By David Aquije, 15 January 2021
After Japan lifted its state of emergency, due to the coronavirus, on May 31, Maryknoll Sister Kathleen Reiley expressed relief that COVID-19 was settling down in the country. But, she said, “The problem with the nuclear accident and what to do with nuclear waste will be around for hundreds of years.”
We also visited the Nuclear Disaster Information Centre, a high-tech museum built by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), owner and operator of the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear plant. The admission-free, two-story, 1,900 square-meter exhibition space, was opened in November 2018 to inform visitors of how the nuclear disaster began and the progress made on the safety of nuclear energy. But the museum offered a stark contrast to the ghost town that surrounds it.
Mrs. Tanaka (not her real name to protect her identity) is one of the 10 percent of residents who have come back to live in the area and is still trying to rebuild her life. March 11, 2011, is seared in her memory. She recalls putting her children into her car and fleeing toward the mountains, watching in horror in her rear-view mirror the approaching wave of destruction as the tsunami swept over her town. Although she is not a Catholic, she regularly meets with other survivors at a Catholic kindergarten and community centre built to help families that have returned to the area.
Sister Reiley has striven to show God’s love for the people by speaking out against nuclear energy in a country whose 52 nuclear plants, she believes, pose an enormous threat to human life.
After the triple disaster in 2011, Sister Reiley responded to the Japanese Catholic Church’s call for volunteers. “Initially I went several times a year to several different Japan Caritas bases wherever the need was at the time,” says Sister Reiley. “But gradually towns far away from the reactor returned to normal, (except) Haramachi where the need is still great for the elderly, differently abled and those people in a low economic bracket. They don’t have the means to move away from the reactor area.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sister Reiley has not been able to return to Haramachi, or to the children’s ward at the cancer hospital where she volunteers as a counsellor because volunteers are considered non-essential workers. But her commitment to speaking out against nuclear energy continues.
Her concern about nuclear energy began in 1979 in her native Schuylkill County, Pa. She was visiting home from her mission in Japan when there was a reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in nearby Dauphin County. It is considered the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“We’re poisoning our earth,” Sister Reiley remembers her father saying shortly after the nuclear accident.
“In 1999, there was a nuclear accident at the Tokaimura [nuclear facility] in Ibaraki Prefecture,” Sister Reiley says. “About two years after that accident happened, I asked the families [at the cancer hospital], ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Ibaraki.’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Ibaraki.’”
Out of the 24 beds for children with cancer at the hospital, at the time, seven children were from Ibaraki, explains the missioner. “But nobody can document that and say absolutely, ‘that’s why [the nuclear accident] they got cancer’.”
Still, the missioner works tirelessly to raise awareness about the dangers in nuclear energy. Nearly 25 years after the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, Sister Reiley read an article, in a Japanese newspaper, about the high incidences of cancer linked to the nuclear accident. The report cited a study conducted by an international team of researchers led by the National Cancer Institute. That gave the Maryknoll sister an opportunity to question what happened at the nuclear facility in Japan. She visited the newspaper headquarters to speak to the editors.
“Won’t you please do some research about Tokaimura? About the accident that happened in Ibaraki?” she asked. The paper did not respond to her request. She was undaunted.