Lessons from Fukushima

Carl Clowes reports on a visit to Japan to witness the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear power plant explosions


A visit to Japan, and specifically Fukushima, is not an obvious destination for a traveller in the wake of the series of explosions at the Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. However, given the daily promotion by politicians of all persuasions of the benefits of a nuclear renaissance for Ynys Môn I decided to visit Japan on behalf of People Against Wylfa B (PAWB) last November.

Japan is a country of 127 million people. It’s the world’s third largest economy and has traditionally been in the forefront of technological development. How was it possiblein such an advanced society for large areas of the Fukushima Prefecture to become a wasteland as people were evacuated following the uncontrolled release of radiation by the several explosions at Daiichi ?

One of the key moments of our week-long visit was a meeting with Katsunobu Sakurai, the Mayor of Minamisoma City in Fukushima Prefecture. We travelled to Fukushima  by train before hiring a car to travel to Minamisoma.To get there, we passed through Litate-mura. This was the area most affected by the plume of radiation which was carried north-west by the prevailing wind at the time and beyond the 30 kilometre Evacuation Zone.

Perhaps the most haunting image of the week was the journey across country as it necessitated travelling through this now bereft region. Farm after farm had been abandoned, shops were deserted, cars forsaken and houses left to decay. There was no sign of any crops, simply field after field with the top-soil removed only to be stored under blue tarpaulins nearby. There was no life for mile after mile with the exception of the occasional JCB beavering away at the forlorn task of decontamination. It is estimated that just 2 per cent of the heavily irradiated area has been decontaminated to date. Surrounded by forests and with the annual snows shortly to arrive, it seems an unending task as year on year the annual thaw brings yet more radiation to the fields below.

The Mayor described how a large percentage of the population was evacuated from the area. Of the 154,000 people who were forced to move, two-thirds were taken to temporary accommodation in other districts within the Prefecture. However, some 57,000 had to leave the region permanently and have taken up alternative accommodation elsewhere in Japan. This movement of people has had a very negative impact on the local economy, with many services closing as they became non-viable.

The Mayor described how this deprived area had initially supported nuclear build as a means of boosting employment. Very few local people felt able to speak out against it because family and friends were involved in the industry. Deja vu indeed ! When asked the straight question as to how, based on his experiences, he would respond to politicians in Wales who were in favour of new nuclear power plants, the simplicity of the response was powerful – “Don’t, don’t don’t !” And he added, “Any short term benefits are not worth it as our whole society is now devastated.”

The health consequences for the people of the region became clear when we met Dr. Tomoyoshi Oikawa, Assistant Director at the Minasmisoma General Hospital. Of the eight hospitals in the north west quadrant of the district surrounding the Daiichi plants, seven closed immediately, two being within 20 kilometres radius. Dr Oikawa’s hospital, at 23 kilometres, with 260 beds was faced with an impossible challenge. Should he evacuate the hospital or not?

With many elderly patients, he initially decided to remain and keep the hospital open. Staff were encouraged to stay, but free to choose to evacuate. He showed an image of his diet for four days. There was little to sustain them, he lost 4kg in weight. For ten days, no supplies were coming in – not even oxygen. Without fuel to commute, the staff slept on the hospital floors. He was forced to abandon the site when the Ministry finally intervened. Patients were moved to far-away Niigata Prefecture, in uncomfortable trucks belonging to the Self Defence Forces (no ambulances being available). As he feared, some 23 elderly people died in the process. The resilience of Dr. Oikawa left a very indelible impression. Fighting for his own survival, the uncertainty of what was going to happen next with radiation levels, the need to treat patients under very difficult circumstances and, on top of everything else, trying to manage the hospital and decide its fate!

The legal implications of events at Daiichi are clear at every juncture and in every conversation in Japan. Three companies were responsible for the four damaged reactors :

Reactor 1 – General Electric

Reactor 2 – General Electric and Toshiba

Reactor 3 – Toshiba

Reactor 4 – Hitachi

Legal action for the consequences of the Daiichi disaster is being taken on two fronts. Firstly, a case against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the provider of electricity in the area, led by Mr Murata, a former journalist with Asahi Shimbun. Mr Murata lived and worked on a small-holding in what became an evacuated area some 61 kilometres from the Daiichi reactors and was forced to abandon everything. He now lives in Yokohama and leads a class-action against TEPCO.

Secondly, an Attorney-at-Law, Shima Akihiro is leading a group of 22 lawyers with the long-term aim of filing a suit against General Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi. He believes they will hide behind a ‘protection law’ in the first instance, something which will  need to be challenged in a Constitutional Court. Shima Akihiro’s team also comprises former technical workers in the nuclear industry and aims to attract support from some 10,000 individuals from a range of countries including Wales so that the nuclear industry manufacturers understand the extent of concern for their equipment.

However, all was not negative!

The Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), Iida Tetsunari related his journey from being a nuclear engineer in the industry until 15 years ago when he became tired of the infiltration of policy makers in government by what he described as the “nuclear mafia” who were gradually “controlling energy policy”. With finance from Germany, he has successfully established the ISEP and pioneeered the first community energy project in Japan in 2004. There are now over 30 in the country.  He expressed concerns about the enthusiasm of the Ministry of Economic Development to support the export of nuclear technology to other countries such as India, Turkey and, of course, Wales.

The rationale for these developments was based on their failure to develop at home. The immorality of this move, to develop outside Japan something which they are unable to do at home, does not appear to have entered government or corporate thinking. The pro-nuclear policies of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have, nevertheless, been criticised by four former Prime Ministers.

The time has never been more ripe for Japan to turn its back on new nuclear and nobody has had more favourable conditions to achieve a nuclear-free option than Abe. It’s only the all-pervasive influence of the nuclear industry in government that prevents such a move.

There is healthy debate and regular protest rallies. We were privileged to sit in a seminar organised by Sayonara Nukes, an umbrella organisation camaigning for a nuclear-free Japan. We witnessed a rally where a petition of over 8 million signatures opposing nuclear development was presented to government. Greenpeace have bought shares in Hitachi and are campaigning from within. Friends of the Earth are working with evacuees and have travelled Europe highlighting their plight. It’s clear that much is being done to prevent another similar disaster in a whole variety of ways.

There can only be one rational conclusion following our visit. Japan understands the consequences of a nuclear disaster and even the TEPCO president Naomi Hirose has warned recently that the UK could face a similar outcome in the future, albeit from a totally different set of circumstances. Accidents, by definition, can and do happen.

The warnings for Wales from Japan couldn’t be clearer:

  • The elected mayor of a stricken district in Fukushima says DON’T develop nuclear.
  • Worldwide legal action against Hitachi is pending and there is little certainty they will remain as producers of nuclear reactors in the future.
  • The exporting of a technology no longer allowed at home is immoral.

Let’s hope there are politicians here who take the time to reflect and, more importantly, learn from the experiences of our brothers and sisters in Japan. This is no legacy to leave for future generations.

Carl Clowes authored the PAWB Manifesto founded the Nant Gwrtheyrn Trust in 1978, and is Honorary Consul for Lesotho.