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26 August 2015

Fukushima today: A first-person account from the field and the conference table

Subrata Ghoshroy

Subrata Ghoshroy

Subrata Ghoshroy is a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Science, Technology, and...


It has been more than four years since the east coast of Japan was hit with a trifecta: an earthquake of Magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, followed by a massive tsunami triggered by the quake’s tremors, and then the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi  nuclear generating complex. Design mistakes, a poor safety culture, and human error exacerbated the situation. And it all happened within the span of an hour, searing the name “Fukushima” into the collective memory of all. Like Hiroshima a few hundred kilometers to the south, the name Fukushima became synonymous with the horrors that can befall a nation from uncontrolled atomic chain reactions.

I had traveled to Japan to attend a meeting of the Japan Scientists’ Association in Yokohama, near Tokyo, which was expected to announce a major change in its pro-nuclear energy position.

While there, several other conference attendees and I received permission to go on a guided tour to the restricted areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi plant to see for ourselves, first-hand, the things that we had all been discussing in conference rooms and lecture halls for the past three days. One of the conference organizers—Yoshimi Miyake, a professor at Akita University—accompanied us on our trip to Fukushima. (To be precise, Fukushima is a prefecture with the namesake city its capital. The plant itself is called Fukushima Daiichi.) Another participant, Lucas Wirl from Germany, volunteered to act as our photographer.

What follows are my personal impressions from the tour that occurred immediately after the meeting, and a few of the relevant highlights from the meeting itself—which called for the elimination of nuclear power from Japan as soon as possible. A total of seven of us traveled about 50 miles, starting from a point some 40 miles south of the power plant, then heading along a series of coastal highways until the road took us to within just a little over a mile and a half from the plant, within the town limits of Futaba—which was about as close as anyone could get to the site without special protective gear. We then continued northeast to the village of Namie, one of the nearest villages to the plant, and a place where the government was aggressively pushing for former inhabitants to return to live year-round.

Along the way, we passed through many towns and little villages that had been hit hard. As for the plant itself, the radiation levels are so high that it is difficult to even operate robots. And in places like Namie—whose closest boundary lay less than five miles away from the plant—the radiation levels posed significant risks, because they are so much higher than normal natural background radiation. Also accompanying us were Itoh Tatsuya of the Iwaki City chamber of commerce and Baba Isao, an assemblyman from the town of Namie—both locales hurt substantially by the multiple disasters.

Getting there. We traveled by express train from Tokyo to Iwaki City in Fukushima prefecture, where we stayed overnight before beginning our journey the next day. As we left our hotel after breakfast, one of our guides—Tatsuya—readied his Geiger counter. Before leaving, he took a measurement of the background radiation level and announced that it was higher than normal today, even though Iwaki is more than 40 miles from the ill-fated power plant. It sounded like he was a weather forecaster talking about humidity levels. He did not give a figure as to how much higher the background radiation was.

As we started heading north, we saw homes destroyed by the tsunami. Iwaki lost 200 people, Tatsuya said. As we began to reach the outskirts of Iwaki City, the radiation level rose consistently, if in very small amounts. Here at about 20 miles from the plant it was about 0.1 microSieverts per hour—objectively not really high at all, but above where we started, and marginally higher than the normal natural background radiation. The Geiger counter’s needle flickered, occasionally registering higher levels, especially when we passed through some tunnels.

As I looked out the window, I thought of what one of the conference presenters, Mitsugu Yoneda of Chuo University in Tokyo, had said: There were 120,000 evacuees across the Fukushima prefecture, and it was unlikely that they would be able to return to their homes in 2016 in the so-called “difficult-to-return” zones, where the cumulative annual exposure is expected to be 20 milliSieverts or more. In recognition of this fact, the government had come up with a new category called “release preparation zones,” where the cumulative annual exposure is estimated to be well above “normal” but less than 20 milliSieverts. The government’s plan to promote an early return to these areas was called a politically motivated whitewash by Yoneda, because anything close to 20 milliSieverts is far higher than the normally accepted safe annual limit. (One milliSievert is about equal to about 100 millirems—the units most commonly used in the United States. Thus, 20 milliSieverts would be 2,000 millirems.)

Different countries have different standards, but in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that its licensees limit annual radiation exposure to individual members of the public to 1 milliSievert (100 millirems) above the average annual background radiation. Because the natural background radiation usually averages in the range of about 3.1 milliSieverts (310 millirems), that figure plus the allowed exposure from the nuclear power plants makes for a total of about 4.1 milliSieverts (410 millirems) annually—a far cry from the 20 milliSieverts (2,000 millirems) that could be encountered by a member of the public in any putative “release preparation zone” near Fukushima Daiichi.

