Our Role In The Fukushima Disaster


Today is the second anniversary of the nuclear meltdowns, explosions and fires at Fukushima in Japan. Australian governments and uranium mining companies need to be held to account for their role in the disaster.

The impacts of the nuclear disaster have been horrendous. Over 150,000 people are still homeless and some will never be able to return. Homeless, jobless, separated from friends and family, the toll on people’s health and mental well-being has been significant — one indication being a sharp increase in suicide rates. One farmer’s suicide note simply read: "I wish there wasn’t a nuclear plant."

The July 2012 report of Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission noted that evacuees "continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment."

Tens of thousands of people are grappling with the dilemma of going home to live in contaminated areas or starting from scratch elsewhere. Estimates of the long-term cancer death toll range from 130 (a Stanford University study (pdf)) to 3000 (radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie). Direct and indirect economic costs of the disaster will amount to several hundred billions dollars.

Whereas the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 were natural disasters, Fukushima was a manmade disaster. Plant operator TEPCO failed to adequately prepare for and protect against earthquakes and tsunamis. The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that the accident was "a profoundly manmade disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented" if not for "a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11"

There is no dispute that Australian uranium was used in the Fukushima reactors. The mining companies won’t acknowledge that fact — instead they hide behind bogus claims of "commercial confidentiality" and "security". But the truth is out. The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office acknowledged in October 2011 that: "We can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors — maybe five out of six, or it could have been all of them".

It is likely that TEPCO has been supplied with uranium from BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine, ERA’s Ranger mine, and Heathgate’s Beverley mine.

Yuki Tanaka from the Hiroshima Peace Institute noted: "Japan is not the sole nation responsible for the current nuclear disaster. From the manufacture of the reactors by GE to provision of uranium by Canada, Australia and others, many nations are implicated."

Mirarr senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula said she is "deeply saddened" that uranium from the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory has been exported to Japanese nuclear power companies including TEPCO.

No such humility from the uranium companies. They get tetchy at any suggestion of culpability, with the Australian Uranium Association describing it as "opportunism in the midst of human tragedy" and "utter nonsense".

Moreover, the Association said: "The Australian uranium industry has led the global nuclear industry’s efforts to create a framework of stewardship for the safe and responsible management of uranium throughout the nuclear fuel cycle."

Led the effort to create a framework of stewardship for meaningless rhetoric, more like it. Here’s an example of the sort of gibberish they come up with: "When the principle is actively applied, Stewardship becomes a driver for innovation in the ways we view our businesses and operate them … Leading companies will see Stewardship not as a compliance issue but as a means to shape their future operational processes, products, services and relationships."

To translate: uranium "stewardship" means flogging off uranium, counting the money, flogging off more uranium, counting more money. It isn’t even a lot of money. Uranium accounted for a paltry 0.19 per cent of Australia’s export revenue in 2011/12 (the latest available figure) and, by the most generous estimate, 0.015 per cent of Australian jobs.

Australia’s uranium industry did nothing as TEPCO lurched from scandal to scandal and accident to accident over the past decade. It did nothing in 2002 when it was revealed that TEPCO had systematically and routinely falsified safety data and breached safety regulations for 25 years or more.

The industry did nothing in 2007 when over 300 incidents of malpractice at Japan’s nuclear plants were revealed (104 of them at nuclear power plants). It did nothing even as the ability of Japan’s nuclear plants to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis came under growing criticism from industry insiders and independent experts. It did nothing about the multiple conflicts of interest plaguing the Japanese nuclear regulator.

Australia could have played a role in breaking the vicious cycle of mismanagement in Japan’s nuclear industry by making uranium exports conditional on improved management of nuclear plants and tighter regulation. Even a strong public statement of concern would have been heard by the Japanese utilities (unless it was understood to be rhetoric for public consumption) and it would have registered in the Japanese media.

But the uranium industry did nothing. And since the industry is in denial about its role in fuelling the Fukushima disaster, there is no reason to believe that it will behave more responsibly in future.

Successive Australian governments did nothing about the unacceptable standards in Japan’s nuclear industry. And since Prime Minister Gillard said the Fukushima disaster "doesn’t have any impact on my thinking about uranium exports", there is no reason to believe that the government will behave more responsibly in future.

The industry brings shame to Yvonne Margarula and to all Australians by turning a blind eye to serious problems in customer countries and responding with mock indignation when anyone calls its bluff.

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