Firsthand in Fukushima: Fish, Evacuations, and the Real Dangers of Our Opinions

Ever since Heather and I launched Mothers for Nuclear on Earth Day, 2016, we have fielded a steady barrage of anti-nuclear sentiment from people who are not convinced about the merits of nuclear energy. One consistent taunt we hear is “go to Japan, go to Fukushima, then you’ll see that nuclear energy is not the clean energy solution you say it is.” So, on one chilly day in February of 2018, we accepted the challenge.

Getting on a bus in Tokyo, ready for the ride to Fukushima prefecture

Getting on a bus in Tokyo, ready for the ride to Fukushima prefecture

The timing could have been better. Besides the winter cold, I am six months pregnant and girding myself for the inevitable accusations that I am an irresponsible mother. Piles of research papers fill the backpack at my feet telling me that my choice is safe, but data alone does not explain the pull that I feel to see firsthand what happens when nuclear energy goes wrong.

The bus ride from Tokyo to Fukushima prefecture was a long and beautiful journey along the coast, across the expansive countryside, and through winding mountain tunnels. Along the way we saw villages built up in the low-lying expanses between mountains, and rice paddies fighting with the forest for territory. Joining in the battle for open space was a large number of solar installations, cutting into the hillsides where trees once stood. Most notable for us energy-minded moms were the many fossil fueled power stations, enough to lose count of, sending their particulate-filled emissions billowing high across the grey-blue morning sky.

Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, all of Japan’s 50 nuclear power stations were shut down. To date, only five have resumed operations. Japan replaced the 47.5GWe of nuclear energy with fossil fuels -mostly imported natural gas, coal, and oil- causing high prices and a dramatic increase in carbon and particulate emissions (“Clean Energy in Crisis: Japan,” 2017). After the nuclear power shutdown, carbon emissions in the country rose to the highest levels ever recorded in their history (“Nuclear Power in Japan,” 2017).

Japan is eager to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, and they have received pressure to pursue an anti-nuclear, pro-renewable model similar to the German Energiewende. However, without the connectivity to power supplies from neighboring countries, any replacement generation must be deployed only in Japan (an understandable situation for an island nation). This puts Japan in the tricky yet uniquely honest position of needing to review their energy mix and future options based on the actual economic and environmental impacts, without the luxury of relying on neighbors to hide their fossil fuel pollution or to compensate for the unreliability of intermittent energy sources. Japan doesn’t have the easy-way-out option of phasing out nuclear without regard to consequences, making it even more important to give the pros and cons of every energy source a thorough review.

As we get closer to the Fukushima Dai-ichi site, mounds of black bags were stacked in neat piles along the sides of the road, containing contaminated soil that was removed from the affected zone following the accident. I cringe at the understandable use of these plastic coffins to store soil. The recycling imperative that has been impressed on me since childhood is to reduce, reuse, and recycle; however, regulations, public fears, and practical concerns prevent “closing the loop” in the cleanup of contaminated materials from a nuclear site. This soil will spend an untold amount of time in these bags, much like the fate of modern society’s neatly bagged dog poop or individually wrapped used baby diapers that we callously heap into landfills.

Briefing with TEPCO employees, prior to entry into the evacuation zone

Briefing with TEPCO employees, prior to entry into the evacuation zone

We park at a TEPCO building and meet with employees to receive a briefing on our visit, who relay the current status of the site cleanup. We are directed to leave our cameras and cell phones behind, and we board a bus that will take us into the evacuation zone.

The evacuation zone is surreal – buildings devastated by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake are frozen in time. Cars are abandoned in driveways, signs for commercial buildings teeter in the air and violent piles of broken glass lay across showroom floors. Vehicle traffic passes through, but turnoffs and driveways are gated to restrict anyone from lingering. Although my intellect is aware that the earthquake caused this damage, my emotion weaves the words “nuclear disaster” into the images passing by our icy windows.

Trees and grasses didn’t get the evacuation message, and they happily stayed behind to take over buildings, parking lots, and abandoned cars. Fields that were once rice paddies are now young forests - branches tangling together and reaching for the sun with no one there to restrict their growth.