To give a sense of scale, the average person gets 0.04 milliSieverts (about 4 millirems) from a single chest X-ray, and about 0.24 milliSieverts (24 millirems) in cosmic radiation annually if that person is living at sea level. Cumulative dosages of 500 milliSieverts (50,000 millirems) or above are considered “high,” and cause acute radiation sickness, many different forms of cancer, and death. But because radiation affects different people in different ways—depending upon one’s age, general health, and genetic predisposition—it is not possible to indicate precisely what dose is needed to be fatal to a given individual. All that researchers can do is give statistical averages, such as “50 percent of a population would die within 30 days of receiving a dose of between 350,000 to 500,000 millirems (3,500 to 5,000 milliSieverts).

Some of the other background information that Yoneda provided was similarly dismal. For one thing, the building containing the failed reactors has radiation levels as high as 4,000 to 5,000 milliSieverts per hour (400,000 to 500,000 millirems per hour), making even the operation of robots difficult. In fact, two power company robots had to be abandoned while inside the depths of the plant. And some spots, such as inside the primary containment vessel, went as high as 9.7 Sieverts per hour (970,000 millirems per hour). In addition, it has not been possible to precisely locate the melted core. (Another conference speaker, Jun Tateno, who was a former research scientist with the Japanese Atomic Energy Research Institute, accused the government of suppressing voices from the scientific community that were critical of the safety of power plants. He said that we have reached a situation in which we do not even know how much plutonium is in the core.) In the meantime, huge amounts of water must be pumped in to keep the reactors cool; this liquid then mixes with ground water, contaminating it as a result.

The picture is not much better when it comes to the land. In an effort to decontaminate residential areas, radioactive soil is being dug up from approximately 1,000 sites. The government wants to consolidate this contaminated material in semi-permanent storage sites in the “difficult-to-return zones” in Futaba and Okuma towns. Local residents, meanwhile, fear that these could turn into permanent repositories of radioactive material.

I was jolted out of my reverie by the comments of Tatsuya, who pointed out a large apartment building that looked empty. He said that in days past there would have been many children’s clothes hanging from the balconies. The only people who are living there now are some of the laborers who are working to decontaminate the town.

Our first stop was J-Village, about 18 miles from the plant. It housed a huge sports facility, including what was once Japan’s largest soccer-training complex. Because of its stadium, many of Japan’s top players once trained there. Now abandoned, the stadium was overgrown with weeds, and the scoreboard still carried the results of the last game. The parking lot was full, but not with the cars of soccer fans. The vehicles belonged to the decontamination workers who were taken by buses from there to the restricted sites.

Tatsuya noted that the Geiger counter was reading about 1 microSievert per hour as he moved the counter around the parking lot. That was bad enough; it translated to 8.76 milliSieverts per year.

He then bent down to take a reading from a grassy spot. The counter needle pinned to the right. “Off the scale!” he exclaimed. It was higher than 5 microSieverts per hour, which is more than 50 times higher than normal natural background radiation per hour in Tokyo. It translated into a cumulative annual dose of 43 milliSieverts—many times above the 6.2 milliSieverts (620 millirems) average annual exposure for members of the general public, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (In addition to the natural background radiation level of about 3.1 milliSieverts [310 millirems], the average person is also likely to fly in an airplane, watch television, or undergo medical procedures, and all these manmade sources together add another 3.1 milliSieverts [310 millirems] per year to one’s exposure, making for a total radiation dose of 6.2 milliSieverts, or 620 millirems. This figure could colloquially be considered the “normal” amount of radiation exposure for a member of the general public, as a very rough rule of thumb.)

We left soon thereafter. We were told that most workers did not wear dosimeters to record their cumulative radiation dose. There was good money to be made in decontamination work. They did not want to know.

But if one does the math, what the workers and their supervisors were ignoring—or were being told to ignore—could be significant. If a person spent one week working at this part of a supposedly safe parking area for 8 hours per day, then he or she would have been exposed to 40 microSieverts per day. And if that person was there for a 5-day workweek, then over the course of a single week that person would have been exposed to 200 microSieverts. In a year, that person could receive 10 milliSieverts, a significant dose. Of course, scientists are rightly cautious of such “anecdotal” evidence; our Geiger counter readings could have been off, or the machine calibrated incorrectly, or some other source of error introduced—though I doubt it because it had earlier read the background correctly. But the result of such quick and dirty, back-of-the-envelope calculations for what is supposedly a low-risk parking area, well away from the restricted hot zones, do give one pause—especially as the ongoing lack of dosimeters means that no one really knows a given individual’s cumulative dose. The amount of exposure to a thing that you cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or feel sneaks up on you. Even when you think you are safe, you are not.

If nothing else, the fact that a simple, random spot-check registered so highly is an eye-opener, and counter to what has been officially portrayed. An April 16, 2015 story in the Asahi Shimbun—one of the major, reputable, national newspapers in Japan, of a stature comparable to the New York Timesquoted a government agency as saying: “Cleanup crews around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were exposed to an average dose of 0.5 millisievert of radiation per year, well below the government safety standard, a report shows.”

