Japan and Nuclear Radiation

“Radiation and life cannot go together.”

So said 64-year-old Chieko Shiina, a member of the group Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation and a traditional farmer from Miyagi Prefecture, in reference to nuclear radiation, as I sat inside the tent on the floor across from her on Day 102 of the sit-in.  In years gone by she would have been 100 miles north on her farm tending her crops and doing such things as fermenting rice to make sake, harvesting leaves to make tea or manufacturing tatami mats.  However, her farm, in southern Miyagi Prefecture is just north of Fukushima and so, while Chieko’s farm is not in an evacuation area, it is too heavily contaminated with radiation for her to farm or sell her products: “I cannot let people eat these things.”

The tent encampment where we met is directly outside the Tokyo headquarters of METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) and began on September 11, the six month anniversary of the combined disasters of the March 11 genpatsu shinsai, a new term that combines a catastrophic quake with a nuclear disaster. Mothers from Fukushima traveled to Tokyo and launched the sit-in with the slogan “We Stood Up to Sit Down,” as they demanded that the Japanese government provide accurate information on the levels of radiation, better protection, and expansion of the evacuation zone for their children.

Over the last three months, the sit-in has become an organizing hub for the anti-nuclear people’s resistance in Japan as well as other protest movements against free trade agreements, the American military base in Okinawa, and the movement to stop any alteration of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that prevents Japanese troops from being deployed offensively beyond the shores of Japan.  For these reasons, the camp has been regularly targeted for harassment by groups from the Japanese Right.

While large protests of delegations from Fukushima and around the country occur regularly, Chieko is there full-time, braving the elements and frigid temperatures of winter time Tokyo.  She intends to continue the encampment for 10 months and 10 days, the length of time that Japanese traditionally consider that a mother carryies a child as she believes that “the style of fighting should be derived from life” and “that is why it is 10 months and 10 days.”  Emblazoned across the top of one of the many hand-outs at the camp is her slogan: “Women are Pregnant with the Future.”

Another woman I met there, Hisako Tsuruta, told me why she had joined the sit-in: “I am 73 years old, but I can still move and I can still walk.  I need to act before I perish.  I have been building this society of destruction and pollution since the Second World War and I didn’t say anything before, so I am responsible.  Now I must make change.”

Echoing the language of the Occupy Movement, [a large banner at the encampment proclaims “We are the 99%”], Hisako was keen to make broader connections to environmental and social problems that could only be solved by the people acting in unison:

We are all the same, people cannot eat, don’t have jobs, there’s money for war but not people.  Within ourselves we have the power to solve these problems.  With people’s collaboration we can do anything; politicians should leave these problems to us to solve.  People are making the connections and so there is hope in the world.  Before, the image of Fukushima women was quiet, not emotional, now they start to stand up – and sat in.  Even if we lose, we must resist.

The theme of resistance was in the air at a meeting I attended between government representatives of NISA and METI and environmental organizations such as Green Action, Friends of the Earth (Japan) and the Citizens Nuclear Information Center, (CNIC).  Over 150 people, representing 125 organizations had endorsed two demands and were there to grill the government functionaries about cracked pipes between the reactors and the coolant system at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant.

As a result of scheduled maintenance, safety concerns and popular protests, only 8 of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan are currently operational and producing power.  Due to energy conservation efforts, there are nevertheless no blackouts.  This fact had not escaped the people in the room, who questioned what the need for any nuclear power was if, through a combination of energy conservation and a switch to clean, renewable energy, nuclear power in Japan, which previously supplied over 30% of electrical demand, could easily be made entirely redundant.  The room broke into strong applause when Ryoichi Hattori, Social Democrat member of the House of Representatives, came to the microphone to ask why this summer, rather than restarting any reactors, they couldn’t all be shut down and the Japanese people would see how they could live without any nuclear power.

Despite this, the government and NISA is pushing to restart some of the reactors early next year after completion of “stress tests” that they claim will show that the reactors are safe to operate, even in the event of another earthquake.  Environmental and other concerned citizen groups contend that the stress tests are based on a faulty and potentially fatal premise: that the earthquake itself did not cause pipes to crack and release steam and radiation, even before the tsunami hit.

Activists were there to present their two demands and provide evidence to back up their claim that pipes were indeed damaged by the earthquake, thereby invalidating the basis of the stress tests which are based on reactor earthquake-resistance analysis that rules out pipe damage from the earthquake.  If the stress tests on the reactors that the government wants to restart are without foundation and based on incorrect analysis, then none of the idled nuclear plants should be restarted.

