Uranium's long and shameful journey to Fukushima

Dave Sweeney

The signs that all is not as it 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 11 March 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 18 months after the meltdown this trip is part of a widespread 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 Nations 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.

A grandmother 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 when she speaks of her three grandchildren and the three great-grandchildren 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 how more than 6,000 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 TV game-show while the hill behind is criss-crossed with red tape that marks the areas of active decontamination work.

A farmer accepts that his current rice crop will be destroyed after harvest because it will be too contaminated. But he hopes next year's 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.

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 relocated 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 250 kids used to attend, now there are 16. The local mayor picks up the theme stating, "we have very few young people or children". Radiation hits hardest at growing cells and many concerned parents have understandably moved. The old remain and the 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 while admitting "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". Meanwhile, the monitor on the bus keeps clicking.

Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima

Each click counts the decay of a piece of rock dug up in Australia. In October 2011, Dr Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade admitted "that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors". Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima.

Australian uranium is now radioactive fallout that is contaminating Japan and beyond and the response of the Australian government and the 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 continues to be plundered to service BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam mine in 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 novelist 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 restart 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 decontamination and clean-up program and the persistent stories of cut corners, substandard subcontracting and Yakuza or organised crime connections.

One of the doctors who organised our trip put the issue sharply and starkly: "The restart 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 planet's energy future is renewable not radioactive.

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 nuclear accidents.

Dave Sweeney is the Nuclear Free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation