The Great Fukushima “Cover up”

   After the earthquake of March 11, 2011, the world’s attention was focused on the rural Japanese prefecture of Fukushima as a nuclear disaster began to unfold at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Within a few weeks the story began to fade from the headlines of leading media organizations, but blogs, minor media outlets and various non-government organizations began to speak of a “massive cover up” of the Fukushima accident. Time has proven that the more pessimistic assessments of the situation were more accurate than the deceitful and optimistic reports given by the power utility TEPCO, the Japanese government, and the U.N. agencies the WHO and the IAEA. Nonetheless, there are some good reasons not to label their criminal negligence as a “massive cover up.”
This term is far too flattering because it implies that the leaders of these institutions were capable of a coordinated and centrally-planned conspiracy that succeeded in concealing the truth of the situation. If there were a cover up, millions of people would not know the horrible facts of the situation. The reality is that this accident has been intensely scrutinized by non-government organizations and individuals, both in Japan and abroad, and this has had the effect of forcing official organizations toward more honest disclosure. Japanese media, from the mainstream NHK to the weekly tabloids, have all reported the same horrific details as the self-appointed cover up-busting blogs.
The perception of a massive cover up can be attributed to several causes. The most influential reason may be the combination of incompetence, fear and complacency within the institutions that were responsible for managing the crisis. They all have their interests to protect, and they are led by people whose careers are deeply rooted in promoting nuclear energy. No one should be surprised that they constantly downplay the situation without consciously orchestrating a conspiracy.
Another reason is that humans have no instinctive fear of radiation, and no senses for detecting it. We instinctively flee from fires, snakes and toxic fumes, but we have no innate capacity to sense the danger of radiation. It has to be grasped through the unnatural learning process called a science education, and once the danger is understood, the conscious mind has to fight signals from the senses that tell the organism that everything is fine. In this situation, everyone, from world leaders to cattle farmers tend to disbelieve the severity of the situation. This phenomenon cannot be appreciated until you have actually been in a contaminated spot and held a Geiger counter in your hand, watching the numbers jump to alarming levels. You stand in a beautiful patch of nature, the birds are singing, flowers are blooming. Everything seems completely normal. One would never know the danger.
One clear illustration of this difference in perceiving danger is in comparing the Fukushima disaster with the Japanese reaction to the bombardment of its cities during WWII. At this time an impoverished and almost defeated nation mustered the resources to evacuate urban children to the countryside. Yet now when there is a clear danger to children in Fukushima City (pop. 290,000), the nation has no motivation to move even 1% of its population to safer places. If a volcano were pouring hot lava on the Fukushima City, the country would be mobilized to help the refugees fleeing the city, but a radiation threat is too abstract, its future dangers too impossible to assess.
Another reason that many perceive a cover up is due to this same intangibility of radiation. While the ignorant masses pay no attention to it, there are self-appointed special people who are able to see through the intricate webs of lies and deceptions that mask the truth. It’s the perfect crisis for the mind that is primed to detect invisible rays and see conspiracies in everything.
Finally, there is one powerful cause that the conspiracy theorists overlook, and that is the unwillingness of citizens to confront the situation. The radiation data, and interpretations of what they mean, are available for anyone who wants to learn about them. Right now, millions of people in Japan could be striking and marching in the streets if they wanted to. They all know what has been done to them. They aren’t doing these things because they fear the breakdown in order and the economic decline that could come from resistance, and underlying this fear is the awareness that they have all been complicit in the disaster that has fallen on them. The truth is, they might really be willing to accept a higher risk of cancer if they can spend their remaining years in air conditioning.
As a non-Christian nation, they may not have much awareness of Christian parables, but at some level they comprehend what Jesus told his followers when they asked whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus made them reflect on the fact that it was Caesar’s face on the coins they would pay taxes with. They had all prospered by using the currency issued under Caesar’s protection, so they must pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Thus it is with the Japanese who appear to be passively accepting what has been done to them by a criminally negligent corporation. They know implicitly that cheap and abundant energy is the coin of the realm that lifted most of the population out of a life of subsistence. TEPCO was in collusion with the government and the bureaucracy, but also with every citizen who took payment in the coin of cheap, abundant electricity. Few people protested the dangers of nuclear power before the accident.
However, this natural sense of justice and self-responsibility, which is so admirable in some situations, is not helping Japanese people deal with the facts of the matter on the ground. The danger is literally on the ground, in the soils and the food in Northern Japan, as well as in the ocean. Japanese people are afraid to accept the reality that there has to be a FEZ (Fukushima Exclusion Zone, similar to the CEZ in Chernobyl). They fear the devaluation of the emperor’s coin and the decline in living standards that may come if the country abandons nuclear power and heads down the road of de-industrialization, but they have to face up to what this accident has made evident. Nuclear power does not belong in a land of earthquakes, and the price of past policy is being paid by young people who never had a choice in the matter.
If there appears to be a “massive cover up” in the works abetted by the “lamestream media,” as many bloggers attest, we have to wonder if it is the reluctance of the general population, of Japan and the entire world, to look squarely at the horrible implications of a world threatened by nuclear hazards. When we consume our news, we click on the news that outrages, scandalizes and titillates us, and news editors now follow the lead of consumers. They select the kinds of stories known to get the most clicks. Sometimes this attention corrects injustices that command our attention, but a nuclear nightmare cannot draw a sustained audience for long. Chunks of a large nation rendered uninhabitable for centuries? Nuclear waste that our ancestors will be left with 100,000 years from now? The implications of finite supplies of energy? Most people just cannot contemplate these issues for very long. They change the channel, click on some sports or celebrity news, and move on. The cover up is a bottom up phenomenon.