The backdrop to the discussion and contributing to the tension in the air and the intensity of the meeting is the continuing disaster at Fukushima that has so negatively impacted the 80,000 evacuees and led to Chieko being forced from her farm, as well as those who are still trying to live nearby outside the official evacuation area but are scared of the radiation and unsure of whether it’s actually safe for themselves or their children.

Three reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi are now known to have suffered meltdowns of the highly radioactive fuel rods, with the strong possibility of some fuel melting through the inner containment vessel and pooling on the reactor floor.  Elevated radiation levels have shown up in food staples such as rice and milk in Fukushima prefecture, an area known for its agriculture and a significant farming region of Japan as radiation vented to the atmosphere when hydrogen explosions blew the roofs off two of the reactor buildings after the reactors lost electricity and therefore coolant.

Radioactive plutonium, the most toxic element known to humanity and one that does not exist on earth – it is only manufactured inside nuclear reactors as part of the fission of the uranium fuel – [EPA states: "Plutonium is considered a man-made element, although scientists have found trace amounts of naturally occurring plutonium produced under highly unusual geologic circumstances." -- Ed.] has been detected far from the plant itself, indicating beyond doubt that the inner and outer containment structures have been ruptured and the core of at least one reactor has been exposed.  The dumping of vast quantities of radioactively contaminated water into the oceans has also occurred as workers at the plant struggled to prevent further explosions by keeping the fuel rods cool and were forced to release the largest ever amounts of radiation into the sea when they ran out of storage space.  As the plants are still leaking, groundwater continues to become contaminated and because of the extremely high levels of radiation inside the plant and all of the wrecked equipment it’s still impossible to know the full extent of the damage to the cores and how badly melted they are.  Despite this, the new Japanese Prime Minister Noda declared on December 16 that the reactors were now stable and in “cold shutdown” and the nuclear crisis had “been resolved” which brought heavy editorial criticism from the Japan Times under the title “Nuclear Crisis Far From Resolved.”

Hence, the two demands at the meeting were that there should be no publishing of a report on the accident until all of the facts were collected, and secondly, that until the government knows the exact causes of the accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi plants, they should not restart any of the inactive nuclear reactors around the country.

Local activist groups are also pushing for an enlarged evacuation zone and better compensation for those forced to relocate and who have lost their jobs along with their homes.  The four hour meeting grew increasingly fractious as it became apparent that the government bureaucrats were not in a position to relay any fresh information or answer any questions from the floor.

The meeting brought strong reminders of a similar meeting in New York in late spring that I attended between community members and the US’s equivalent of NISA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  At that meeting, 600 attendees grew increasingly enraged by the lack of real information or space for dialogue from NRC representatives until local activists took over the meeting and ran it in a democratic manner where people were allowed to present evidence against the 36 year old Indian Point nuclear power plant and finally have a say in how energy would, or would not, be produced in their community.

After one ministerial representative had repeatedly read aloud the exact same non-answer to people’s questioning, Ryoichi Hattori demanded that he be replaced by someone who could answer the people’s questions as they had the right to be informed.

A lower level bureaucrat was replaced, another quickly came in and eventually it was admitted that the government cannot confirm whether the pipes were cracked by the earthquake, nor can they rule out that the cracks were made worse by the tsunami.  Not at all to the reassurance of anyone there, the new bureaucrat said that this was partly because the government had not yet received all of the necessary information from the plant’s operator and owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the infamous TEPCO, and that they were not sure that they would get all of the information in the future.

In Japan, the term “nuclear energy village” refers to the tight connections between the government, the government’s regulatory body, NISA and nuclear corporations such as TEPCO which, to all intents and purposes, regulate themselves, a point highlighted by a New York Times investigative report detailing the “culture of complicity” and corruption by TEPCO at Fukushima-Daiichi that undermined safety at the plant.

As the Japanese government seeks to sweep the nuclear disaster under the rug, and maintain Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy, continuing to put the Japanese people, who live on a volcanically and geologically active island in tremendous danger, it is clear that only the combined pressure of valiant fighters like Chieko Shiina will force the government to rethink its pro-corporate energy policy and move Japan toward a renewable and safe energy future.  As she told me, “it’s human nature to fight.  And this fight is international.  The actions to change the system make you change.  Both are important and necessary.  This unequal power structure will lead to change, but we must fight”.

Tomorrow, I travel to Fukushima to spend Christmas in the radiation zone, speaking with those most directly affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.