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The Fukushima disaster: Three years on, who’s fooling whom?

Journalists and academics tackle different sides of an a issue that's no laughing matter

On April Fools’ Day, writers offer their views on who has been deceived — and who has been behind the deception — surrounding the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant on March 11, 2011, and the ongoing related problems in the prefecture and beyond.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Japan’s new Basic Energy Plan sees nuclear power as an important base load energy source. But whatever “base load” means politically, the public is lulled — fooled — into a sense that, despite Fukushima, nuclear will remain a logistically viable long-term option.

Yet the realities of Japan’s nuclear power industry show keeping nuclear are likely to be far more problematic — and expensive — than the pro-nuclear lobby wants to admit. Here are the most obvious hurdles.

First, as of 2013, of the remaining 48 reactors, three were more than 40 years and 13 were over 30 years old. The reactors were supposed to be decommissioned after 40 years but can now apply for a maximum two-decade extension.

Want to keep those reactors, with their increased risk of technical problems and thus lower efficiency rates, running until they’re 60? Even if they meet new safety standards, local governments hosting the reactors are sure to demand funding for pork-barrel projects in exchange for agreeing to any extension. Guess whose tax money will be used to ensure a continued flow of “cheap” nuclear power. Hint: look in the mirror.

Even if restarted reactors run at pre-3/11 levels, estimates are their spent fuel pools will be overflowing like public toilets sooner rather than later. A Tokyo Shimbun calculation shows 33 reactors could see their pools full within six years. Government figures estimate the pools will be full within three to 16 years, with most filled to the brim within eight years.

What happens then? Tokyo is now pushing local governments to build interim storage facilities for the fuel before it’s sent to Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, for reprocessing. But despite promises of even more tax money for their coffers, no local government wants to host such a facility.

Finally, Japan’s population, about 127 million, will shrink to 107 million by 2040 while the working population, i.e. the large volume of electricity users, will decline by 30 percent. Furthermore, 21 percent of all Japanese will be 75 years or older, also by 2040. Who is going to need how much electricity?

So, the “nuclear will be an important base load” argument assumes: 1. Older plants can be run until they are 60 years without major problems and at a lower cost than other sources; 2. Within the next, say, 16 years, new storage facilities for spent fuel will be built somewhere; and 3. By 2040, a country with 16 percent less people than in 2010 and one-fifth the population over 75 will not use less energy than today.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Eric Johnston is a staff writer for The Japan Times.

Water isn’t as viral as the memes

Fukushima and social media can be a toxic mix. Combine one with a poorly doctored photograph and you end up with a 160-foot-long squid, whose washed-up presence on a Santa Monica beach earlier this year quickly went viral.

The creature’s enormous proportions were proof, apparently, that the feared “Fukushima plume” had not only arrived on the other side of the Pacific, but had turned coastal waters into a frothing cauldron of radioactivity.

The truth is less dramatic and — as has been the case with all issues related to Fukushima radiation over the past three years — far more complicated.

One things is certain: In the next couple of months, water containing radioactive cesium from Fukushima will arrive on the west coast of North America, probably starting with Alaska and British Columbia, before making its way south over the coming years.

Exactly when, and at what levels of toxicity, is open to scientific debate, but the consensus is that even peak measurements will be well below levels considered a threat to human health.

Dr. John Smith of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, which has been sampling waters along a line running 2,000 km due west of Vancouver, told the BBC that even the highest concentrations of cesium-137 measured so far were “still well below maximum permissible concentrations in drinking water in Canada . . . so it’s clearly not an environmental or human-health radiological threat.”

No cesium-134 has yet been detected, and cesium-137 is already present in the ocean as a result of the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet reassurances from Smith and other serious scientists have not stemmed the flow of grim predictions for humanity from the Fukushima “plumesayers.”

They have been aided by a striking graphic that lends the entire Pacific Ocean the appearance of a cesium-enriched psychedelic swamp.

In fact, the graphic is a map created by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing the height of waves created by the March 2011 tsunami.

Other outlandish claims include the warning that swimming off the California coast is akin to suicide by radiation exposure, and that 98 percent of the ocean floor in the same area is covered with dead sea creatures. To the list of victims of the Fukushima plume we can also add balding polar bears, bleeding herring and pathogenically infected starfish.

All of these myths have been expertly debunked, but it is in the nature of the Web that more freakish claims will follow when the plume finally makes it to the west coast of North America.

The Fukushima meltdown has created understandable concerns, in Japan and beyond, about health and the environment. But mutant cephalopods shouldn’t be among them.

Justin McCurry is the Japan and Korea correspondent for the Guardian and Observer newspapers.

