Report from the Green Cross Study Tour to Japan – 10 kms from the Fukishima Daiichi Power Plant

Tonia Moya, President of Green Cross Sweden, participated in the study tour to Fukushima organised by Green Cross Switzerland and Green Cross Japan in early October. This is her diary from the visit to the contaminated area:

On March 11, 2011 after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl occurred in Fukushima, resulting in the meltdown of three reactors and a damaged fourth of the site’s nuclear reactors.

I had anticipated that even if an area is contaminated with nuclear radiation that it would be something that you can’t see, feel or touch.

At the first stop, radiation levels were at 1.82 microsieverts per hour and I wore a protective suit. I didn’t notice any physical sensation whatsoever. At the second stop, I took off the protective suit but still had on the mask. Here in only minutes the atmosphere was overwhelming for me at 1.5 microsieverts. Hard to explain but heavy, lethargic, like walking around in a can of toxic paint. I felt physically ill. Almost as if radiation rays go right through the body. They say there are different types of radiation and that the nuclides attach themselves to dust particles. Finally at the third stop on Cherry Lane it was 4.0 microsieverts per hour. Shrubbery was wilted, while weeds and overgrowth have taken over courtyards.

Here in Tomioka approximately 16,000 people were evacuated. Most of the cats and dogs left behind died. All together approximately 160,000 people were evacuated from the region. One of the Tomioka refugees spoke of two deaths at the Daiichi plant that happened prior to the catastrophe, that were not made public. It was his brother who died of leukemia and another man who died exposed to burning steam.

Today in the Daiichi Nuclear Plant the reactor fuel is cooled with water which is then stored in large holding tanks. At times water from somewhere at the plant leaks into the ground water and on into the ocean. They say it will take at least 30 years to move the spent radioactive fuel. In the meantime Tepco (the utility that owns the plant) and the Japanese government are improvising interim measures by an underground “ice wall” to be built by March 2015 which is to isolate the contaminated water at the site, so it doesn’t move further into the ocean. The “French filtering technology”, by the nuclear company Areva, pumps water from the holding tanks through a filter to remove the radioactive contaminants. We heard the City Council representative say that the French technology breaks down, a fact confirmed by recent news reports. This underscores that the spread of radiation from reactors is still not under full control. These storage tanks which are above ground are vulnerable to future storms, earthquakes or even another tsunami. The ice wall requires a large amount of electricity and trained personal to maintain. So if either is lost there is a risk that the ice wall solution could fail. These lethal radionuclides are made up of cesium 137, cobalt 60, plutonium 239, plutonium 240, americium 241, and strontium 90.

They say some 300 persons have died from “suicide, stress and depression” as a result of the evacuation. Most of them were elderly.

This is only the beginning as thyroid cancers, leukemias and birth defects are long-term consequences of radiation exposure.

A poll was taken with the Tomioka villagers on whether they wish to return and only 30% wanted to come back, however the evacuation orders remain and no one can go back. Tomioka is now a ghost town, a nuclear dead zone, and just one of the many towns and villages under evacuation orders. Outside of this zone are even more cities and towns where people live with elevated radiation levels, like Koriyama, the nearby city we stayed in. In these cities mothers restrict their children from playing outside, touching plants or dirt and where they now have indoor playgrounds. Some families have vegetables shipped in from other regions as they don’t trust locally grown produce. The Fukushima refugees say they experience a sort of environmental discrimination from people in other regions. A young person from Fukushima could be considered as non-marriageable, as “damaged goods.”

People from the Fukushima region express frustration and mistrust of the Japanese government. They say their daily measurements of radiation levels are not the same as the official numbers given by the government. Electric road signs that display radiation levels have been installed where the soil has been replaced. People feel that the government is trying to downplay the health and safety risks that still remain. Pamphlets for children have been distributed to schools that say things like radiation is not dangerous and it is natural anyway. The government has done tv spots with people visiting the evacuated villages without wearing masks or any protection. Even with an estimated 70 – 80 % of the people opposed to the restart of any of the 53 reactors, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party seems intent on restarting as many as possible.

The outcome of my visit is this:

The Fukushima refugees have an important message to the world –
We must put an end to nuclear power. One elderly man evacuated said in tears that if there was any meaning for him still being alive it would be to tell this message the world.

The risks of nuclear power are simply too great.

– Tonia Moya