Why are we numb to the horror that is Fukushima?


It’s been nearly three years since the tsunami and then the horrific nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan, and I still follow the news from the disaster site on a regular basis. That makes me unusual, I guess. The truth is every day there seems to be a new, alarming development coming from that corner of Japan, yet the news gets little play in the mainstream media. It seems like a case of overload, that folks have grown so numb to the depressing news of the nuclear disaster that fatigue has set in, that the average reader doesn’t know where one leak or potential new meltdown ends and a new one begins.

For example, this news came out over the weekend:

The Fukushima nuclear plant is a relentless disaster. Another plume of radioactive water — the biggest in the last six months — has escaped from the plant, its operator Tepco announced Thursday. The 100-ton spill was traced to two valves left open by mistake, Tepco said.

Each liter of escaped water contains an average of 230 million becquerels (a unit of radioactivity) of particles emitting beta radiation, the New York Times reports. Half of the particles are likely strontium 90, which means the leak contains 3.8 million times the legal limit for drinking water. Strontium 90 can cause bone cancer and leukemia, and is absorbed by the human body much like calcium, the Times reports.

That’s 46 times more radioactive than the groundwater near the plant, where contamination was disclosed earlier this month.

It is hard to comprehend the number of radioactive water accidents at Fukushima since an earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant in 2011. At a point last August, the Japanese government announced that roughly 330 tons (about 80,000 gallons) of radioactive water leaked into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima plant every day. The same month, experts feared that a vast underground reservoir of radioactive water was perilously close to reaching the ocean. The following October,  radioactive water leaked while workers transferred water between two tanks. A few days later, Tepco announced a smaller amount of radioactive water had leaked into the ocean after workers miscalculated the capacity of the tank due to it sitting on a slope. The list goes on.

This really hits the nail on the head. Just imagine — if there had been a fresh leak of such highly radioactive water anywhere else in the world, it would be front page news. But after the laundry list of accidents and screw-ups in Japan since 2011, it’s just a passing headline. Needless to say, life is nowhere near normal in the disaster zone, for the residents or the people who worked there. This also emerged this weekend:

A health ministry team is studying whether around 2,000 workers who helped contain the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant that started in March 2011 are at risk of thyroid cancer, one of the team members said Sunday.

The research team of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry aims to determine how radiation exposure as a result of the nuclear crisis has affected the plant workers, who were exposed to greater levels of radiation than local residents, who in large part evacuated.

Meanwhile, many residents are just returning to the Fukushima area now — even though it’s not clear if that’s a good idea. It’s time for the world to stop shrugging at the grim headlines out of Japan and take more aggressive action. Japan and the inept utility TEPCO need to turn day-to-day control of the hapless cleanup effort to the world’s top experts, and future leaks must be prevented by any means necessary, no matter how expensive or technologically complex. Globally, it’s time to shore up or shut down reactors that are located in flood- or earthquake prone locations, and continue moving society away from the mistakes of nuclear power and into safer renewable fuels. This is no time to be comfortably numb.

Here’s more about the latest nuclear spill at Fukushima from Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/another-day-another-spill-radioactive-water-fukushima-229840

Read more about tests on Fukushima workers for thyroid cancer: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/02/24/national/2000-fukushima-plant-workers-to-be-checked-for-thyroid-cancer/#.Uwtwl87Y9bI

Learn more about Fukushima residents returning to their homes: http://www.newsweek.com/another-day-another-spill-radioactive-water-fukushima-229840

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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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