Tohoku is bigger than Fukushima

Allow me to state the obvious: The problems involving the reactors in Fukushima are serious. What is less obvious is that the problems facing the Tohoku region extend far beyond Fukushima.

The triple disaster that struck Japan in 2011 affected nine prefectures: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Chiba, Nagano, Tochigi, Niigata and Ibaraki. Of these nine, six get little or no press coverage. Most likely this is because the scope of the damage was focused upon cities and towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Herein lies the first problem.

Quantifying damage inevitably leaves out key aspects of any disaster. Loss of life and property become numbers. Numbers turn into data. The higher these numbers, the more attention that school, city or region gets. On the scales of right and wrong, data is neither. It’s what happens with this data that leads to hard feelings and misunderstandings.

For those living outside of Fukushima there is little joy in being featured in the same news article as one about nuclear problems.

When stories about Tohoku focus on Fukushima, those living in communities not affected by radiation feel readers will assume they, too, are in the same boat. This is also true for victims in Fukushima for whom radiation is not why they lost their homes. Reducing all of the Tohoku disaster to “the nuclear problem” diminishes loss and pain. For those outside of Japan less familiar with geography, this lumping-the-disaster-region-into-one-bucket style of reporting leads to the misconception that all of Tohoku is now dangerous. We now have the second problem: The perception projected outward insinuates Tohoku equals Fukushima. If Fukushima is “bad” then Tohoku is “bad.” This is neither fair nor accurate.

Stories of the impending meltdown of reactor No. 3 hitting blogs and news outlets last December illustrate what many in Tohoku do not appreciate. Never mind the inaccuracies. One author said, “wash obsessively” to avoid the impending nuclear contamination and suggested readers stock up on Tyvek suits. This Chicken Little-style of reporting is not only irresponsible, it’s malicious. Here is the third problem: Radiation is scary, making it a juicy story that is easy to dramatize.

Tohoku is bigger than Fukushima. While the problems caused by the nuclear crisis indeed require focus and attention, so do the crises faced by those outside of Fukushima.

Amya L. Miller is Director of Global Public Relations for the city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.

Problems can’t be paid forward

The Fukushima disaster had a precarious impact on the developing world in that people there had to rely on indirect sources for information.

News about the earthquake and its aftermath came via Western channels. Since the developing world has hardly any media presence in Japan, a large part of humankind was informed about the events through Western eyes — which were not always reliable.

As a result, countries depending on such news sources were initially fooled over the reality of the nuclear disaster as they were told about the horror approaching Tokyo. Some were panicked to the scale that their governments informed diplomats stationed in Tokyo to lock the doors of embassy facilities and flee the radiation-tainted country. Of course, once the “doomsday scenario” was debunked, the diplomats quietly returned to duty.

Three years later, many of the lessons from that time seem to have been forgotten. However, the disaster did shake up public opinion — in Tokyo and elsewhere — about the danger and uncertainty of nuclear-power generation in an unprecedented way. This awakening forced the government to take the bold step of shutting down existing nuclear reactors and, more importantly, announce that Japan will not build new nuclear power stations in the future. This signaled a radical shift in Japan’s energy policy, but the current administration has been vague on whether it would uphold it.

However, it’s clear that some in the Japanese government consider nuclear power generation to be an unsafe option, even for an energy-hungry country like Japan. Many people, here and abroad, welcomed moves toward exposing the follies of nuclear-power generation. However, those who had hoped for an all-out abandonment of it probably overlooked business interests related to nuclear energy.

Japan has a vibrant nuclear power sector that has invested billions of yen producing essential components for power generation, including reactors. Companies that invested in that sector now face huge financial risk if Japan chooses to shun nuclear power, so they need an assurance that their work was not for nothing. Thus the government now plays the role of a nuclear salesman hitting up a huge tract of developing countries that are showing a growing appetite for energy.

Japan is aggressively selling the technology that many of its own citizens consider dangerous. Tokyo has already bid successfully in selling nuclear-power-generation capabilities to Turkey and Vietnam; and is trying hard to enter the fast-growing market of India. The hunger to reach an ever-growing target for economic growth has blinded policy makers in many of those countries. Now they’d go to any extent to generate power, an accident triggered by a natural disaster is no obstacle. As long as a lucrative offer from a government is on the table, why bother about the lessons of Fukushima?

Monzurul Huq is is Tokyo bureau chief for Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s leading daily.

