Japan marks six months since nuclear disaster and charts a clean energy future
Post Date: 09 September 2011
This Sunday will be the six month anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, which is now emerging as being far worse than officials originally admitted. But in many parts of the world, including the UK, it has already slipped into distant memory, even as we remember the terrible events of 9/11.
While the mainstream media has moved on - even in Tokyo itself - and there has been little reportage of developments in the area around the disaster, it is apparent that secrecy and cover-up continues to be endemic in the industry, and anger is widespread among survivors of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami disaster.
Almost six months after the catastrophe, tens of thousands of people still live in crowded shelters and temporary homes, many mourning loved ones, fearful of radiation, lacking information they can trust, and without jobs, homes or a clear idea about their future. 100,000 Fukushima Prefecture residents are still not able to return to their homes.
Some locations near the nuclear power plant are estimated to be contaminated with accumulated radiation doses of over 500 millisieverts a year, meaning an imminent return for residents is unlikely.
Shinji Sakuma, a farmer whose cows were slaughtered due to fears of radioactive contamination, is furious with the politicians he sees as "distant and disconnected from the reality of the disaster zone".
There is a 20-30km "stay indoors" zone around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, and schoolchildren are not allowed to play outside.
Within 50km, in a school in Koriyama, students are monitoring levels of radiation in the grounds, and finding pockets of high radiation where contaminated surface soil on the school premises was removed and buried.
Readings in the wider affected area of the level of radioactivity in the soil and sea show that three times as much iodine-131 and cesium-137 - 4,720 terabecquerels - was emitted than that formerly estimated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant operator.
Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, meaning that its radioactive emissions will decline only by half after 30 years and will affect the environment over several generations.
A soil expert from Tokyo university estimates that cancer or illness from Fukushima radiation will begin to show in 5-10 years. “This is a disaster affecting all residents of Japan,” he says.
A group of researchers from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, Kyoto University and other institutes say that a total of 15,000 terabecquerels of radioactive substances is estimated to have been released from the Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea, affecting fish and other sea-life.
Moreover the Japanese education ministry has released the first comprehensive survey of soil contamination within a 62-mile radius, showing that more than 30 locations spread over a wide area have been contaminated with cesium-137.
The survey of 2,200 locations - conducted in June and July - found that 33 had cesium-137 in excess of 1.48 million becquerels per square meter, the level set by the Soviet Union for forced resettlement after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Japanese authorities said.
This prompted Mamoru Fujiwara, assistant professor of nuclear physics at Osaka University, to say that residents from these locations "need to be relocated permanently", but no decision has yet been taken.
Meanwhile, technicians are still struggling to bring the crippled reactors to a state of cold shutdown by January.
Japan's clean energy future
In the light of all this, Japan is likely to have no nuclear plants in the future, Japanese industry minister Yoshio Hachiro said this week, basing his statement on Japan's new prime minister Yoshihiko Noda's policy of not building new nuclear power plants and decommissioning old ones.
Noda has just replaced Naoto Kan, who stepped down following criticism of the way he handled the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.
"Public opinion is generally united in reducing (nuclear plants), instead of increasing them," Noda said.
Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan had a target of meeting half of its electricity needs from nuclear power by 2030, up from one third. Only 12 of Japan's 54 commercial power plant reactors are now in operation.
Just before resigning, Kan also advocated a zero-nuclear future for Japan, and passed a feed-in tariff creating incentives for large-scale renewable energy projects. "When I think of safety not being outweighed by risk, the answer is not to rely on nuclear," he said in an interview a week ago.
Renewables, including hydropower, currently supply about 10% of Japan's energy mix but this will now rapidly increase.
With the indomitable spirit that allowed the country to rebuild itself after its defeat and the nuclear horror of the Second World War, the country is set to turn its worst crisis since Hiroshima and Nagasaki into an opportunity.
Its new foreign minister Koichiro Gemba, whose own constituency is Fukushima, has announced a national drive for clean energy that will focus not just on satisfying national demand but on exports to help fuel the country's economic recovery.
"We have bullet trains and water. From now on, there will be environmental technology," said Gemba on Monday. He said these would include state-of-the-art solar batteries.
"I'm sure it will be Japan's strong field. We will promote it through economic diplomacy," he said.
It's no immediate consolation for those innocent victims of Fukushima's own Ground Zero, but it should serve as a lesson and inspiration for the rest of the world.