Lessons from Fukushima May 2013

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    Lessons from Fukushima

    Photo: Suzanne Carlson of Greenfield presenting messages from the Fukushima anniversary vigil to Chikako Nishiyama, of Kawauchi , Japan.

    Chikako and SuzanneAmong the speakers at a recent public forum in Southern California, entitled “Lessons from Fukushima,” was Mr. Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister of Japan.  Once a strong supporter of nuclear power, Mr.Kan described how his thinking had completely changed following the Fukushima nuclear disaster that erupted in March of 2011.

    “I concluded that the only way to contain this risk was to create a society that does not rely on nuclear power,” he said. And then he added, “We have created a situation where we are standing on a precipice…Will we be able to survive?”

    At the same forum, Gregory Jaczko, former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), told the California audience that all 104 nuclear power reactors in the U.S. “…have a safety problem that cannot be fixed…[and] continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.”

    Closer to home, fifty residents of Greenfield and surrounding towns gathered on May 29th at Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church to hear an eyewitness report concerning the continuing Fukushima meltdown.  Our speaker was Ms. Chikako Nishiyama, a village councilor from the Japanese village of Kawauchi, 15 miles southwest of the stricken reactors.

    Ms. Nishiyama’s visit to Greenfield came about because on March 9th of this year there was a vigil on the Greenfield Common commemorating the two-year anniversary of the Fukushima tragedy.  Because Kawauchi is almost the same distance and direction from the Fukushima reactors as Greenfield is from the Vermont Yankee reactor (which is the same age, make, and flawed design as the Fukushima ones), we unofficially declared Greenfield and Kawauchi to be “sister towns.”

    Greenfield 1 Fukishima Vigil_3-9-13At the vigil, scores of people and later, dozens of students at the Greenfield Center School, signed a large message of sympathy and support to the people of Kawauchi.  When informed of this, Ms. Nichiyama was so moved by knowing that people halfway around the world knew and cared about the danger and suffering they’d been enduring, she decided to come to the U.S., and to Greenfield specifically, to personally receive our message.

    Ms. Nichiyama’s report was surely a cautionary tale for all of us here in the U.S. who live in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor, especially since Japan, like the U.S., had been considered among the world’s most advanced nations in terms of nuclear technology and safety.

    According to Ms. Nichiyama, the residents and local officials of her area had been assured many times by the Japanese nuclear industry and federal government that an accident like Fukushima was virtually impossible, and that if such an accident did occur, Japan’s sophisticated and frequently rehearsed emergency preparedness procedures would protect the surrounding population.

    Ms. Nichiyama said it wasn’t until at least 24 hours after the meltdown had begun that people in Kawauchi, including local officials like herself, knew or was told what was happening at the Fukushima power plant.  At first, the government ordered everyone within one mile of the stricken reactors to evacuate, then within six miles, and soon thereafter within 12 miles.

    Due to continuing reactor meltdowns and explosions that spread highly toxic radioactivity in whatever direction the wind happened to be blowing (creating radioactive “hot spots” as far as 120 miles from the destroyed Fukushima reactors), even people beyond 12 miles, including the residents of Kawauchi were soon ordered to evacuate their homes and villages.  The ensuing evacuation, Ms. Nichiyama told us, created widespread panic and chaos, with mile-long lines at gas stations as people tried to flee in their cars as fast as they could, not knowing when, or if, they’d be able to go back.

    One year later the government declared that Kawauchi was safe enough for residents to return.  However, for many months only older people came back, while the younger ones, not trusting the government, did not.  Many of these younger residents and their families, now referred to as the “lost generation” of Kawauchi, are still refusing to return.

    In the meantime, emergency workers, clad from head to foot in white radiation-protection suits, have been scraping topsoil off schoolyards and other public places, packing it into large, blue, plastic bags and storing them “temporarily” along roadsides in Kawauchi and elsewhere.  Ms. Nichiyama showed us photos of great piles of these bags still there, including ones very close to her home.

    What lessons can we learn from Fukushima?  One is that accidents once thought impossible do sometimes happen.  Another is that radiation from a nuclear accident doesn’t spread outward in neat concentric circles but can be blown by the wind in unpredictable directions across great distances.  A third is that even the most dedicated local emergency preparedness workers, such as the ones we here are very fortunate to have, cannot prevent the kind of panic and chaos that is inevitable in the wake of a Fukushima-type accident.

    The most important lesson, however, is the one drawn by Prime Minister Kan: “The only way to contain this risk [is] to create a society that does not rely on nuclear power.”

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    Randy Kehler lives in Colrain and has been an active member of the Safe & Green Campaign whose mission is to close the Vermont Yankee reactor and replace its power with increased energy conservation and efficiency measures coupled with safe, renewable energy sources.