The crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 has revealed the danger posed by the storing of spent nuclear fuel in pools at the plant, because after the pools drained partly or wholly the fuel heated up and discharged radiation.
Before the disaster, most people in Japan were not aware of the potential risks involving spent nuclear fuel. However, documentary film director Hitomi Kamanaka has long warned of just such dangers — and her 2007 film “Rokkashomura Rhapsody” made no bones about the problems surrounding Japan’s approach to reprocessing and recycling the radioactive material.
The film, which took three years to make, and which has been shown again in Tokyo and some other cities since March 11, focuses on Rokkasho, a village (mura) in Aomori Prefecture where what will be the country’s main nuclear fuel reprocessing plant is set to go into commercial operation in 2012.
“Since March 11, people have come to realize that the spent fuel in the Fukushima complex presents a very real danger. However, astronomical amounts are stored in the Rokkasho plant, and that is dangerous,” Kamanaka said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
But she pointed out that Japanese people are using electricity generated by nuclear power, and that spent nuclear fuels are an unavoidable waste product. She also said that when the reprocessing plant starts to operate, it will cause radioactive contamination beyond its perimeter fences.
“All of us Japanese people are involved in this problem,” Kamanaka said, “but the media haven’t informed the public about the issue. That’s why I made this film.”
According to Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), operator of the Rokkasho facility, between December 1999 and June 2009 it received 2,977 tons of spent nuclear fuel from plants across the country. In line with Japan’s current official policy of recycling spent fuel, JNFL plans to start commercial operations there in October 2012, separating plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel for reprocessing into mixed-oxide (MOX) uranium-plutonium fuel for nuclear reactors.
The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, which supports JNFL, said the plutonium has been produced in nuclear reactors nationwide in the process of generating electricity.
But plutonium is also used in nuclear weapons, and in her film Kamanaka asks Hiroaki Koide, a researcher at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, how many people could be killed by 20 grams of plutonium — about the size of a sugar lump.
Koide answers that some 20 million people could be killed. “Five or six lumps that size could kill all the people in Japan; it is such a deadly poison,” he said.
Kamanaka said the reprocessing plant will produce tons of plutonium annually once it is fully operational, adding that it already houses highly radioactive liquid waste that must be cooled continuously. Otherwise it would explode.
However, since the start of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis, JNFL has posted on its website an assurance that it has secure back-up electric power sources for emergencies, and has also stated that the plant would not be hit by tsunami because it is 55 meters above sea level.
Despite this, Kamanaka points to the possibility of a crisis at the Rokkasho plant stemming from an active fault beneath it, according to the results of research by Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a topographer and professor at Toyo University in Tokyo.
However, JNFL denies the presence of an active fault.
Nonetheless, Kamanaka insists: “There is the possibility of earthquakes hitting the plant, which could cause devastation in the northern hemisphere.”
In addition, JNFL has consistently maintained that radiation emitted from the plant is not detrimental to the health of local residents — but Kamanaka doubts it.
Those doubts are reflected in segments of her film that look at the Sellafield nuclear power and reprocessing plants in Seascale, northwest England. There, she reports that some studies have found a tenfold increase over the national average in the incidence of childhood leukemia in the area.
Although such concerns over radiation exposure have never been far from the minds of people living close to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, the current Fukushima crisis has brought a shocking new reality to those concerns, Kamanaka said.
For instance, a woman rice farmer she interviews in her film tells her that in light of the Fukushima crisis she hopes Japan gets rid of nuclear power. On the other hand, the president of a clothes-cleaning company used by JNFL said he wants the government to take measures to ensure the safety of the Rokkasho plant to avoid any disaster.
Like that businessman, a majority of the villagers also accepted the plant after many years of conflicts over its construction, as Kamanaka shows in the film.
Part of her film also draws on a movie made by a late local film director in 1986 that shows a clash between riot police and fishermen in Tomari port in the village who opposed a marine survey by JNFL related to its planned discharge of radioactive liquid waste into the sea. One scene is of a fisherman surrounded by riot police who shouts: “I will fish. Why don’t you let us fish? This world is crazy!”
However, power and money killed off the opposition movement, as fishermen in Tomari collectively received ¥100 million for cooperating with JNFL, Kamanaka said. In addition, by the end of fiscal 2009, the village of Rokkasho had received more than ¥30 billion in government subsidies, according to media reports.
“I think the huge money given to Rokkasho residents in exchange for accepting the plant probably paralyzed their common sense (regarding the risk from the plant),” Kamanaka said.
In Yamaguchi Prefecture in southwestern Japan, though, fishermen have rejected offers of money from Chugoku Electric Power Co., the region’s power utility that plans to construct a nuclear power plant there.
This stand against nuclear power — and the success of renewable energy replacing nuclear power in Sweden — was the subject of another film by Kamanaka that was released in May 2010 and is currently being shown nationwide.
In that film, titled “Mitsubachi no Haoto to Chikyu no Kaiten” (“Ashes to Honey: Searching for a Sustainable Future”), Kamanaka interviews farmers and fishermen on Iwaishima Island in the Seto Inland Sea, which is 3.5 km from the planned nuclear plant.
The film makes it clear that most of the 500 islanders oppose the planned construction — even though their leader is shown saying that Chugoku Electric sent him ¥540 million as compensation for the islanders — money he sent straight back.
Then, in September 2009, Chugoku Electric tried to set buoys across an inlet it intended to fill in to create reclaimed land for the planned plant site. However, Iwaishima islanders protested by crowding around Chugoku Electric’s ships in their fishing boasts.
In Kamanaka’s film, a Chugoku Electric official is heard telling the islanders through a loudspeaker during this confrontation that the power company would create jobs at the nuclear plant.
“Do you really think only agriculture and fishing will improve your life on this island?” he asks them rhetorically, before adding: “You know the population on the island is declining and aging.”
“We, the people of Iwaishima, are working hard for ourselves regardless of the number of our elderly and the hard life,” Takashi Yamato, who is in his 30s and is the youngest farmer on the island, shouted back. “It’s none of your business.”
That standoff at sea between Chugoku Electric and the islanders continued for 50 days, according to Kamanaka. Then, on Feb. 21, 2010, Chugoku Electric returned and started to sink stakes at the planned site — again prompting protests by the islanders in a conflict that continued until the company suspended construction after March 11.
Not content with just shouting back at a power company’s loudhailer, though, the young farmer Yamato is seen in the film striving to create a lifestyle independent of such power utilities. Hence he is seen selling local farm and fishery produce over the Internet and installing solar panels at his home — and expressing the hope that the islanders can become self-sufficient in energy from natural, renewable sources.
In the film, Kamanaka demonstrates the potential of renewable energy sources through that segment shot in 2009 in Sweden, where in Overtornea, the country’s most northerly city, residents have succeeded in generating all the electricity they use through wind power. And as Kamanaka says in the film, Japan should be able to follow where those Swedes have gone because the country has plenty of potential sources of renewable energy.
In our recent interview, too, the film director said she wants those who see her film to realize through it the possibility of a total energy shift in Japan.
“In the film, I depicted the vision and the methods with which we can change our future. When I showed it in Fukushima in May, people said that seeing it had given them hope,” Kamanaka said.
“Rokkashomura Rhapsody” and “Mistubachi no Haoto to Chikyu no Kaiten” will be shown at Kobe Art Village Center from July 30 till Aug. 5. For details, visit kavc.or.jp. “Rokkashomura Rhapsody” will be shown at Uplink Factory in Shibuya, Tokyo, from mid-August. For further details, call (03) 6825-5502 or visit www.uplink.co.jp. For information about other screenings around the country, visit 888earth.net.