Speech delivered at the Global Greens Congress 2017, Peace and Security Without Nuclear Power session, held on 31 March, 2017 in Liverpool, UK
The Story of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster by Mitsuko Sonoda
Six years ago, a mega earthquake, a giant tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant explosions attacked Japan. 21,000 people died and even now more than 120,000 people remain official evacuees. And still the accident hasn’t ended. Three reactors melted down, but even now nobody knows where the cores are. Enormous amounts of radiation have been released from the nuclear power plant, creating serious contamination throughout East Japan. Many citizens have been exposed to radiation.
I was living in Fukushima with my husband and child. Our village was in beautiful countryside. We picked wild vegetables and nuts in the mountains, grew our own food in our garden, went swimming in the lake and skiing on the local slopes. Relatives and neighbours gave us their produce including rice, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. We lived in a fantastic natural environment and with a strong local community. However, the nuclear disaster destroyed our lives in Fukushima.
I couldn’t believe it when I saw the explosion of Reactor 1 live on TV. It was the day after the mega earthquake had hit East Japan, and aftershocks were constant. It was already really frightening, so the explosion was an unbelievably massive shock. We were in an anxious state. We didn’t have enough information about the spreading radiation but began preparing in case we needed to move quickly. Two days later, reactor 3 exploded. Then we decided to evacuate, especially because reactor 3 used MOX fuel, which contains plutonium.
I told the local mayor we should take all the children to the West of Japan. The mayor and the head of the educational department agreed with me and tried to prepare this, but the Fukushima prefectural government stopped them.
Unfortunately, we failed to arrange the children’s evacuation. School teachers said to me, “You should leave here to protect your child. We are staying in Fukushima to protect children in our school.”
Much public transport stopped and many roads were closed due to earthquake damage. Also, shops had run out of daily essentials such as food and petrol. Many people were exposed to radiation when they were queuing for water or walking outside to buy food. We were still in confusion from the mega earthquake, massive tsunami and nuclear explosions, but we had to decide about evacuation while hundreds of aftershocks followed and without honest information from the government.
Finally, we were able to get to an airport. It was full of people trying to escape from the Tohoku region. A Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) worker was on the same flight as us. He said to me, “I am going to see my parents in my hometown for a couple of days. My boss let me go to see my parents before going to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.” I was completely shocked by his words and realised that the war against radiation had started. Since then I can’t feel settled in my life anywhere.
Lots of parents regret letting their children get exposed to radiation through ignorance. When the nuclear explosion happened, the government kept saying on TV, “Radiation will not affect your health immediately.” How many people could have evacuated without suffering if the truth had been announced? How many people have had to struggle because of information being hidden?
Before the disaster Japan was 11th out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index, but in 2016 Japan was 72nd : the lowest of the G7 countries.
On the 21st of March 2011, Professor Yamashita, an official radiation risk advisor, started to tour Fukushima, talking about safety. He told people, “Radiation will not affect you if you are smiling. It comes to people who are worried about radiation. This has been proved by animal testing.” He also said “Fukushima children are lucky, because they can measure high radiation levels by themselves and they can learn the affects of radiation by using their bodies,” and “Exposure of up to 100mSv/year is completely safe. There is no problem playing outside.” Many Fukushima people wanted to believe him, but others didn’t. Families and friends were torn apart by his lectures. But later he said that he can’t take any responsibility for levels under 100mSv/ year being safe.
It is not true that nobody died following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hundreds of people were left to die in Okuma machi, which is near the plant. Nobody was allowed to enter in the area to rescue the victims, because of incredibly high radiation levels at the time. Up to a thousand bodies were found by the coast, but they were too highly radioactive to move, so the bodies couldn’t be retuned to their families. Even today some families are looking for their relatives’ bodies in the area.
The explosions created dangerous radiation hotspots in the East of Japan. The safety of food is a concern as people try to avoid internal radiation exposure. There are now over 50 independent radiation testing centres around Japan where anyone can bring food, soil, water, clothes, shoes and dust from vacuum cleaners. The levels found are often higher than those found in official testing. The government doesn’t test for strontium or plutonium in foods. They only check for cesium. More than 50 counties stopped importing Japanese products, although some countries eased restrictions in 2016. I hope you will consider that contaminated foods might be imported into your country. Can you imagine mothers’ feelings when they found cesium in their breast milk?
About 270,000 Fukushima children have had their thyroid tested. Unfortunately 185 children have officially been confirmed to have thyroid cancer up to now, and 145 have been operated on. In some cases cancer had spread to the children’s lymph nodes or lungs. Before the disaster, official rates for child thyroid cancer in Japan were low. For example in 2008, it was zero in Fukushima according to the National Cancer Research Centre. A member of the Fukushima Health Investigation Committee admitted, “We can’t say this result could be caused by screening.” Some mainstream western media have blamed mothers for worrying about their children too much, saying that stress will be the only health effect. However, there is no evidence that stress causes thyroid cancer. These numbers do not include those over 19 years old. There are no records for over 18’s.