We may get fooled again

I was outside the country when 3/11 happened, returning a few months later to a Kansai that seemed largely unaffected by the nuclear crisis unfolding in the north. The local news was full of items that seemed surreal given the circumstances; plans to extend the Osaka monorail to a loop configuration by 2050, people in Kyoto whining about not getting a station on the mag-lev bullet train until 2045 and excited press releases about the pending commencement of service on the Hokuriku Shinkansen which, starting in 2015, will offer high-speed connections between a string of rural municipalities with shrinking populations.

So it seems to have been business as usual down here ever since the disaster. The surreal state of planning transportation infrastructure for a future in which many people wonder if there will be enough money to pay their pensions let alone fund high-tech people movers was already there. It has just been enhanced by the absence of debate over where the electricity to power them will come from or any public consideration of the possibility that these long-term infrastructure fantasies might be rendered moot if the Fukushima plant slips out of control again.

To see any impact of 3/11 beyond the predictable feel-good stories fed to/by the press, one has to talk to contacts in the community. That is where you meet and hear about people who have quietly moved to Kansai from Tokyo, or at least put their families here and commute to the “Big Mikan.”

After Fukushima, Kansai residents are likely more aware of the nearby Fukui nuclear cluster. It seems far away yet would be easy commuting distance if there was a bullet train connecting it to anything. But there isn’t: according to Google maps it is safely isolated at the tip of the Tsuruga Peninsula, connected to the mainland by a single coastal road. While there has been more focus on disaster awareness and, of course, spending on concrete to “harden” Kansai for the next disaster, I can’t recall seeing or hearing anything about what to do or where to go if Fukui melts down. Surely the government must have a plan. Though I suppose when faced with the competing demands of shinkansen, Abenomics and people wanting air conditioning in the summer, some blue-ribbon committee might decide “it will never happen here” is a good enough plan for now.

“We won’t be fooled again” is a nice mantra. But it may not mean very much to people who just want to believe that everything is back to normal.

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto.

The fish story that should be told

Last year, foreign reporters in Japan were approached by a producer making a series of documentaries for NHK about the Tohoku recovery. I proposed looking at the plight of fishermen along the Fukushima coast linked to the issue of contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

Most of the fishermen have been out of work since March 2011, a tragedy anywhere but particularly in a country so synonymous with the sea. They can be found in ports like Soma most days, whiling away their time mending nets or turning over the engines of their boats.

The producer liked the idea but thought she’d never get it past her bosses. “They want uplifting stories,” she said. “Nothing too depressing.” The program went ahead late last year with a story about abandoned pets.

It’s not that hard to understand why animals are better TV than despairing fishermen. Caring for feral dogs is, within the context of the Fukushima disaster, a small problem and the solution uncomplicated: find a little bit of money and some loving owners. In contrast, the nuclear cleanup is just so vast.

The contaminated water problem is a case in point. Engineers have performed miracles keeping the fuel in the plant’s three most damaged reactors cool. But nearly 440,000 tons of toxic water is now stored in on-site tanks as a byproduct.

“It’s the issue that keeps me awake at night,” Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who advises Tokyo Electric Power Co. told us last month.

The scientific consensus is building that the only place for that water to go is into the Pacific, once it has been decontaminated to acceptable levels. But science is bound to clash loudly with politics. Engineers won round one of this battle last month. Tepco has lobbied the fishermen for two years to allow the flushing of “uncontaminated groundwater.” The alternative was that the toxic water would leak. So last month the fishermen, finally, reluctantly agreed.

The water problem is only one that must be solved — and paid for — before the fuel can be extracted — probably at the end of the decade. Billions of yen will then have to be found over the next 20 years to decommission the plant. Billions more are being scattered around Fukushima in a flawed attempt to lower radiation levels. Workers are in short supply. Refugees must be persuaded to return home if the region is to revive.

The TV producer’s timidity may have been an anomaly but it’s not like the industry doesn’t have anything to prove. Television here shied away from probing the flaws of the nation’s nuclear power strategy before March 11, 2011, pulled its punches during the Fukushima disaster and did its best to ignore the protests it triggered. Surely fishermen should be at the center of the story about recovery — downbeat or not.

David McNeill writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education and other international publications. His co-edited book about the 3/11 disaster, “Strong in the Rain,” was released in 2012.

Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Enkidu

    Hi Oregonstu,

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate the reasonable tone and thoughtfulness. I am, however, struggling to follow you on a few points.

    You take issue with the “consensus” that “even peak measurements will be well below levels considered a threat to human health”, saying that this only the consensus of the “nuclear industry, governmental and international nuclear agencies, etc.”. However, I think much of the best research in this regard has been done by researchers like Ken Buesseler at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Jota Kanda; individuals that, as far as I know, have no link to the nuclear industry.

