Christmas in the radiation zone

January 3, 2012

Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, traveled to Japan in December to witness the consequences of the nuclear disaster that struck in Fukushima last March. Here, we publish an edited version of one of his reports.

IT'S THE first thing you notice. Electric orange, ripe and luscious persimmons hang from every bough. As we drive through the country and over the glittering, snow-specked mountain range from Fukushima city to Soma on the northeast coast of Japan, we pass many persimmon trees dotting the landscape, all laden with fruit, ready for harvesting.

But this year, the persimmons of Fukushima prefecture will remain untouched. Bounty only for microbial decomposers, they are a silent reminder of the slow-burning, far-reaching menace of a nuclear accident.

Since March 11, local people, long skilled in farming this verdant and fertile region, have added expertise about the effects of radiation to their library of stored knowledge. The persimmons are deemed unsafe, irradiated by the releases from the stricken nuclear plant at Fukushima-Daiichi, 15 miles south of here. I am told the persimmons, which, when peeled and dried by a traditional process, are called hoshigaki, were a local specialty. Now, they have particularly high levels of radioactive contamination.

A deserted zone near the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in the weeks following the earthquake and tsunami
A deserted zone near the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in the weeks following the earthquake and tsunami (Sergey Ponomarev)

As we drove through the glistening mountains, I watched the readings of the omnipresent dosimeter dangling casually from the rearview mirror of the car first oscillate, then grow alarmingly. Arriving in front of a children's summer camp and quietly handed a face mask, there is an ominous beeping sound as the readings--corroborated by a second dosimeter brought to check the calibration--peaked above 1 microsievert per hour. We pass an old local incinerator at work burning refuse, and the numbers spike again.

The people of Fukushima prefecture have become amateur radiologists, tracking radiation from place to place as wind and rain transport it in random patterns across the local landscape. Worried and angry because they have not received accurate information from the Japanese government about the radiation threat, and because they want the government to evacuate more affected areas, the people of Fukushima have had to take matters into their own hands.

The government's own recently released "Interim Report" on the causes and lessons of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster highlights how poorly information was provided:

The following tendency was observed: transmission and public announcement of information on urgent matter(s) was delayed, press releases were withheld, and explanations were kept ambiguous. Whatever the reasons behind [this], such tendency was hardly appropriate, in view of communication in an emergency.

According to the people of Fukushima, this tendency is continuing, especially now that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the nuclear crisis has "been resolved."

IN FUKUSHIMA city, the people are organizing to protect and monitor themselves. In a slightly surreal experience, I am directed to one of the many Meccas to Japanese consumerism that is a feature of every town. But rather than shopping, inside the mall, I am taken to the recently set up Citizen's Radioactivity Measuring Station.

Just inside are neatly arranged slippers, children's toys and a blackboard. Behind the counter, there's equipment to test food for radiation as well as a whole body counter where children and adults come by daily to check their radiation levels. It's run almost entirely by volunteers who received radiological health training from a French NGO, and it is free for anyone below the age of 20.

The cows have been evacuated from here, but apparently, beyond the 20-kilometer (about 13 miles) compulsory evacuation zone, the area is deemed safe for humans, even small and growing ones. Hiroyuki, an employee at a children's nonprofit and now a public health activist, evacuated his wife and 4-year-old daughter first to Tokyo, then Kyoto. He now sees them just once per month--he has stayed behind to ensure that the national and regional governments take the health risks of people here seriously.

Hiroyuki is part of a growing campaign by the newly formed organization Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation, to get the government to reverse its new radiation guidelines; evacuate more people, especially children, from high-radiation areas; and provide support for those who have voluntarily evacuated.

Radiation from the three severely damaged reactors that suffered explosions and core meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant complex has spread far and wide. But apart from evacuating those within the 20-kilometer radius, the government merely raised the allowable radiation dose by 20 times, from the internationally recognized 1 millisievert per year to 20. This means that anything over 0.6 microsieverts per hour--an amount previously limited to people working in "radiologically controlled areas"--is no longer cause for evacuation.

Even though the emergency evacuation centers are said to be "temporary," it is likely that thousands of the 110,000 people who have been evacuated--in particular those from around Fukushima-Daiichi and downwind of the radioactive plume--will never be able to return to their former homes, due to radioisotopes contaminating the ground, food and water.

Indeed, the government's "Interim Report" concludes that "many people are still obliged to spend restricted life in evacuation for a long period of time, suffering from radiation contamination or fears of health due to exposure, contaminated air, soils, water and food."

Even before the report, some people I met were referring to themselves as the "Fukushima diaspora," rather than "evacuees," because they don't believe they will ever be able to return.

WE ARRIVE in the small community of Isobe on the coast. Or at least, what remains of Isobe. We are met by Toshiko Kooriki at her new temporary housing, orderly rows of small prefabricated living quarters. She takes us to see the stubby concrete remnants of her original house, jutting a couple of feet up from the barren moonscape that was once a small close-knit community of 400 families just inland from where the tsunami hit. Toshiko points out the different rooms and tells us that she comes here from time to time and cries.

Japan, long a study in contrasts, yields another as we meet Hatsumi Terashima, a fisherman for 54 years though he is no longer a fisherman.

