Every now and then, it’s important to go back to Fukushima, the worst nuclear accident in a quarter century, and possibly the worst one ever. The aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that severely crippled the four-unit nuclear reactor along the Pacific coastline is one of those stories where the news is so relentlessly depressing — perhaps, unsurprisingly so — that the media eventually shrugs and the story drops off the front page. But it shouldn’t be ignored — there are life-or-death lessons for America and the rest of the world about radiation safety.
This week, Time magazine took readers inside the troubled plant, and it is not a pretty picture:
Three and a half years after the most devastating nuclear accident in a generation, Fukushima Daiichi is still in crisis. Some 6,000 workers, somehow going about their jobs despite the suffocating gear they must wear for hours at a time, struggle to contain the damage. So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction. Every 2½ days, workers deploy a new giant storage tank to house radioactive water contaminated after passing through the damaged reactors. We wander past a forest of some 1,300 of these tanks, each filled with 1,000 tons of toxic water, some of which was used to cool the reactors.
Leaks have plagued the site. In February, water with a radiation level several million times higher than what’s safe gushed out from a storage tank near the coast on the Pacific Ocean. TEPCO said it was unlikely the water made its way into the ocean, but whistle-blower workers aren’t as sure. There’s the question of what will happen when—not if—another major earthquake strikes this seismically cursed land. The latest plan by TEPCO, Japan’s largest power provider, is to build a wall of frozen earth around the damaged reactors and other highly radioactive areas to prevent radiation from seeping out of the site. But even if this and other technological fixes succeed, the government estimates it will take at least 30 years to decommission Fukushima Daiichi and make the site safe from radiation.
Here’s the thing that bothers me, however. What articles like the Time piece tend to leave out is that after three years, we’re already beginning to see real health impacts from the Fukushima accident, serious ones. Already, thyroid cancer has spiked:
A study by researchers in Fukushima prefecture found 57 minors in the prefecture have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer so far and another 46 are showing symptoms that suggest they may also have the disease.
Thyroid cancer can be caused by exposure to radiation, but it’s unclear whether the number is linked to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in March 2011 because the rate of thyroid cancer in the general population isn’t fully known.
“There is a possibility that early-stage cancer and small tumors were discovered because experienced doctors conducted thorough checkups using the newest machinery,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday at a regular news conference. The cabinet’s top spokesman said the government would keep a close eye on developments.
It’s clear that more research needs to be done. But as the news coverage notes, thyroid cancers — which skyrocketed after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union in 1986 — don’t tend to reveal themselves until several years after a major radiation incident. That suggests that the worst lies ahead. Indeed, the stress of living in a radiation zone had caused some in that area of Japan to pay the ultimate price:
TOKYO — A court in Fukushima has ruled that Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Japanese nuclear power plant operator, can be held responsible for the suicide of a woman who became depressed after the 2011 disaster.
The court ordered Tepco to pay $470,000 to Mikio Watanabe and his children after his 58-year-old wife, Hamako, killed herself a few months after the nuclear meltdown in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami forced them out of their home and destroyed their livelihoods.
The ruling was the first time that the struggling utility has been found liable for a suicide resulting from the accident, and it could galvanize others seeking redress from the company.
“I think we received a meaningful ruling that’s consistent with our feelings,” Watanabe said at a news conference after the ruling Tuesday. “The family’s suffering and pain are rewarded. When I return home, I’d like to report the result to Hamako’s portrait and tell her to have a good rest.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. The events of 2011 can’t be undone, unfortunately, but three years later we can begin to treat Fukushima like the environmental and health crisis that it really is. That means that the Japanese government and especially the utility TEPCO, which have failed miserably in their responsibilities, need to cede control to the world’s top radiation experts; they can then weigh more radical steps to identify and treat the sick while cleaning up the radioactive mess that remains at the site. Just as important, the world needs to identify other potential Fukushimas — including right here in the U.S. — and decommission sites that are not up to snuff. Even with the story no longer at the top of the news, we’ve learned enough about Fukushima to know the world can’t afford another.
Check out Time magazine’s piece on “The World’s Most Dangerous Room”: http://time.com/worlds-most-dangerous-room/
Here’s early data on thyroid cancer near Fukushima, from the Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2014/08/25/fukushima-watch-early-data-on-thyroid-cancer-released/
More from the Washington Post about the TEPCO suicide court verdict: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-a-first-japanese-court-rules-that-nuclear-plant-operator-is-liable-for-suicide/2014/08/26/bc43af62-6c30-4e70-8e22-ffe1895727c1_story.html
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