    As for the other 10% of researchers that don’t agree with this “consensus”, I would be curious to hear their thoughts. Perhaps you could provide some examples along with a brief description of their scientific credentials?

    With respect to the “no safe level” canard, I find it a useful litmus test to judge the speaker’s familiarity with the issues we face regularly in environmental health and safety. Put simply, anyone who makes regular use of this statement (e.g., Helen Caldicott) doesn’t know what they are talking about. They have confused the word “safe” with “zero-risk” in such a way that “safe” has lost its meaning. (If you would like to have a detailed discussion of this issue including the no-threshold model (a model which we use for a variety of pollutants, btw), please let me know.)

    As for TEPCO repeating “for months” that there had been no meltdowns, I believe the confusion here arises from TEPCO’s use of the term “fuel damage” to describe what many people, including yourself, think of as a “meltdown” (i.e., melted fuel). TEPCO admitted the possibility of fuel damage as soon as March 12, 2011, and said two days later in a press conference that they believe fuel had been damaged. As an engineer, I appreciate the use of these terms as opposed to “meltdown” because it provides more concrete information, but I can see where the general public might get a little lost.

    As for “cold shutdown”, I think you’re confusing a technical term with what you’d like it to mean. Fukushima is in a state of cold shutdown by any technical definition of which I am aware, which is an important step, but that does not mean that we are necessarily out of the woods, as you rightfully point out.

    Getting back to the water issue, I believe I’ve read the three studies to which you refer (can’t be sure without links), but each one results in maximum concentrations that are in line with the “consensus” (i.e., no threat to human health) that you’ve criticized above.

    As for your final point, I don’t believe anyone thinks that the plant is currently leaking enough on a daily basis to have a significant impact on the concentrations being measured off the coast of North America. The amounts are just too low and the Pacific too large.

  • Sam Gilman

    Eric Johnston asks of his piece in this collection on Japan’s energy policy, “What’s wrong with this picture?” I think there is meant to be a rhetorical question, but there are a few things wrong with it that exemplify the problem with the energy debate as framed by Japan Times’ editorial policy.

    The first is shown by his phrase “whatever ‘base load’ means politically”. “Base load” is not a political term invented by the government or nuclear industry. It’s a fundamental concept in the economics and management of electricity generation networks. What’s wrong in the first place with Johnston’s picture is that he’s writing on electricity generation without actually understanding the topic. Instead of sneering at the idea, the Japan Times should be educating its readers about the ins and outs of this topic, given how much it professes to care. “Base load” is not even difficult to understand. Let me demonstrate: all the electricity we use is generated as we use it. The demand for electricity goes up and down throughout the day, but there is an amount below which we never fall. This is the “always on” part of our electricity generation. This is base load. (Then there are the predictable ups and downs: this is “load following”. And finally here is “peaking” – rapid response generation – to meet the highest, most unpredictable variations.)

    I don’t think that’s hard to follow.

    Base load is an important concept to grasp because it’s something that intermittent green electricity sources are bad at. Wind and solar cannot provide always-on electricity, and nor do we know how to store electricity on that scale to use them as national grid battery chargers. When the government talks about the need for base load nuclear, it’s not talking about something that could be replaced easily by solar panels and windmills. It’s talking about supply that is typically provided by coal.

    Which brings me to the second thing wrong with Johnston’s picture. Like so many anti-nuclear writers in the JT, he does not examine the alternative to using nuclear for base load. The basic answer is coal – which is what Germany has been building to replace nuclear, while it makes a loud noise about its renewables commitments. Coal is lethal. Simply as a matter of course, it kills 12000 Americans every year with run-of-the-mill emissions, and hundreds of thousand of Chinese. If Japan ditches nuclear, we will get more deaths from electricity generation each year than from the radiation at Fukushima over a lifetime. If he thinks we can replace nuclear with wind and solar, he is wrong. Solar in particular competes with load-following plants in the daytime, principally natural gas.

    Which leads me to the third thing wrong with Johnston’s analysis: the claim of “hidden costs” as if it afflicted nuclear power only – as if all other forms of electricity generation were transparent and as good as free. I sometimes wonder if there is covert climate change denial at the JT. Yes, Fukushima is going to cost an extortionate amount of money. Given that renewables are not doing to displace to any great extent the worst forms of CO2 pollution in coal and oil, would Johnston like to run the figures on the “hidden costs” of climate change, which is his apparent preferred option to deploying nuclear? Does he think they are less than the cost of the Fukushima clear up? Because that’s the scariest thing: how bad climate change is going to be, and how good the media is at pretending it’s not really happening.