Four Years After Fukushima Disaster, Radiation Dangers Remain Unknown
Among the many unknown factors include the effects of radiation levels on children’s health, says journalist Chiho Kaneko
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
March 11 marks the four-year anniversary of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that was triggered by a tsunami from the Pacific Ocean earthquake. It is considered the worst nuclear accident on record since the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl.
Four years later, how are the people in Fukushima doing? According to a recent poll, 71 percent of local residents remain dissatisfied with the central government’s handling of the disaster.
With us to discuss all of this and to give us an update of what is happening after the disaster is Chiho Kaneko. She is an artist and a journalist based in Vermont. She has reported from Japan since the Fukushima disaster. She’s a member of the board of directors at Fairewinds Energy Education.
Thank you so much for joining us, Chiho.
CHIHO KANEKO, BOARD MEMBER, FAIREWINDS ENERGY EDUCATION: Thank you for having me today.
PERIES: So, Chiho, what does it look like? Is Fukushima populated? Have people moved back? And what is life like there?
KANEKO: So the life for those people who used to live in the area where now is considered to be evacuation order zone, the life has changed so, so much. And in some ways, some of those people’s life will never be the same. I would say a lot of people’s lives will never be the same.
But then, again, there are a lot of people who live in Fukushima and in areas where it was never classified as evacuation order zone, and yet the irradiation levels remain even today quite high. In fact, the level of radiation [incompr.] air radiation levels in, like, big cities, including Fukushima City and Kōriyama City are so high that it might be actually classified as the radiation control–sorry, radiation-controlled area even in this country or in Japan under normal circumstance. So I think these are not the kind of areas where people are really not supposed to be living under normal circumstances, and yet they do.
PERIES: And are we seeing any signs of health and other issues manifesting as a result of the high radiation levels?
KANEKO: Well, that’s a very tricky question, because a lot of people, especially mothers, they fear that some of the symptoms that they see in their children might be related to radiation, and people have respiratory illnesses and other things. But then, officially, there hasn’t been any conclusive announcement that there has been any health consequence. In fact, the Fukushima Prefecture, in conjunction with the central government and also Fukushima Medical University, they have been following the children in Fukushima who were under age 18 at the time of the disaster. And they have been testing for thyroid. And initially they didn’t want to test until maybe three years later, saying that in Chernobyl, they say until maybe four or five years later the cancer didn’t show up.
But then people started to really protest that perspective, saying that maybe there weren’t enough data during those first three, four, five years after Chernobyl accident because Soviet Union was crumbling. And so it’s really–the onus is on the government, Japanese government, to really make sure that negative consequence will not happen to children. So they really lobbied hard. And so the government started to follow children soon after the 2011 disaster.
What’s happening is that they’re discovering that a staggering number of children–I think the latest number is something like 118 children among 385,000 population–either confirmed or highly suspected of having thyroid cancer. And statistically speaking, that is a staggering number, because prior to this disaster, it’s been said that maybe thyroid cancer among children were one or two per million, some might say seven in a million. But still, comparing to those numbers, it’s a staggering number.
PERIES: Now, many people, according to that survey I cited in the intro, remain really disappointed with the way that the government is responding to the disaster, and they’re not really sure that the government is capable or has the ability to respond adequately. Why is that so?
KANEKO: I don’t necessarily think it’s just a question of capability. Of course the government had to deal with the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear disaster at once, so in a way it was very overwhelming situation. That said, had there been a determination and also a different sort of a priority in the government policy, they could have done a lot better. At least that’s the sentiment that I get by speaking with people in Fukushima and beyond.
And one sort of issue that’s making situation a little more complicated is that there is definitely pressure from the world nuclear industry to sort of control the data and information coming out of this disaster. So they may be funding a lot of seminars and sort of public events, almost, like, trying to frame the situation in their favor, which is basically to paint a picture that maybe this wasn’t such a big disaster, such serious disaster.
PERIES: So, one of the questions, I guess, in everyone’s mind is, if this area is contaminated and the area is also completely destroyed as a result of the tsunami, why wasn’t there, like, a more thorough evacuation of the area done in order to clean up and get it in better shape for people to live in? Why was that not followed through on?
KANEKO: Well, in a way they are actually doing what you described as the sort of cleanup in the name of decontamination work. But the area’s so large that–you know, the contaminated area, and also the level of radiation in some areas extremely high. So in a way it’s not possible to remediate that quickly. It might take a long time. And even with the so-called decontamination work, which is basically scraping soil and organic matter such as grass or leaves and then just bundle in huge bails and plastic bags and then just try to sort of push away, but radiation level doesn’t go away. It’s not like they will decompose and dissipate. You know, it just sits there. And where are you going to house them, ultimately? Or they’re now starting to move a lot of contaminated soil and such in bags to more one or two locations around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. But the amount of contaminated soil, in terms of the number of bags, is incredible.
PERIES: And what are scientists saying? Is this area occupiable in the future? Or should there be evacuation of the area completely?
KANEKO: I don’t know why we’d have to ask scientists that, because nobody really knows what the effect is going to be, even at the lower level of radiation, what the effects are going to be. So that’s a problem.
And people, some people might say, you know, I’m too old, I’m old, so I’m not going to worry about dying in five years. Some people might say that and then to choose to go back, and I think that’s a legitimate sentiment.
But then, of course, children, who do not have a choice of their own, and so they’re also a lot more radio-sensitive, how are we going to protect their health? Because they’re the future. And to me that’s more important than, say, sort of a blanket statement of whether people should be allowed to go back or not allowed to go back.
I’m sorry. I’m not really explaining it really well, but that sort of is the reflection of how complicated emotionally, and even scientifically, this whole thing is.
PERIES: And normally when there’s this kind of earthquake and a disaster zone, there’s a lot of international agencies that come to work in these areas. I am reading and assuming that this is not the case when it comes to Fukushima, because of the dangers it poses to the aid workers themselves. What are your observations?
KANEKO: You know, I don’t know that. I don’t know about that. But then, I also know that the Japanese government and Tokyo electric company for the most part have tried to contain the situation on their own. That much I can tell. And also there are occasionally some international experts usually trying to sort of tell people that based on the Chernobyl experience, you’re going to be okay, that sort of seminars.
PERIES: And what is happening to the plant itself? Has it been repaired?
KANEKO: No, it’s not repairable. It’s still, for the most part, human beings cannot go near it. And I think a lot of site work, which is trying to remove the debris and trying to encase the defunct reactors and whatever, the work has been done with remote operation.
And not only that, the current biggest issue in Japanese media is that the contaminated water leak from the site. And there’s groundwater and there’s rainwater, and they’re all passed through the site and sort of, basically, going into the Pacific Ocean, and the level of radiation extremely high. So they haven’t been able to control, contain that. And so that’s a great concern.
PERIES: Chiho Kaneko, I thank you so much for joining us today and giving us some idea of what’s happening on the ground in Fukushima.
KANEKO: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.