The recent leaks from the Fukushima nuclear plant demonstrate that the accident that started on 11 March 2011 is by no means over.
When the announcement about Tokyo being selected for the 2020 Olympics came – after the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a strong pitch to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – one of my acquaintances on Facebook reacted with a three-letter acronym that is not used in polite language (Hint: the third letter corresponds to a four-letter word that starts as "Fukushima" does!) What else can one say to the kind of assurances that Prime Minister Abe had offered to the IOC. Witness, for example, his answers to questions by Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg about the recent leaks in Fukushima as well as the 2011 accident. According to Yahoo News, Prime Minister Abe said (in Japanese, of course): "It poses no problem whatsoever. ... There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future. ... I make the statement to you in the most emphatic and unequivocal way."
This is problematic on so many levels. First, there is little doubt that there will be some health-related problems in the future, for the simple reason that any exposure to radiation comes with an increased probability of developing cancer and similar endpoints. Based on a "comprehensive review of the biology data", the United States National Research Council's Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR Committee) concluded that "the risk would continue in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans".
Estimates of cancer mortality based on early estimates of radiation exposure suggest that there would be something of the order of a thousand victims over the next few decades. Still more would suffer from cancer but are expected to recover due to modern treatment methods. By most standards, cancer incidence, even if successfully treated, should count as a "health-related problem".
Second, the recent spate of leaks at Fukushima demonstrates that the accident that started on 11 March 2011 is by no means over. While the probability of a further large-scale release of radioactivity into the atmosphere has receded, the continued escape of radioactive materials into the soil and the sea means that Fukushima will pose additional hazards to human and marine health. The continued releases also mean that estimates made so far of the likely long-term total health and environmental effects of Fukushima are necessarily incomplete, even if future contributions to the total radiation dose may not – or may – add significantly to the already incurred dose.
Third, it is still unclear whether the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), or the Japanese government, will be able to stop these leaks anytime soon. If the Fukushima reactors had only a few leaks, then it is possible that the problem could be ended if and when they are sealed. However, the plant currently is, in the words of a recent visitor to the site, "like Swiss cheese", i.e., full of holes. And the problem has been ongoing for a while now. The reason for the sudden intervention by the Japanese government, as Jeff Kingston from Temple University in Japan observed, was essentially due to the concern that alarm about Fukushima imperilled Tokyo's Olympic bid as well as Prime Minister Abe's plans to quickly restart nuclear reactors.
It is also unclear how effective the proposed solutions, such as building a frozen wall at the cost of US$470 million, will be over the long term. Not only is the frozen-wall strategy untested on the scale that is being contemplated, it would be vulnerable to loss of power and possibly earthquakes. It is difficult to believe that this complicated scheme would successfully prevent any radioactive materials from ever contaminating the sea, sooner or later. Assessments of the time scale – before the Olympics – for bringing the Fukushima reactors "under control" are likely to be inaccurate.
Fourth, trying to control a hazardous technology such as nuclear power is always linked to the possibility of failures and errors, and events going disastrously wrong. TEPCO's problems offer further evidence for what sociologists like Lee Clarke have argued: often plans for dealing with accidents and emergencies might look good on paper, but could well prove inadequate in the face of an actual accident.
Finally, there is the question of trust. On nuclear issues, there is widespread distrust of Japanese officials, belonging to the nuclear establishment or the government, in that country. A recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun showed that 94% of Japanese believe that the Fukushima accident has not been brought under control. Prime Minister Abe's strong claims about there being no problems at Fukushima, and his emphatic reassurances that there are no health effects only increase the levels of distrust. Regaining that trust is going to take both full transparency and openness as well as a complete overhaul of Japan's "nuclear village". There is little evidence of either of these happening anytime soon.
Reprinted from Economic & Political Weekly, Vol.XLVIII, No.40, 5 October 2013 www.epw.in/postscript/2020-olympics-fukushima-and-trust.html