return had been reached. Toxic plumes rose from the plant, and radioactive debris spewed out. All layers of containment were breached, and radioactive fluids began to flow into the soil and the sea. The first official reaction to the crisis was to lie to the public. While the triple meltdown was in full swing, TEPCO representatives held press conferences assuring the world that the reactors were stable, that the fuel was being cooled and contained, that there was no risk to human health. The company did not acknowledge that a meltdown had taken place until the following May. In 2016, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose admitted there had been a cover-up, describing it as “extremely regrettable”.
Today, towns such as Futaba, Tomioka and Okuma are nuclear ghost towns. In them you will find a forest of metal gates, decaying buildings, shattered glass and cars wrapped in vines. The only human faces are mannequins in store windows, still dressed in the fashion of 2011. Sprawled across the highway between towns are hundreds of black bags filled with toxic dirt. They are one of the many problems of the clean-up effort. There are about 30 million one-tonne bags of radioactive topsoil, tree branches, grass and other waste. There is no safe, long-term storage place for this material.
The clean-up is undermined by cost cutting. Workers are forced to meet strict deadlines, even if it compromises safety. “There were times when we were told to leave the contaminated topsoil and just remove the leaves so we could get everything done on schedule”, explained Minoru Ikeda, a former worker. “Sometimes we would look at each other as if to say: ‘What on earth are we doing here?’”
Scandalously, organised crime has penetrated the clean-up operations. Those with debts to the Yakuza (Japanese organised crime) have found themselves shoved into hazmat suits and set to work. The subcontracting system has allowed TEPCO to turn a blind eye to such human rights abuses.
The dangers faced by those returning to Fukushima prefecture have been a central controversy of recent years. Compelled by economic necessity, most have returned. But as of February 2019, 52,000 remain displaced, either unwilling to return or with homes in still-prohibited zones. In a recent press tour, the government repeatedly blamed “harmful rumours” for creating fear of returning as well as the Japanese public’s unwillingness to consume Fukushima’s fish and agricultural products.
Hans Blix concludes his pro-nuclear Time article by insisting, “Radiation is a force that can be destructive and dangerous if not used prudently, but it can also be tamed and used to our benefit”. But Fukushima is not just a story of nuclear technology being used imprudently. It is a story of capitalism acting as it is supposed to: putting profits ahead of the interests of the many. An untameable economic system cannot “tame” radiation.
And those who “benefit” from the powerful nuclear industry are the same people who crave military dominance. The politicians and officials currently fighting to rebuild Japanese nuclear capability are thinking far more about the military tensions surrounding them than tackling climate change. We don’t need to a build a world full of deadly nuclear power plants to combat climate change. We need clean, renewable energy and a system that prioritises people and the planet over money and military might.
Read more at Fukushima: an ongoing disaster