Immediately after the earthquake, he was inside rearranging fallen items when the tsunami struck. Due to the shape of the land, it was believed in Isobe that no tsunami could hit here. But Hatsumi watched as a dark wall of water rushed toward him. He was dragged two miles inland by the first wave.

Hatsumi was heaved to safety, with his knee broken--unlike five of his family members who were among the 264 who perished. But he can't fish because the ocean here is too radioactive. He passes his time on the sea, catching not fish but rubble and other detritus left by the crushing force of the tsunami.

Iitate, a town directly in the path of the radiation plume, but outside of the 20-kilometer zone, has been evacuated as a high radiation area. However, this was done only after the heaviest radioactive releases from the initial explosions, because the government's computerized radiation early warning system, set up specifically for this purpose, was down because "communication links were disrupted and inoperative due to the earthquakes," according to the government.

As we pass through Iitate on our way back from Soma, the town lies silent and dark. The only lights are from streetlamps and the still-occupied home for the elderly, which houses those too old and vulnerable to be safely moved--they are cared for by workers on strict shift rotations.

We stop outside the town's high school. Inside the car, the readings have ranged from 0.14 microsieverts per hour to 1.8. We step outside, and my companions bend down to train their Geiger counters on the soil--the displays jump to six microsieverts per hour.

Despite the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake and tsunami, the people I meet in Fukushima prefecture don't talk about those events. Instead, they discuss radiation levels and how their land has become polluted with an invisible, enduring danger--and how the people have become fearful as the government tries to convince them that it is now safe.

JAPAN IS often portrayed abroad as the country most capable and prepared to deal with a nuclear accident.

Yet reading the government-ordered "Interim Report," I came away with the clear impression that the agencies responsible for emergency planning had made a whole set of false assumptions, which led to mistakes that increased the severity of the crisis and people's exposure to radiation--and that there were a series of operational errors at the plant itself, as well as communication breakdowns and general lack of planning.

The report is highly critical of emergency preparedness, the actions of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the improper use of the radiation early-warning system. For example, along with many other operational and emergency response failings, staff from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) weren't even dispatched to TEPCO's headquarters to gather information in order to report effectively to the prime minister, according to the report--even though TEPCO is just down the street from NISA offices.

Measures by TEPCO to protect their nuclear plants from tsunamis were only "voluntary"--so of course, being a capitalist entity run in the interests of profit rather than safety, the company didn't take them. According to the report, "TEPCO did not implement measures against tsunami as part of its [basic emergency] strategy. Its preparedness for such accidents as severe damage at the core of reactor as a result of natural disasters was quite insufficient."

Amid a male-dominated society--only 10 percent of the Japanese Diet are women--strong female leadership of the movement against the government and TEPCO is noticeable. At one of the many meetings about the radiation and evacuation of children that I attended, I spoke with a group of women who have decided to stay in the Fukushima area for jobs and the stability of their families, but who are wracked by anger at the government and frightened of the consequences of their decision to stay.

One woman--who would only give her name as Nihonmatsu, the town she is from, because of apprehension about recriminations from continuing to raise the issue of radiation in Fukushima city--has started meetings for people she trusts to talk about their experiences and strategize actions.

She shows me her government-issued papers and radiation monitor. She is daily required to fill out a long and detailed form with details of the movements and food intake of her daughter. When complete, she will mail it back to the government for analysis, along with the dosimeter that her daughter is required to keep with her at all times. Nihonmatsu asks, "If it's so safe here in Fukushima, why did the government give us these?"

A second woman, Jinko Mera, who gives her age as "about 50," nods in agreement. "We always have to think about how much radiation our food has," she says. "We want to live free from that. And the healthiest food is from your own region, but we can't dry persimmons, we can't eat our peaches, we cannot eat our own food."

At another organizing meeting on Christmas Day, women lead a discussion of the October sit-in outside the ministry of economy, trade and industry, which oversees the nuclear regulatory body NISA.

Amid speeches and reminiscences, we watch the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, about the 19-year women's peace camp in Greenham Common in Britain, outside a U.S. military base that was home to nuclear weapon-equipped American warplanes.

A new generation of women half a world away are inspired by the songs and collective battle of a different type of anti-nuclear struggle. They want the government to protect them and their families from the immediate nuclear crisis, but they also don't want anyone else to go through what they are enduring. They are part of a new campaign to permanently close down all 54 nuclear reactors and eliminate nuclear power from Japan.

According to a recent report by Greenpeace (Japan) and the Tokyo-based Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, Japan could generate 43 percent of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020, easily surpassing and making redundant the 30 percent that is currently provided by nuclear power. With Japan in radical population decline, set to shrink from 125 million people to 100 million by 2050, the only impediment to a sane and safe energy policy is therefore political.

The meeting of activists ends with emotional intensity and spirit as attendees gather in a circle to hold hands and sing. It is evocative of another circle all those years ago, when 30,000 women formed a ring around the 9-mile perimeter of Greenham Common air base. We sing "Furosato," a Japanese song of longing and remembrance:

Someday, when I have done what I set out to do,
I will return to where I used to have my home.
Lush and green are the mountains of my homeland,
Pure and clear is the water of my old country home.

The next demonstration of the women of Fukushima is already planned--one bus is almost full, and there are exhortations to bring friends and fill more. On December 28, the people of Fukushima will march once more.

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