Fukushima and Australia's uranium shame

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11 September 2012 marked 18 months since the Fukushima crisis began. Dave Sweeney has just been to the radiation exclusion zone and is horrified by what he’s seen.

US Air Force Radiation Assessment Team collects seawater sample at Onahama port, Fukushima prefecture, March 29, 2012 (Image courtesy Stars and Stripes).

The signs that all is not as it was or should be start gently enough: weeds appear in fields, the roadside vegetation covers signs and structures and there are few people about. The country looks peaceful, green and sleepy — then the radiation monitor two seats away wakes up and starts clicking.

I am on a bus heading along a narrow and winding road towards the Fukushima exclusion zone. The trip has been organised by a Japanese medical group and my fellow travellers are doctors, academics and radiation health specialists from around the world. They have come to see and hear the story behind the headlines and to bring their considerable expertise to support the continuing relief and response efforts.

Fukushima is a name known around the world since the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex was shattered and radiation scattered following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The world held its breath as images of emergency workers in radiation suits, bewildered and fearful locals sleeping at schools and grainy aerial footage of an increasingly vulnerable reactor filled our screens and press.

While the headlines might have faded the radiation, dislocation and complexity has not and eighteen months after the meltdown this trip is part of a wide spread effort in Japan to ensure that the impacts and implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are neither forgotten nor repeated.

Fukushima means ‘fortunate island’ ― but the region’s luck melted down alongside the reactor. Over 150,000 people cannot return to their homes and last September a United Nation’s special report detailed some of the massive impacts: ‘hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage’, ‘serious radioactive contamination of water, agriculture , fisheries’ and ‘grave stress and mental trauma’ to a swathe of people. Lives have been utterly disrupted and altered and the Fukushima nuclear accident was and remains a profound environmental and social tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese organisers are extremely thorough and our meetings and site visits puts very human faces onto the raw data.

A grand-mother hosts us in her new home. The cluster of caravan park style cabins on tarmac are in every way a long way from her former life in a village. Her eyes light up and her years drop down when she speaks of her three grand-children and the three great grand-children due later this year. But then she is asked how often she sees them and the light fades. The interpreter stumbles, the room falls silent and we all look down and feel sad and strangely ashamed.

A doctor at a nearby medical centre tells of how over six thousand doctors, nurses and patients were re-located there from the adjacent exclusion zone. People were sleeping everywhere, he says, before proudly showing the centre’s new post-evacuee carpet. As he talks, a group of elderly people sit listlessly in chairs or lie in beds before a happy daytime television game show, while the hill behind is criss-crossed with red tape that marks the areas of active de-contamination work .

A farmer accepts that his current rice crop will be destroyed after harvest because it will be too contaminated. But he hopes next years might be better. I sit by a pond in his rice paddy as he explains his hope that if the ducks eat enough worms and grubs they might remove the radiation. No one has the heart to contradict him. Beside his house is a cedar tree that is 1,200 years old and his ancestors had the honour of supplying rice to the Shogun feudal lords. The rice from those same fields is now radioactive.

This farmer hopes that ducks will eat up the radiation via slugs and bugs. No one has the heart to correct him. (Image: James Norman (Australian Conservation Foundation) / ABC)

As we drive from site to site we pass skeletal abandoned greenhouses, the fields are increasingly wild, houses are empty, sheds are rotting, vehicles have grass in the wheel arches and the landscape is dotted with contaminated soil wrapped like round bale hay in blue plastic. The smaller side roads are blocked by traffic cones and stern signage, both to deter looting and because many are damaged. Police and re-located residents share patrols to keep thieves away, but the biggest thief is invisible. Radiation has robbed this region of much of its past, present and future.

An earnest teacher is happy that the local school has re-opened, but sad that while once around two hundred and fifty kids used to attend, now there are sixteen. The local Mayor picks up the theme stating ‘we have very few young people or children’. Radiation hits hardest at growing cells and many parents are understandably concerned and have moved. The old remain and, in the absence of the young, the old look older.

‘We have a very serious issue with the exodus of young people,’ says the Mayor, who is running an active campaign urging locals to return home, whilst admitting that ‘the accident isn’t completed’.

The manager of the local store shows us sophisticated point of sale radiation monitoring equipment and warns us against eating wild mushrooms. A doctor speaks of the lack of community confidence in the official radiation data and declares that another nuclear accident would be ‘the ruin of Japan’ — and the monitor on the bus keeps clicking.

And each click counts the decay of a piece of rock dug up in Australia.

In October 2011, Dr Robert Floyd from the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office acknowledged in a Senate hearing that:
“We can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors – maybe five out of six, or it could have been all of them”.

That’s right — Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima.

Australian uranium is now radioactive fallout that is contaminating Japan and beyond — but the response of the Australian government, Australian uranium producers and their industry association has been profoundly and shamefully deficient. Prime Minister Gillard speaks of business as usual, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson talks of the ‘unfortunate incident’ and the more bullish of the uranium miners have called the crisis a ‘sideshow’.

This denial and failure to respond to changed circumstances is in stark contrast to the views of Aboriginal landowners from where the uranium has been sourced. Yvonne Margarula, the Mirarr senior Traditional Owner of that part of Kakadu where Energy Resources of Australia’s Ranger mine is located, wrote to UN Secretary General to convey her communities concerns and stated that the accident
‘…makes us very sad. We are all diminished by the awful events now unfolding at Fukushima.’

Arabunna man Peter Watts, whose water resources continue to be plundered to service BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine in northern South Australia, told a Japanese audience in Yokohama earlier this year how the company
“…use up the water that gives life to dig up the uranium that brings death.”

There can be no atomic business as usual in the shadow of Fukushima. The writer Haruki Murakami has called Fukushima a massive nuclear disaster and stated ‘but this time no one dropped a bomb on us. We set the stage, we committed the crime with our own hands, we are destroying our own lands, and we are destroying our own lives. While we are the victims, we are also the perpetrators. We must fix our eyes on this fact. If we fail to do so, we will inevitably repeat the same mistake again, somewhere else’.

There is intense political debate around all things nuclear in contemporary Japan and the potential re-start of the countries suspended nuclear fleet has seen unprecedented political mobilisation and action in Japan. Another growing concern relates to the human, environmental and financial cost of the massive de-contamination and clean-up program and the persistent stories of cut corners, sub- standard sub-contracting and Yakuza or organised crime connections.

One of the doctors who organised our trip put the issue sharply and starkly:
“The re-start debate is about nuclear power plants, but it is also about democracy and the future of the nation.”

The debate is live in Japan and a similar debate now needs to come alive in Australia — our shared and fragile planets energy future is renewable, not radioactive, and we need a genuine assessment of the costs and consequences of our uranium trade. To fail to change or to learn from this tragedy is deeply disrespectful and increases the chance of Australian uranium fuelling future Fukushimas.

Australia’s uranium should stay where it is safest – in the ground.

(This piece was published on ABC Environment on September 7 in a slightly different form and has been republished here with the author’s permission.)

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