As we arrive onsite, the first thing I see is a wide expanse of tanks. These aren’t just any tanks, they are huge, hulking, welded steel giants, a silent army standing before us. TEPCO has clear-cut a forest to create space for yet another tank farm, and we learn that the site has capacity for a whopping 300 more tanks. These tanks hold processed water that was removed from the basements of the reactor buildings. Although the water has been filtered and cleaned up, the presence of tritium, a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen, complicates the future of this water.

Although the level of tritium in the water is far below levels that would have an impact on human health, the scientific perspective is not the only lens through which to view this issue (Conca, 2017). Officials are wrestling with the complicated issues of public perspective and stakeholder involvement – while the science says it’s safe, what will release of this water do to public opinion? Will the fishing industry be affected? Will public trust be affected? Will discrimination towards people and agricultural products from the prefecture persist? The situation requires careful consideration, and it is not a decision I envy.

After arrival onsite we are ushered into a building to begin the entry process into the radiation-controlled area. We receive another briefing, this one related to radiation exposure. I am always cautious about my radiation exposure, and especially so when pregnant. I wrote earlier about the fear that radiation exposure causes – a fear that’s amplified by our inability to see radiation or perceive how much dose we are receiving. I am not immune from that fear, but the thing that many people don’t realize about nuclear sites is the high attention given to radiation detection and measurement. For people who like being informed, a nuclear site is a comfortable place to be in regards to radiation – you can find out the radiation levels in an area before you go there, and you can use precise measuring equipment to monitor your exposure. This knowledge enables you to make real-time adjustments and keep your exposure low.

Comparison of background radiation levels around the world. Graphic from the World Nuclear Association.

Comparison of background radiation levels around the world. Graphic from the World Nuclear Association.

On this journey we have the honor of traveling with delegates from many different countries. A representative from Finland shared her perspectives on radiation, relating the relatively high levels of naturally occurring background radiation in Finland and in other areas around the world. If our entire globe was being held to the same cleanup standard as the land around Fukushima Dai-ichi, whole countries would be on the cleanup list (“Nuclear Radiation and Health Effects,” 2016, and “First Returns and Intentions…,” 2016). In the same conversation, we also noted the long life expectancy that Fins enjoy, and the fact that she looks close to my age when in fact she is a grandmother. Perhaps a little extra radiation isn’t the worst thing.

As the bus winds through the surprisingly large site, we see that much of the rubble created by the hydrogen explosions at Units 1, 3 and 4 has been cleared away. An enclosure is being built around the Unit 4 fuel pool to prepare for the next steps of fuel removal and storage. Radiation levels around Unit 3 are the highest that we encounter onsite as our bus passes next to the crippled structure. Closer to the water we see huge tanks that were thrown around by the tsunami like children’s bath-toys. On the site it is especially difficult to differentiate tsunami and earthquake damage from the damage caused by the hydrogen explosions. After this experience it is easier to understand why the natural disasters are conflated with the nuclear accident in the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The cleanup at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site will take decades and cost billions of dollars, although it is hard to say that this is a direct result of the nuclear accident. Some of this is also a product of our fears. Because of our fear of radiation and lack of public support for nuclear, policies are created that impose arduous and costly cleanup measures. While some of these measures are essential for continued protection of public and worker safety, many are not, and the line between the two is very blurred and very gray.

Conflicting messages from government, academic, nuclear industry, environmental advocates, and anti-nuclear groups all play a role in low public opinion and widespread mistrust. Scientists tell us that low levels of radiation are not harmful, but the policies regarding radiation limits for the general public are inconsistent. For example – in Fukushima prefecture, an evacuation order can be lifted once the radiation levels are low enough to result in an annual dose to the public of 20mSv (“First Returns and Intentions…,” 2016). However, the government also set 1mSv annual dose as a long term goal (“For Accelerating the Reconstruction of Fukushima…,” 2013). So what is safe – is 20mSv per year safe, or is 1mSv per year safe? It is not difficult to see why the public is suspicious (“First Returns and Intentions…,” 2016).

In the project management profession it is said that you can prioritize quality, schedule, or cost, but not all three. In the case of nuclear cleanup at Fukushima Dai-ichi (and at other closed reactor sites), the quality of the cleanup is the clear priority, leaving cost and/or schedule to inflate accordingly. Unfortunately, it seems all of this focus on extensive cleanup does little to impact public opinion; rather, it reinforces public fear as the unspoken communication is that there must be something very dangerous about low levels of radiation since we spend so much time and money isolating it (“First Returns and Intentions…,” 2016).