This severe nuclear accident created so many kinds of suffering. Some evacuee children struggle to adjust in a different environment and are missing their family, friends and school. Many children are really missing their fathers, many of whom have stayed in Fukushima for their jobs. Children from Fukushima have been bullied by other children in their new places. Family divisions and divorce are also common.
The Japanese government decided to remove the evacuation orders for all zones except for the ‘difficult to return zone’, and to terminate housing support for most evacuees in March 2017 – today in fact. This pressures citizens to return to Fukushima. It is very important to acknowledge the suffering of these victims and to continue providing them with housing support in order to give them some stability in their lives.
Since the disaster, about 20,000 earthquakes have happened in Japan, and ones over magnitude 5 have happened 873 times, including a magnitude 7.4 one last November. We have to live with the risk of a further nuclear accident.
According to the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) and existing national law in Japan, the safety dose limit for radiation in public is 1 millisievert per year. But in Fukushima, 20mSv/year is allowed. In the Chernobyl area 5mSv/year is the level at which evacuation is mandatory. So the annual radiation dose allowed in Fukushima is 20 times higher than international level and 4 times higher than the Chernobyl level. Some evacuation orders were lifted last year, including those for areas like Minami Soma city which have radiation levels of up to 50 mSv/year. Before Fukushima, they said a major accident could not happen: now they say the radiation is not a problem anyway. They say hardly any evacuation is needed, so hardly any compensation is needed. This is the new model for the world.
Last month Tepco announced that inside Reactor 2 radiation had reached 530 Sv/h and then 650Sv/h. At these levels a person could die from just a brief exposure. Even the robots used cannot function for very long before they break down. According to Tepco, in January this year 12,720,000Bq/day cesium 134/137 and iodine 131 have been released daily. The government is encouraging evacuees to return to places as close as only 5 km away from the plant from tomorrow (1st April 2017).
The electricity from the Fukushima plant wasn’t produced for Fukushima citizens at all. It all went to Tokyo. Why aren’t nuclear power plants built in capital cities, if nuclear power is as safe as it is claimed to be? Why not in the centre of Tokyo, London or Paris?
Massive amounts of contaminated “disaster waste” are kept in container bags at temporary storage sites, including near residential areas and schools.
Why do we have to return to live in a radioactive area? Why can’t we have the human right to not to be exposed to radiation from Fukushima Daiichi? We are living with the reality that human beings can’t control nuclear power.
Local and prefectural government workers in Fukushima are under enormous pressure. Nine of them committed suicide last one year: five in the last two months.
So many people lost their jobs and had their businesses ruined. Four thousand of them are suing the Japanese government and Tepco. They say they don’t want anyone else to have to suffer the same fate. It was said that the nuclear industry created local jobs. However, it ruined their work and community and had huge effects on millions of people.
Japan is one of the most high-tech countries in the world, but it can’t control nuclear power safely. Even if a natural disaster doesn’t happen, human error or terrorism can be the cause of a catastrophe. (Like at Sellafield in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986: each new disaster has its causes.)
Two weeks ago in March 2017, the Gunma court delivered a judgment that Tepco and the government had a responsibility for the nuclear disaster. However, the compensation was small. It was the first judgment in the many Fukushima evacuees’ trials. The decision could influence various lawsuits by 12,000 plaintiffs across Japan. This is a petition to request a fair judgment in the Fukushima Evacuees Trial in Kyoto. I would appreciate if you sign this.
People who live in the East of Japan had never thought that they would have to face radiation in their lives. If a nuclear disaster happened now, could you make the right decision straight away? Do you know how far you are from the plant? Which way will the plume blow? Has your local authority prepared stable iodine for citizens? Can you protect yourself, your family and friends now? Radiation will not wait for you to think. I always carry a Geiger counter now. This shouldn’t be normal. Why do we have to live with nuclear power?
Before the disaster, we were taught nuclear power was cheep, clean, and safe. They told us severe nuclear accidents would not happen and the press did not question anything. It is very similar to the British situation now. We don’t want anyone else to become a nuclear victim in the world. And not just human beings! Animals, insects, fish, trees: across the mountains and into the ocean – all of nature was exposed to radiation. This is a global issue. I hope you will bring my story to your country and discuss nuclear power with your friends, your family and your government.
Thank you very much for giving me the chance to talk about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster as one of the many thousands of evacuees.