The first thing that a visitor to Fukushima, Japan, notices is the devastated landscape, the destroyed economy and the shoddy temporary housing into which thousands of people uprooted by the catastrophic nuclear accident last year have taken shelter. It’s also difficult to miss the pervasive fear of radiation. Radiation lurks everywhere. No less important is the citizen’s distrust of the government, which is rare in a society where the State is regarded as paternalistically benevolent.
The complaint, not just in Fukushima, is that the government, like Fukushima Daiichi plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), has hidden from the public the truth about nuclear hazards and practised deplorable non-transparency even when it could have minimised radiation exposure. Early in the nuclear crisis, huge radiation plumes escaped from the reactors, some under the impact of hydrogen explosions, which indicated severe core damage. Their radiation load wasn’t even measured.
The authorities failed to use data produced by Japan’s special radiation warning and fallout prediction system called Speedi. The evacuation in near-panic of over 110,000 residents from a 20-km ‘exclusion zone’ resulted in people leaving polluted areas only to find themselves in areas with even higher radioactive contamination. This is documented in a recent report of a government-appointed commission that says that the evacuation order was so vague that it “sounded almost the same as telling residents to ‘just run’”. There has since been no systematic measurement of radiation doses or food contamination at different distances from the site. Officials in Tokyo, more than 220 km away, have detected the same levels of cancer-causing cesium-137 in breast milk as exist in the ‘exclusion zone’.
The 507-page interim report depicts bumbling nuclear industry executives and confused government officials scrambling to deal with the crisis. They grossly underestimated tsunami risks and Tepco workers’ ability to handle emergencies like the station blackout after the tsunami destroyed backup generators, leading to the overheating of reactor cores and their eventual meltdown. They followed no manual.
Regulatory agencies failed to impose tough safety standards on Tepco, which was too slow to gather information on radiation leaks and relay it to the authorities. The report documents Tepco’s misjudgment of the reactors’ operational situation, its poor handling of alternative water injection, its response to the hydrogen explosions and its failure to prevent the expansion of damage. A better response might have reduced the core damage and radiation leaks.
Some more damaging facts have come to light, further inflaming public anger, including reports that the government suppressed a worst-case scenario for the nuclear crisis soon after the accident began and kept it under wraps until December. After the document was shown to a small, select group of senior officials in late March, the government decided to quietly bury it. “The content was so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist,” a senior official is quoted as saying. It forecast that in a worst-case scenario the crippled reactors would continue to release massive quantities of radioactivity for about a year.
In that event, residents within a radius of 170 km, and possibly even further, would be evacuated. Those living between 170-250 km, which includes Tokyo, could chose to evacuate voluntarily. Logically, this scenario may have already materialised. After all, not one, but three hydrogen explosions ripped through the Fukushima reactors. Many people expect yet more disclosures from an independent bipartisan inquiry commission just set up by parliament, with the power to summon witnesses.
The Fukushima reactors continue to be unstable and spew out radioactivity. Contrary to claims of a ‘cold shutdown condition’ with radioactive releases ‘under control’, the authorities do not even know how deep the melted cores have sunk through their containments. The reactors, independent experts say, are unlikely to be brought under control by damming radioactive leaks from the sides, but need a huge trench underneath the plant. This will take long years and cost a fortune.
The plant is badly damaged. Large seismic aftershocks, expected for many months, further rattle its already unstable and crumbling structures periodically, releasing radionuclides. The fact that such a catastrophe occurred in a highly developed country shows the inherent hazards of nuclear power. Its aftermath shows how Japan mishandled the crisis for 11 months. Both experiences offer many lessons to India.
Praful Bidwai is a Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist
The views expressed by the author are personal