As 2012 draws to a close, evaluating the ongoing effects of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on the people of Japan is a difficult and depressing task. After having fled their homes due to the tsunami and resulting triple nuclear meltdown, 21 months later an estimated 160,000 citizens still have not returned home. Reports of illness in humans and livestock continue to underscore the far reaching and difficult to predict impacts that a nuclear accident can cause. In July, 36% of Japanese children screened were found to have abnormal thyroid growths. This fall, an illness dubbed the “Fukushima syndrome” was reported to be killing cattle near the Fukushima prefecture. Mutations are already observed in butterflies and other insects, whose shorter life cycles allow genetic disruptions to display more quickly than in mammals or humans.
The World Health Organization downplayed radiation and exposure risks in a report they released last summer, which is being discredited as biased by members of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Dr. Alex Rosen, from Germany said, “It is unclear why a report written mainly by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and collaborating nuclear institutions would need to be published in the name of the WHO, if not to provide an unsuspicious cover” for the true radiation levels Fukushima residents were exposed to. The United Nations issued a recent report concluding that delaying the release of factual radiation data and exposure risks put residents and workers in greater danger than was necessary. This echoes the findings of an independent panel earlier this year, that called the Fukushima nuclear disaster a “man-made” catastrophe.
The Asahi Shimbun reports the technical details of the reactors here, and the outlook is still grim. In the article, Nuclear Regulatory Authority Shunichi Tanaka Chairman said, “The situation surrounding the decommissioning process is volatile, so there is a need for constant reviews in securing safety.” They are running out of room to store radioactive water and, despite reducing the amount of radioactivity being released from the reactors, there are still radioactive plumes being released.
Former chief research scientist at the now-defunct Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, Fumiya Tanabe, said, ”Despite the (officially declared) cold shutdowns of the reactors, the cooling functions have been maintained there with no knowledge of where the melted fuel lies and in what state. There is a risk of unforeseen circumstances arising if another major earthquake hits.”
The national Japanese elections earlier this month yielded unexpected results, with the Liberal Democratic Party winning despite it’s pro-nuclear platform in a largely anti-nuclear nation. One problem may lie in the belief that eliminating nuclear power could further negatively impact Japan’s recovering economy. This is complicated by the reliance nuclear communities have upon the money they receive in taxes, among other incentives, for hosting a reactor, which often translates into a tax base that is double that of non-nuclear communities. Despite this, many Japanese people are concerned that a focus on the economy will undermine safety concerns related to new geologic evidence of fault lines under other reactors.
October was a month of long overdue admissions, as Tokyo Power Electric Company (Tepco) finally admitted fault in the accident, citing a lack of safety culture and long term “bad habits” as exacerbating the accident. Yoshihoko Noda also offered thanks to the “Fukushima 50,” saying “Thanks to your dedication, we have managed to preserve Japan.” While this expression of gratitude is long overdue, it falls short of the debt owed to these brave people who risked their lives to do their job. The impacts their sacrifices could have on their long-term health will only be known over time.