Communication needs to improve, that is undeniable. The public needs to hear consistent and accurate information about why nuclear energy is important to them, the trade-offs inherent in every energy source, and the real risks involved in their choices. Most people want to know why something matters to them before they will spend time asking questions about how it works. We can’t expect the public to become discerning nuclear experts just because a policy paper has been distributed, someone handed out a leaflet on radiation, or some guy in a suit announced that nuclear is safe. The nuclear industry has gained expert status at scaring people.

Although decades of poor communication have crippled public acceptance of nuclear energy, perhaps the most egregious offenders in this space are those individuals and organizations who intentionally spread misinformation for the purpose of stoking public fears. There is no kind way to justify this behavior. Not everyone will accept nuclear energy even when given correct information, and it is their right to be able to make up their own minds. However, I think it is also the public's right to have access to accurate information upon which to base their decisions.  

Illustration by Jack Cook, courtesy of the Coastal Ocean Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Illustration by Jack Cook, courtesy of the Coastal Ocean Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Spreading fear of nuclear is not a victimless act. Have you ever said “Fukushima” to someone as a way of expressing an opinion about nuclear energy? Heather and I see this all the time on social media, as many commenters think that simply typing the word communicates enough for us to change our minds and start spewing vitriol about nuclear energy. However, did it occur to you that Fukushima is the name of an entire Japanese prefecture? Callous exaggerations of the dangers of low level radiation and the branding of the Fukushima prefecture as a toxic disaster zone is a shameful attack on the many beautiful citizens of this area, their livelihoods, their identities, and their futures.

The ocean is fine, the reopened areas are fine, and the people living here need your support (Buesseler, 2016; Conca, 2017; and “First Returns and Intentions…,” 2016). Many of these people are the same ones who saw 18,000 of their friends, family, and neighbors killed in an instant by a monstrous wave. These people deserve empathy and compassion as they rebuild their lives, not the scarlet letter that the world has pinned on them for their association with one troubled nuclear site.

Fukushima Fish

Fukushima Fish

Our freedom of thought is one of our most valuable treasures, but we should all understand the impact our beliefs and opinions have on others. I don’t fault those who make decisions they feel are “conservative” when lacking information, but the behavior I’d like to see us all adopt is a willingness to change our minds when presented with better information instead of digging in our heels and turning to fringe websites and discredited sources to confirm our original opinions. This is especially important when our opinions have a victim on the other end of them.

It will take weeks, months, or maybe longer to unpack and process everything I saw and learned on this visit, but for now I’ll close with these thoughts – nuclear accidents are scary, natural disasters are scarier, fear of radiation hurts people, and the fish from Fukushima are delicious.

--Kristin


References:

1.       Environmental Progress (2017). Clean Energy in Crisis: Japan. Retrieved from: http://environmentalprogress.org/japan/.

2.       Buesseler, Ken & Kostel, Ken (2016). Fukushima and Radiation in the Ocean. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.whoi.edu/visualWHOI/fukushima-and-radiation-in-the-ocean--how-much

3.       Buesseler, Ken (2016). FAQ’s: Radiation from Fukushima. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=127297

4.       Conca, James (2017). Why Japan Should Release Radioactive Fukushima Water Into The Ocean. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/11/29/japan-should-release-tritium-contaminated-water-to-the-ocean/#66d77fc6d8ce

5.       For Accelerating the Reconstruction of Fukushima From the Nuclear Disaster. Cabinet Decision on December 20, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.meti.go.jp/english/earthquake/nuclear/roadmap/pdf/20140605_01.pdf

6.       Institute for Radiological Protection & Nuclear Safety, France (2016). First returns and intentions to return of residents evacuated following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Retrieved from: http://www.irsn.fr/EN/publications/thematic-safety/fukushima/fukushima-2016/Documents/43-IRSN_Fukushima-2016_Society-residents-return_201603.pdf

7.       Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Finland. Natural Background Radiation. Retrieved from: https://www.stuk.fi/web/en/topics/environmental-radiation/natural-background-radiation

8.       World Nuclear Association (2017). Nuclear Power in Japan. Retrieved from: http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-g-n/japan-nuclear-power.aspx

9.       World Nuclear Association (2016). Nuclear Radiation and Health Effects. Retrieved from: http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/radiation-and-health/nuclear-radiation-and-health-effects.aspx