- Views & Opinions
The worst nuclear accident in history occurred five years ago at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan.
Following an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, three out of four reactors on the site melted down and a hydrogen explosion released deadly radiation into the atmosphere.
Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the owner of the Fukushima nuclear plant, were recently indicted for criminal negligence for failing to take action to prevent damage to the nuclear plant from a tsunami. Experts had warned Tepco about the dangers of an earthquake and a tsunami hitting the plant in June 2009.
Approximately 150,000 people were evacuated in response to the accident. It is estimated that about 700 square miles of land in Fukushima Prefecture have now been contaminated by high levels of radiation. But the Fukushima nuclear disaster is far from over.
The damaged reactors continue to leak radioactivity into the surrounding soil and sea. To minimize further radioactive releases, vast quantities of cooling water are needed. This contaminated cooling water is accumulating at the site and being discharged into the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, according to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, “failures in the makeshift cooling systems are occurring repeatedly. The damaged nuclear reactors and spent fuel ponds, containing vast amounts of radioactivity, are highly vulnerable to further earthquake, tsunami, typhoon or deliberate damage. Further catastrophic releases of radioactivity are possible at any time.”
Nuclear proponents in the United States try to minimize the extent of the Fukushima catastrophe by claiming that no deaths have been attributed to radiation exposure.
However, this ignores the social impact of the disaster. Official data from Fukushima show that between 2011 and 2015, nearly 2,000 people died from the effects of evacuations necessary to avoid high radiation exposures from the disaster. The mass evacuation uprooted entire communities, divided families and resulted in the loss of social support networks. These deaths were from ill health, poor physical conditions and suicides, especially among older people.
There is also great controversy over the amounts and longer-term health effects of radiation exposures from the Fukushima radioactive fallout. For example, in April 2014, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation published its report on radiation exposure due to the nuclear accident and concluded that, “No discernible changes in future cancer rates and hereditary diseases are expected due to exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident.” The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War responded with its own critique, suggesting that the UNSCEAR report was a systematic underestimation of the health and environmental effects of the disaster.
In particular, the total amount of radioactivity released by the disaster was underestimated by UNSCEAR because it only counted releases during the first weeks of the disaster and ignored all radioactive discharges to the ocean after April 30, 2011. Roughly 300 tons of highly contaminated water has been dumped into the Pacific Ocean every day for more than four years.
To focus on the lack of deaths from radiation exposure also serves to obscure the time lag between radiation exposure and deaths from cancer years later. New scientific research reported in The Ecologist from England indicates a 30-fold excess of thyroid cancer within four years after the disaster among over 400,000 young people below the age of eighteen from the Fukushima area. Thyroid cancer is a frequent occurrence as a result of acute exposure to radioactive iodine 131, a product of nuclear fission. The authors of the study note that the incidence of thyroid cancer is high by comparison with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 at the same time following exposure and warn that more cases are likely to emerge.
Naoto Kan, who was Japan’s prime minister when the Fukushima nuclear disaster began is now calling for the abolition of nuclear power. Kan compared the potential worst-case devastation that could be caused by a nuclear plant meltdown as tantamount only to “a great world war. Nothing else has the same impact.”
Al Gedicks is emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.