An important item seemed to lie further down in the article, which noted: “However, the health ministry said the number of workers surveyed is different from the total number of cleanup personnel reported by the Environment Ministry, which could mean the association failed to record radiation doses of all individuals working around the Fukushima plant.”

No wonder there has been public distrust and charges of a lack of clarity about the radiation clean-up operation, as can be seen in the title of a 2013 Guardian newspaper article: “Life as a Fukushima clean-up worker—radiation, exhaustion, public criticism.” Even when the approximately 7,000 workers involved in the clean-up do wear dosimeters, that is no guarantee of accuracy; there have been reports of a Tokyo Electric Power Company executive who tried to force clean-up workers to manipulate dosimeter readings to artificially low levels by covering their devices with lead shields.

The voice of science. Because of such activities, it is hard to pin down basic data. Accordingly, the conference had been a key opportunity for researchers from different countries and different fields—including physicists, of course, but also economists and climate scientists, among others—to get together and compare notes.

Nearly 80 scientists, engineers, and academics from all over Japan attended. Many of the Japanese attendees were renowned academics in nuclear physics and engineering. Several had held high-level positions in the nuclear research establishment. Among international participants were delegates from the United States, Germany, and South Korea, among other places.

While there were no representatives from China at the meeting, Jusen Asuka, an environmental policy professor from Tohoku University, gave his analysis of the impact of Fukushima on the Chinese nuclear program. He said that the accident in Fukushima created a figurative, as well as literal, shock wave throughout China: People started stocking up on iodized salt, and stores ran out of the substance within 30 minutes of opening. The Chinese government suspended all license applications for new reactors, temporarily halted all nuclear plant construction, and established a nuclear safety law. China also began investing heavily in non-hydro renewables.  

The meeting’s goals. The importance of the meeting could hardly be underestimated, given that Japan is at a critical juncture in its debate about what path to follow in its energy future. On the one hand, a conservative government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and backed by powerful forces in business and the nuclear industry, was pushing hard to bring back the nuclear plants—and even build new ones. Simply put, the Abe administration’s objective is to make the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy a thing of the past; therefore, it promotes the idea that things are getting back to normal. After all, Abe won an election victory in December 2014, with one plank being that the nuclear plants would be restarted. Abe is counting on the fact that with 54 nuclear reactors in a small country, many people’s livelihoods depended on the reactors’ continued operation.

It is hard to tell if the government’s promotional campaign is succeeding. The Abe government is continuing to push for the revival of nuclear power in Japan, as exemplified by the recent restart of the Sendai plant.

By doing so, it clearly sought to lay down a marker—and also perhaps to gauge public opinion before proceeding to restart other plants.

On the other hand, public opinion has been growing stronger in opposition—although the opinion polls have not been overwhelming. One of the significant aspects of the conference was the vigorous participation of women scientists like Miyake, who spoke out strongly against nuclear power and also challenged the male domination in the scientific community. Young mothers were participating in increasing numbers in anti-nuclear protests in Japan and also in Korea, we were told by Hye-Jeong Kim, a leader of the anti-nuclear movement in South Korea, who is also a member of the country’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, an equivalent of the NRC in the United States.

With these developments in mind, a scientific community that can speak with one voice and make a credible case against the government-industry publicity campaign is crucial. The Japanese Scientists’ Association envisioned its role as accurately communicating to people around the world the dangers of nuclear power and the seriousness of the damage suffered by the Japanese people. And the group hoped to use science to counter the forces that promote nuclear power in Japan, and demand that Japan give top priority to renewables.

A welcoming banner. Heading north towards Tomioka, we found large tracts of land piled high with green trash bags. From a distance, the piles looked like vegetation; it was only as we got closer that we saw that they were full of the radioactive dirt that had been excavated from the topsoil as part of the government’s efforts to decontaminate the soil. It appeared to be a hopeless task.

In reaching Tomioka—badly hit by the tsunami—we found a nearly destroyed town invoking an image of the Apocalypse. All we saw were homes, businesses, and shops as they stood or fell after the tsunami hit and then the radiation struck. There was no sign of life other than decontamination workers going about their grim task.

Continuing our journey toward Namie—one of the worst-hit towns, whose boundaries lie about six miles northeast of Fukushima Daiichi at the closest point—we passed through the small villages of Okuma and then Futaba. We continued onward, and edged as close as 1.5 miles from the plant at one spot, but no closer. All roads to the plant from here on were barricaded. Ironically, one banner welcoming visitors to the town read: “Nuclear Power is Our Future.”

