Fukushima, Year 5, and Counting...

Nine days ago, March 11, marked Japan’s slide into Year No. 5 of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. So much has happened these past five years, and yet so little seems to have been meaningfully accomplished in the way of resolving what can be called without exaggeration the worst nuclear accident in the history of humankind.

It has been an enraging and often saddening five years to watch all of this play out from here in Japan. If Fukushima has underscored anything over these past five years, it is the supreme lesson for countries on how not to handle a nuclear catastrophe. Both the operator of the crippled nuclear power plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and the government of Japan have failed in so many ways to effectively deal with the situation at Fukushima and the failures just seem to keep piling up.

Where do things stand with Fukushima after five years? The outlook is grim at best:

Evacuees Exact numbers are hard to come by but according to one estimate, around 165,000 Fukushima residents fled their homes immediately after the disaster. Of those, more than 97,000 residents have not yet returned home despite the government’s ongoing push to get them moving back again. The evacuees are living in temporary shelters, with relatives in other parts of Japan, or simply on their own in places that are not familiar to them. The evacuees seem to be unmoved by the continuous assurances of the government that radiation levels are low enough now for them to go back home. Plans are also afoot for the Japanese government to begin cutting off social welfare support for immediate victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Decommissioning The uranium fuel in three of Fukushima’s six reactors had melted down in the accident, and the resulting explosions blew open the roofs of three reactor buildings. This released radioactive cesium, iodine and other fission elements over the sea and land around the Fukushima plant. Water was poured into the damaged reactor buildings using fire hoses, and the highly radioactive water flowed directly into the Pacific Ocean. So, sea, sky and land have all been hit hard by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

TEPCO has managed to clean up the Fukushima accident site to some degree by capping the exposed roofs, removing the spent fuel from a damaged reactor and putting experimental “ice walls” in the ground to block the flow of groundwater that was washing contamination from the site into the Pacific Ocean. TEPCO is still pumping massive amounts of water through the highly radioactive and overheated reactor buildings, and collecting as much of that water as possible and storing the water on site in about 1,000 tanks. But the available space for those tanks is running out and there is a big question of what will be done when the space is gone — not to mention the problem of contaminated water leaking from some of those storage tanks.

The biggest problem, however, remains the issue of how to locate the molten nuclear fuel and other debris at the site that melted down in the accident — and how to get it out of there eventually. The core remains so radioactive and so hot today, five years after the initial meltdown, that no human can go near it; efforts to use robots to do the job have not been wholly successful either.

Conservative estimates place the full decommissioning of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant as being completed some time around the year 2060, well beyond most of our lifetimes. As for the molten nuclear fuel at the Fukushima site, prospects for that being completely removed by the expected date of 2020, four years from now, are looking increasingly slim. But if it can be accomplished, it will be just in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics to be hosted in Tokyo.

Olympics The world’s most populated city, Tokyo, is located just 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the Fukushima nuclear accident site. Plans are underway for some of the Olympic-related facilities to be based in areas around Fukushima Prefecture where the government insists radiation levels are no longer a problem. One Japanese government minister even recently announced his hope that some of the actual Olympic sporting events will be held in Fukushima. Whether or not Olympic athletes from around the world, like Japanese evacuees, will have a problem with spending time in the Fukushima area remains to be seen.

Decontamination The cleanup of evacuated areas around the Fukushima accident site has not gone smoothly either. Massive amounts of radioactive topsoil and other solid waste resulting from the disaster needed to be gathered and hauled away from homes, schools, streets and playgrounds in the evacuation zone, which extends about 50 kilometers or so northwest of the Fukushima accident site.

The result: millions of big garbage bags full of contaminated soil and debris. For now, those garbage bags are being stored out in the open and near roadsides in neatly arranged piles, exposed to the elements. A permanent storage area for all this contaminated waste has not yet been found; most Japanese residents in the area do not want such a radioactive storage site anywhere near their backyards. As if that were not bad enough, about 800 bags of radioactive waste got carried off by a typhoon in 2015 and were deposited miles away by river currents. Hundreds more of the bags of contaminated waste reportedly went missing and unaccounted for in the typhoon.

Court cases There has been no shortage of lawsuits of various kinds against TEPCO and the government since the Fukushima accident, mostly by citizens directly affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident and the resulting evacuation. But perhaps the most significant of the court cases since then was the indictment in late February 2016 of three former TEPCO officials for failing to take the proper safety measures that might have prevented the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. The indictments, initially rejected by prosecutors, were forced through by a civilian judicial panel, marking the first time that TEPCO officials were held legally responsible for the Fukushima nuclear accident. The trial is expected to start sometime in 2017 and the three indicted officials will most likely plead not guilty.

Operation Tomodachi One lawsuit against TEPCO that has received comparatively less exposure in Japan’s news media is one filed by U.S. military personnel involved in disaster relief efforts and humanitarian assistance to Japan soon after the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan. As part of that effort, dubbed “Operation Tomodachi” (tomodachi being the Japanese word for “friend”), U.S. sailors aboard the battleship USS Ronald Reagan, situated off the coast of Fukushima, were exposed to high levels of radiation that were carried by the wind out to sea.

Some of those U.S. sailors eventually filed a lawsuit against TEPCO, claiming that radiation from Fukushima has caused them severe health problems, including cancers, tumors and brain defects. As of 2015, the number of U.S. sailors who had joined the class-action lawsuit against TEPCO stood at around 200. TEPCO has denied any responsibility for the sailors’ health issues, and the Pentagon, for its part, has also dismissed any link between the sailors’ health problems and the Fukushima nuclear accident. The lawsuit continues making its way through the legal system in the U.S. as of this writing.

Health impacts The impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the health of people and nature in Japan has been a subject of great concern as well. Some studies of the effects of radiation from the Fukushima accident have found symptoms of radiation effects in Japanese forests where fallout from Fukushima was spread through the air, including genetic defects in some birds, insects, plants and trees.

The health effects on humans have been a lot more controversial: Some studies in and outside Japan have linked a rise in cancer rates with Fukushima, while other studies — including one by the United Nations — have downplayed the radiation effects from Fukushima on people.

One fact that seems to be beyond dispute at this point is a detectable rise in thyroid cancer rates among Japanese children from the Fukushima area. That cancer rate is certain to keep rising in the future as the radiation symptoms appear more clearly. But for now, there is a hesitancy — some say due to official pressure from the authorities — for medical doctors in Japan to make a clear and decisive link between Fukushima and human health effects.

So, that is where we stand with Fukushima after five saddening, enraging years: still taking the first steps on a road that will continue on long after most of us reading this are dead and gone.

The tragedy of Fukushima will, for all the progress made in dealing with it so far, be passed on to the next generation and the next and the next down the line. It will become their problem to deal with, and if future generations someday look back to 2011 and harshly blame us for what we have done to this planet, they will be fully within their rights to do so.

Fukushima has been nothing less than a crime against humanity, against nature, and indeed, a crime against the perpetuation of life itself. And no apologies or excuses on our parts will ever change that.

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