Last week I joined an international delegation to the radiation-affected Fukushima region in Japan. The delegation was made up speakers from the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World, held in Yokohama, Japan on 14-15 January. We visited Fukushima City, which is 60km from the nuclear power plant but received a large dose of fallout; Date City, which includes a large community of evacuees living in temporary housing; and Minamisoma City, which is right on the border of the 20km "exclusion zone" around the stricken power plant.
In a country as technically sophisticated as Japan, the mess, the misinformation and the conditions people are living under in the radiation affected zones is deeply shocking. 160,000 people are still radioactive refugees. The acceptable radiation limit in the region has been increased to the same level permitted for nuclear workers — so from 1 to 20 milisieverts per year.
The snow outside our hotel in Fukushima City had a radiation reading higher than the Rum Jungle uranium site — a filthy 1950s mine site in the Northern Territory that the Australian government has budgeted $8 million over four years just to work out how to clean up. Fukushima City is a patchwork of hot spots. Children cannot play outside. Think for a moment what that is doing to families and the children’s unexercised little bodies.
The delegation was forced to think not only about the physical damage done, the evacuees, the people who cannot evacuate because they have nowhere to go or no money to get out and the splitting up of families (which happened to 93 per cent of 30,000 people surveyed by one NGO) but also about the social impact of a whole region losing its key industries of tourism and agriculture.
The persimmons on the trees in the evacuated zones we drove through were bright red and rotting with radiation. Decontamination teams — masked men in the kind of white suits I have often worn to demonstrations — were hard at work. But there is no template, there is no proven methodology for the work they are doing, and one snow storm can rain down fresh radiation and undo what has just been cleaned.
While they are keeping meticulous records that will benefit future generations, I worried very much for their safety. They badly need radiation experts and equipment. So much of the decontamination work is being done by NGOs and volunteers. They have sought funding from the government to do the work, but they are not under the auspices of any authority, they just doing it because they want the children to be able to play again, and politicians to stop calling their home towns Cities of Death (one minister resigned for making this gaff).
We were told by Citizens Radioactivity Measuring Station, the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation and the Fukushima University Disaster Recovery Institute that the IAEA have sent two investigation teams to the area but there is no systematic non-government or government inspection or testing of human health, soil, air and water in the area.
We were told about the programs established by some new NGOs to fund opportunities for children to get a break from the radiation and rebuild their iodine levels, but also that locals make terrible accusations to those families who do leave for a while. They are traitors and hysterical, they worry too much. At the same time, a new form of discrimination is growing in Japan — those from the region are seen as contaminated people. In response to this stigma and fear there is a form of local patriotism that has people insisting that their food is safe, that it is the right thing to do to support the community by eating it and buying other products from the region.
One hero we met at Date City is Mr. Hasegawa, a dairy farmer who spoke of being in Fukushima City and learning of the very high radiation that fell on his village. He was instructed by authorities not to tell anyone. He went straight home, called a meeting and told his neighbours that "up to 40 microsieverts had dropped on them". He convened a meeting of the dairy farmers of the region and they realised that they could not in good conscience continue to produce dairy products. He showed us photos of him pushing his cows onto trucks for slaughter.
He shared the suicide note of a friend, a dairy farmer who left a seven and five-year-old son. It read:
"Thank you for looking after me. I have reached my limit. 10 June. I am sorry. If only there were no nuclear power plants. To the remaining dairy farmers I wish that you don’t give up and that you fight the nuclear power plants. Sorry to leave you behind. I have lost my will to work."
Minamisoma City is on the coast right near the 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant. The exclusion zone border is heavily policed. Many people from here fled to Fukushima City but realised that in fact radiation doses here are lower than in Fukushima, which is 60km away from the plant and over a mountain. The woman from the NGO Minamisoma People Unite wept when she told us, "this is not a city of death, this is our home". The employment and industry here have plummeted.
The work of Japanese NGOs has been incredible. The Friends of Natural Mothering were basically a breastfeeding promotion network but have become a support network for women coping with pregnancy in the radiation affected regions — providing information and opportunities to get out. They work to bring children out of the toxic zones. Another Japanese NGO had been supporting the cancer victims in Iraq arising from the use of depleted uranium during the first Gulf War. Those children have now grown up and one of them has been doing a series of piano concerts to support the people of Fukushima.
We heard from a very old man from Minamisoma who read his poem:
"What Makes Us Human?
We humans, long ago, learned to grow crops,
learned to raise animals too.
The crops we grow, the animals we raise:
all living proof we’re human.
Along the way, though, things changed.
A field waiting to be planted,
but from now on, no crops must be grown.
A barn full of animals,
but raising them just adds to the damage.
Fish are there in the sea,
but the fisherman’s catch
is no longer fit to eat…
which is where we stand.
What makes us human?"
I think that what makes us human is the desire to know the truth and outrage when we are lied to.
Governments have colluded with the nuclear industry to systematically lie about the impact of radiation. The fact that it took over two months for the Japanese Government to admit that meltdown had occurred — a fact known within 48 hours of the earthquake hitting — is a total outrage. There were serious delays in telling people what they needed to know in order to protect themselves.
In that twilight zone of misinformation, lies and doubt, manufactured alongside the plutonium stockpiles, a toxic, dangerous and unnecessary industry has been built that is dependent upon massive subsidies and uranium. It’s time to tear it down once and for all. My visit to Fukushima has certainly doubled and redoubled my resolve to do so.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.