Six years on from Fukushima: Facing the fallout

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The never-ending calamity — yet still the nuclear lobbyists try to downplay its significance (Image via @MeioAmbienteRio)

Six years after the Fukushima disaster, it's long overdue for Australia's nuclear apologists to face up to their responsibilities, writes Dave Sweeney.

SIX YEARS is a long time to do nothing.

Australian governments of all shades routinely claim they are on the front foot — innovative, agile and responsive.

The Australian mining industry’s rhetoric is full of commitments to world’s best practise, highest standards and innovative community engagement.

But when it comes to the under-performing uranium sector, these adjectives and assurances are simply cover for a profound retreat from responsibility.

On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami hammered Japan’s east coast.

Amid the widespread destruction, the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex was shattered and radiation scattered.

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.

Fukushima means "fortunate island" but the region’s luck melted down alongside the reactor.

Tens of thousands of people still cannot return to their homes and the United Nations and other independent voices have 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”.

While the headlines might have faded, the radiation, dislocation and complexity has not.

Lives have been utterly disrupted and altered, and Fukushima remains a costly, complex and continuing nuclear crisis, and an unresolved environmental and social tragedy today.

So what does this sad story have to do with Australian Government, and mining industry inaction and denial?

Lots. Fukushima was directly fuelled by Australian uranium. Fukushima’s radioactive fallout started its life as a rock in Australia.

In October 2011, there was formal confirmation from the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) that

'Australian obligated nuclear material (uranium) was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors.'

Now, Australia rips and ships many minerals to many places and it would be unreasonable to put too much responsibility on the supply chain — no one holds a local miner culpable for a fatal motor accident in a car made overseas from Australian origin iron ore.

But uranium is different. This is not a diverse use mineral — it fuels nuclear power or nuclear weapons and it inevitably becomes long lived radioactive waste.

It has unique properties, poses unique risks and requires the highest scrutiny. And despite the promises, this is simply not happening.

In the wake of Fukushima, the UN Secretary General initiated a comprehensive review of international nuclear safety, security and safeguards.

Much of this review – the United Nations system-wide study on the implications of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – September 2011 – has relevance for the Australian uranium sector.

Sadly, many of its concerns and recommendations remain unmet, including a call for a dedicated assessment of the human and environmental impacts of uranium mining.

Successive Australian governments and the uranium sector have ignored and rejected this modest and prudent response to a tragic event. They have also consistently ignored repeated calls by the Federal Parliament’s treaties committee for caution on new uranium sales to nations, including Russia, UAE, India and Ukraine.

As a significant – albeit shrinking – uranium supplier with a stated commitment to best international standards and processes Australia must ensure that policy decisions relating to the contested uranium sector are based on best practice and review, rather than on pro forma assurances.

International studies, analysis and recommendations following the Fukushima nuclear emergency have not been acknowledged or addressed.

The failure of existing nuclear "safeguard" agreements to provide even a base level of certainty and assurance has been ignored, and any detailed and robust assessment of the best evidence has been sacrificed at the atomic altar of untested assurances and business as usual.

We urgently need a genuine and disinterested examination of the costs and consequences of Australia’s role in fuelling the international nuclear trade.

The uranium sector is in poor health. It faces a deeply depressed commodity price, falling production rates and a continuing lack of social license.

And it is increasingly clear, in this sick case, that doctor knows best.

Earlier this decade the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War’s (IPPNW) called for a global ban on uranium mining after finding:

'Uranium ore mining and the production of uranium oxide (yellowcake) are irresponsible and represent a grave threat to health and to the environment. Both processes involve an elementary violation of human rights and their use lead to an incalculable risk for world peace and an obstacle to nuclear disarmament.'

This sixth anniversary is a time to remember the story, and the suffering of Fukushima and to work towards these never being repeated.

A key step in this overdue process is for the Australian uranium miners and their political apologists to face up to both the music and the medicine.

Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation's nuclear free campaigner. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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