Four years later, the world needs to own up to Fukushima


Imagine if there were news bulletins one day last year that a global terrorist group such as ISIS had pulled off an attack in Asia that has claimed more than 1,200 lives, sickened thousands more, and displaced even more people from their homes. Can you imagine the breathless, non-stop coverage on cable news channels such as CNN or the Fox News Channel? All the interviews with devastated family members, anguished refugees and concerned officials?

But such a tragedy did take place in Japan, where the death toll from the March 11, 2011, nuclear accident caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami continues to rise. Of course, radiation is a silent killer and it often works slowly — which in a way makes it even more terrifying than a fiery attack by armed humans. As the world observes the 4th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe — one of the two worst in human history — the numbers provide a sense of perspective:

A fresh report in Japan shows the number of deaths by radiation from the country’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 increased by 18 percent last year.

The report published on Tuesday by the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun said figures from authorities in Fukushima Prefecture showed a total of 1,232 deaths in 2014 were linked to the nuclear disaster.

The highest number of fatalities occurred in the town of Namie near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, with 359 deaths, followed by 291 cases in Tomioka town also near the plant.

Nuclear radiation exposure can cause serious health problems. The first signs of nuclear radiation exposure are nausea and vomiting. Exposure increases the probability of developing some other diseases, mainly cancer, tumors, and genetic disorders.

The article notes the evacuation of roughly 160,000 people in northern Japan from their homes, although I have seen much higher figures — as many as 250,000. Why isn’t there more coverage of the deadly aftermath of Fukushima, especially when there are lingering questions about how the stable the leaking reactor site is now, some 48 months after the tsunami? My sense is that it’s because nuclear power is so ingrained in our modern world — across Europe, in Japan, and here in the United States, where two California reactors sit in the earthquake zone, just like in Fukushima. An article I was reading this week noted an early finding by the Atomic Energy Commission that “it has been estimated that some of the radioactive materials found in a reactor are 3 million to 2 billion times as toxic as chlorine, the most common poison used by industry.” No wonder no one wants to own up to the idea that the Nuclear Age has been a terrible mistake.

A good chunk of my career as a trial lawyer has been devoted to fighting against radiation pollution. To this day, not many people are aware that the oil-and-gas production process — which is currently in the midst of a boom that spreads from Pennsylvania to North Dakota to Texas — brings up a considerable amount of radioactive material; radiation that accumulates on oil pipes has poisoned workers and industrial sites across the South. Increasingly, citizens today are exposed to radiation in their day-to-day life from mundane items like their mobile phones. But nothing poses a greater risk of more damage in a short, concentrated period of time than an accident at a nuclear reactor.

Here’s another look at the tragedy of daily life in Fukushima, four years later. It’s the tragedy of Norio Kimura who lost his wife, father and 7-year-old daughter when the initial tsunami struck:

Like many here, Kimura is angry the government is set to park 30 million tons of radioactive debris raked up after the nuclear accident on his former doorstep. Few believe Tokyo’s assurances that the site will be cleaned up and shut down after 30 years.

“I can’t believe they’re going to dump their trash here after all we’ve been put through,” said Kimura, 49, standing near the weathered planks on a shrub-covered hill that represent all that’s left of his home.

Kimura was forced to abandon searching for his family in the frantic hours after the tsunami and ordered to evacuate after explosions rocked the Fukushima complex, just 3 kms (less than 2 miles) from his home. Months later, he found the bodies of his wife and father. But all he has left of Yuna are her mud-soaked pink skirts, a pair of striped leggings and a blackened soft toy he found tangled in a heap of debris.

Four years after the earthquake and tsunami disaster, Kimura still returns to his hometown and combs the deserted beach for Yuna’s body – in 5-hour stints, the maximum allowed under radiation health guidelines.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, but I hope you’ll take a few moments this week to reflect on Fukushima… and to vow, never again.

For the latest on deaths tied to Fukushima, please read:

For more information on the Fukushima aftermath and opposition to a nuclear waste dump, check out:

To read more about my work on radiation pollution by Big Oil, please read my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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