Start planning now for the end of the nuclear age

"So anyone who claims that I am a dreamer who expects to transform hell into heaven is wrong. I have few illusions. But I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right. I don't know whether I'll be able to change certain things for the better, or not at all. Both outcomes are possible. There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause."  - Vaclav Havel

I came up with the idea for this blog after having lived in Japan during the spring of 2011. Before this experience I had been gradually coming around to the belief that nuclear energy was the least bad energy alternative that we have to accept - that is, if I thought about it all. I knew the arguments that coal and oil extraction kill more people each year than radiation. I agreed with the pro-nuclear side that it was a matter of risk assessment and trade-offs. One cannot just advocate that everything dangerous should be abolished. However, I now say that it is my rational risk assessment that makes me conclude that the nuclear age has to end.
As I watched the nuclear disaster unfold in Japan, I began to learn a great deal about the nuclear age, in terms of physics, biology, history and politics. I may be an amateur, but I will educate myself and claim my right to have a voice in this issue. I had to conclude, from both study and the personal experience of living among the irradiated, that there is something qualitatively different about the hazards of nuclear energy compared with the hazards of coal, oil and other forms of energy.
The hazards of other forms of energy can at least be sensed and comprehended by a person who lacks a formal education in physics. We all know to run from a fire. We can react to, and control and contain other disasters. But nuclear energy is intangible while it has a greater potential for harm than any of the dangers that we have evolved to have natural fear of. 
Although we have so far managed to avoid nuclear war, we are still slowly irradiating the planet. It seems certain that we will continue to have nuclear "accidents" caused by unforeseen natural disasters and the dysfunction and bankruptcy of political and economic institutions. We have to plan for the end of the nuclear age now to ensure the survival of our species. We will either find the elusive solution to our energy "needs" or we will socially devolve back into agrarian societies, but we won't last for long if we continue to have a Chernobyl or a Fukushima once every 25 years.
The nuclear age cannot be ended on short notice. We need to decommission nuclear reactors and weapons, and create the safest possible storage for all the nuclear waste we have created. No one in power now will sign an agreement with deadlines in the near future because we need time to fix the mess we have made. This is why we need to set a long-term target now - one that is pragmatic but also meaningful and worthwhile. The fast approaching hundredth anniversary of the first nuclear bomb explosion (July 16, 1945) seems like a deadline that is both pragmatic and significant enough for the world to rally around.  


Cesium is forever (or, it might as well be)

There is no such thing really as a "cleanup" of a nuclear accident the size of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Most of the radionuclides stay around for centuries because of their long half lives. You can remove them or bury them, but there is no way to neutralize them. According to an article in The Guardian, when a major forest fire eventually happens in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, it will release large amounts of cesium that are now stored in the trees, and the smoke could spread as widely as in the original disaster in 1986.

A firefighter from the area was quoted as saying: "I know when I am fighting a fire on radioactively contaminated ground – you get the heat just like an ordinary fire, but you get a tingling sensation too, like pins jumping all over your body. I don't know how bad it is for me, there's no medical testing afterwards, we just go and wash."

Kan announces wish to abandon nuclear power, but what are its chances of becoming a reality?

On July 15th, 2011 Japanese Prime Minister Kan announced a policy that Japan would abandon all future plans of relying on nuclear power. However, he had to quickly backpedal by explaining that this was just a personal view that he wished to pursue in formulating a policy with his cabinet. His own party was not pleased that he spoke before a consensus had been formed, and he is likely to be strongly opposed by entrenched interests. But he is to be commended for tossing the idea out into the public arena because it puts supporters of nuclear energy on the defensive. One can only hope that momentum for Kan's "personal view" will build as the Japanese public eventually grasps the enormity of the disaster that has happened. So far, this doesn't seem to be the case. The big utilities and the national bureaucracy have enormous power, but local opposition could be effective in shutting down nuclear power one reactor at a time over the coming years.