By Jeff Richmond
CALGARY, AB, Mar 13, 2014/ Troy Media/ – I was there, in Japan, the day the big one hit three years ago this week. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake threw my colleagues and me to the floor of the newsroom where we worked. The terrifying shock made the next two minutes feel like two hours and seemed impossible to grasp. But if we all wanted to stay safe, the epic quake of March 2011 was a fact none of us could afford to deny.
Wrenching Japan a parking space closer to North America, the quake spawned a monster tsunami. The roiling black wave devastated more than 500 kilometres of coastline and killed more than 15,000 people, proving equally undeniable.
Rumours began swirling about a damaged nuclear plant up north. Asked how soon, in the worst case, a meltdown might occur, an official, who declined to be named, instead gave assurances that no radioactive leaks had been detected.
The triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, which spewed toxic material throughout Japan and sent radioactive “plumes” around the world, is now known to have occurred in a matter of hours. Initially, though, Japanese officialdom seemed to disregard even the possibility of a meltdown, and would only admit the fact months after it had become common knowledge.
Three years on, Japan’s nuclear establishment appears to have learned nothing, denying and downplaying the ongoing crisis in various ways.
One way involves pretending the situation is under control, which in turn means denying that the wrecked reactors threaten public health and safety. That’s precisely the message Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7 as part of Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 summer games.
But although the reactors are more stable now than they were in the first months following the quake, there is no guarantee they will remain so.
In addition, Fukushima Dai-ichi continues to leak radiation. The most urgent example of this is the leakage of huge quantities of water irradiated after being used to cool the melted cores. It’s also the most irrefutable example, despite Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant’s operator, having denied for more than two years that the leakage was happening.
Some of the water gets stored in onsite tanks, although the consensus is that it will eventually be dumped into the Pacific. As it is, 400 tonnes of the contaminated water flows directly out to sea every day. Experts say this constant leakage, as well as frequent leaks from the poorly constructed storage tanks, clearly represents an uncontrolled spread of radiation.
Rates of thyroid cancer among children and young adults in Fukushima prefecture are reported to have risen significantly since 2011. While authorities deny any link to the meltdowns, medical experts say more study is needed to make that conclusion. Considering incidents of thyroid cancer in Ukraine took three years to begin rising after Chernobyl, in Fukushima it is too soon to rule out radiation as the cause.
What is certain is that the Fukushima plant remains a long way from being brought under control and rendered harmless, a process estimated to take decades. Meanwhile, risks include a scenario even more alarming than that of 2011, when so much radiation reached Tokyo it showed up in the tap water.
But rather than focus on measures to diminish the problem, the Japanese government has acted to diminish the freedom to investigate and report on the danger. Under an ominous new law forced through Japan’s parliament the night of Dec. 6, 2013, reporters and their sources can now face jail time for disclosing so-called “state secrets,” which the law conveniently fails to define. In a situation where Japan should be doing more to protect whistleblowers, and thus the public, it is doing its utmost to deny them a voice.
At the same time, thousands of people who were ordered in 2011 to flee their hometowns remain displaced. Tokyo says it’s working to decontaminate the towns but has yet to announce a timetable for return. This state of limbo is causing victims further harm, as evidenced by reports that say more people have now died from stress and illnesses related to protracted evacuation than were killed in the disaster itself.
On this, the week of the Fukushima catastrophe’s third anniversary, it is essential to remember that nuclear reactors are virtually everywhere. Hundreds more are slated for construction worldwide, including in developing countries like China. With independent investigators deeming Japan’s nuclear nightmare man-made and preventable, what Fukushima teaches is that the dangers of harnessing the power of the atom are directly related to ignoring the power of denial.
For Japan, it’s a lesson that seems impossible to grasp. But if we all want to stay safe, the epic meltdowns of March 2011 are a fact none of us can afford to deny.
Jeff Richmond, of Calgary, worked for an English-language news service in Tokyo.
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