Can Japan make the switch to renewables? A key goal of the conference was the public announcement that the Japan Scientists’ Association formally opposed nuclear power in Japan, and that its opposition was based upon scientific analysis of the accident in Fukushima and its impact. This about-face was a major step; it meant that some of the same Japanese scientists who had been the most forceful and outspoken proponents of nuclear energy now opposed it. To bolster the impact of this statement, the association had to show both the economic and technical feasibility of alternative sources of energy. Consequently, much of the meeting focused on the lessons learned from the experiences of other countries, and the keynote speaker of the conference, professor Juergen Scheffran of Hamburg University, Germany, gave the European perspective on the implications of the transition from fossil and nuclear to renewable energy. The focus was especially on Germany, which is in the middle of its own planned transition to a non-nuclear future.

With that in mind, Reiner Braun, co-president of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, Switzerland, spoke about the status of the German exit from nuclear power and entrance into renewables. Known as Energiewende in German (literally “energy turn”), it would entail shutting down all nuclear plants by 2022, with seven plants shut down immediately. The renewable energy sector would be expanded at the same time that there was a step-by-step reduction in fossil fuel use; modern natural gas plants are to be used as a transition technology. Structural changes would also be made to the distribution network to account for the decentralized nature of the new energy supply. 

Braun, a veteran of the protest movements against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, said it was important to understand why a politically conservative government had made this U-turn. A vast majority of the German people had rejected nuclear energy and there were decades of organized resistance, starting with massive protests against the stationing of NATO’s tactical weapons on German soil. While progress was promising so far, Braun reminded his audience that Energiewende was the “largest technological challenge” faced by the country since the post-WW II reconstruction efforts. The political challenges, meanwhile, were comparable to those encountered after the reunification of the two Germanys after the end of the Cold War.

But there was no doubt it had to be done, or that Japan could learn from observing the German experience. The feeling from the meeting was best summed up by the conference chair, Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, an expert on climate science and an emeritus professor at Tohoku University. Kawasaki ended his brief remarks with the words: “The Japanese Scientists’ Association believes that human beings and nuclear power cannot coexist.”

I was reminded of these words many times as we toured the forbidden land of once-lively towns of Fukushima prefecture.

It might have been worse. Finally we arrived at Namie, our destination, and as close as we could get to the actual plant itself. Another of our guides, Baba Isao, an Assemblyman from the town, had secured special permission for us to enter. We first went to the town hall for a quick lunch; the building had undergone a decontamination operation and there were a few town employees at work. A radiation level monitor with a large digital readout was in front of the building.

Namie had a population of 21,000 before it was evacuated. About 14,000 were relocated within Fukushima prefecture (his family being one) and 6,000 outside. Two hundred people were known to have perished in the tsunami. Isao told us that his wife had gone back to their house a few weeks ago and found the radiation level to be 34 microSieverts per hour, which is nearly 7 times higher than the “hotspot” we had encountered in J-Village. It would be considered an absolute no-go. Newspaper reports have cited other such hotspots in Namie.

Isao said that some people wanted to return, but he had advised them against it, although we found a convenience store to be open. Meanwhile, the government was making Namie’s clean-up a priority, undertaking infrastructure improvement and house-to-house decontamination. The town was considering a proposal that would allow people to return in 2017, but Isao was doubtful.

In addition to the presence of radiation, there was another reason not to return: There were no longer any jobs in these communities, where the nuclear power plant was the raison d’etre for the town. In fact, before the accident, in a bid to boost the economy, the town had been negotiating with the Tohoku Electric Power Company to set up another nuclear plant in Namie.

We found a perfect ghost town where life ceased to exist, as if a light switch had been turned off. Abandoned homes were now inhabited by cats. In the downtown area there were closed stores, including a barbershop and a bakery. All looked as if the employees were on a break. There were tens of bikes left at the train station; a few buses were parked in their designated spots as if waiting for commuters to disembark from a train. 

We drove through more silent streets before arriving at an elementary school, which had been in the tsunami’s path. The school building was destroyed, but the children miraculously survived by running to a hill nearby. Inside the building, there were children’s lockers with small boxes for crayons. A memorial stupa—a mound-like, Buddhist shrine—stood on the roadside, with flowers and candles.

From the elementary school, we could just barely see what appeared to be the top of the turbine buildings of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Red and white construction cranes hovered over them. Namie escaped more damage thanks to the prevailing winds, which dispersed much of the fallout toward the ocean. And what if that second nuclear plant had already been up and running when disaster struck?

Ironically, Namie had been lucky. Things could have been much worse.

Editor’s note: The conference was organized in collaboration with the International Network of Engineers and Scientists; other conference organizers included Keiiji Ujikawa, (an economics professor at Yokohama National University, Shinjiro Hagiwara (an emeritus professor of economics at the same institution), and Fujio Yamamoto, (an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at Fukui University.)

The author had made a video presentation earlier about his visit to Fukushima at a meeting in Boston.