Fukushima apologies and apologists

Jim Green

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/120

It has been a sad and sorry year in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture. Three years after the March 2011 nuclear disaster at the TEPCO plant and Japan is nowhere near recovering.

ABC journalist Mark Willacy neatly described the recurring pattern: "At first TEPCO denies there's a problem at the crippled Fukushima plant. Then it becomes obvious to everyone that there is a problem, so the company then acknowledges the problem and makes it public. And finally one of its hapless officials is sent out to apologise to the cameras."

In February 2013, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose apologised for false information which led a parliamentary panel to cancel an on-site inspection of the Fukushima plant. TEPCO even managed to lie in its website apology according to the Asahi Shimun newspaper.

In March 2013, a rat found its way into an electrical switchbox resulting in a power outage that left 8,800 nuclear fuel assemblies without fresh cooling water for 21−29 hours. TEPCO delayed notifying the Nuclear Regulation Authority and local municipal officials about the incident. "We sincerely apologise. We are deeply regretful over the delay in reporting the incident and for causing anxiety to residents," said TEPCO representative Yoshiyuki Ishizaki.

On March 29, TEPCO belatedly acknowledged that the company's failings were responsible for the Fukushima disaster. Hirose apologised: "Our safety culture, skills, and ability were all insufficient. We must humbly accept our failure to prevent the accident, which we should have avoided by using our wisdom and human resources to be better prepared."

In April, TEPCO discovered that at least three of seven underground storage pools were seeping thousands of litres of radioactive water into the soil. Hirose travelled to Fukushima to apologise for the leaks.

TEPCO acknowledged a further five leaks and spills of contaminated water in April, including a spill of around 110,000 litres from a polyethylene-lined tank (TEPCO waited two days before informing the Nuclear Regulation Authority about this spill). Some of the leaks were continuing because TEPCO was unable to locate their source. Hirose apologised for the fiasco: "We have been causing tremendous trouble. We are very sorry."

After finding high levels of tritium and strontium in an observation well in June, TEPCO withheld the information for nearly three weeks. TEPCO executive Akio Komori visited the Fukushima prefectural government office on June 19 to apologise.

In July, it was revealed that TEPCO knew about radioactive groundwater leaks into the ocean a month before it publicly disclosed the problem. TEPCO's general manager Masayuki Ono apologised: "We would like to offer our deep apology for causing grave worries for many people, especially for people in Fukushima." TEPCO President Naomi Hirose also apologised: "We've been trying to reform, but we repeated the same mistake. Obviously, our effort is not enough. We are really sorry."

Also in July, Hirose apologised to two local mayors for seeking permission from the Nuclear Regulation Agency to restart reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant without first consulting local officials: "We sincerely apologise for your having had cause to criticise us for making hasty and sloppy decisions without giving considerations to local opinions." In October, Niigata Prefecture Governor Hirohiko Izumida − who effectively holds a veto over reactor restarts at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa − said TEPCO must address its "institutionalised lying" before it can expect to restart reactors.

In early August, TEPCO apologised to residents in Fukushima prefecture, the surrounding region and the larger public for causing inconveniences, worries and trouble arising from contaminated water leaks.

At an August 21 media conference, TEPCO executive Zengo Aizawa apologised for the latest tank leak and said: "The problem of contaminated water is the largest crisis facing management and we will place priority on dealing with the issue." At an August 26 media conference, Hirose apologised: "Contaminated water has been leaking from tanks. What should never happen, has been happening, and we deeply apologise for the repeated worries that we have caused. We are very sorry."

On August 29, Hirose apologised to fishermen whose livelihoods have been affected by radioactive pollution from the Fukushima plant. But Hiroshi Kishi, head of a federation of more than 1,000 fisheries cooperatives nationwide, said his members had no faith in TEPCO's ability to fix the mess it had created. "We think your company's management of contaminated water has collapsed," he said. "We are extremely worried as it's creating an immeasurable impact on our country's fishing industry and will continue to do so in the future."

In September, Hirose offered a blanket apology: "We deeply apologise for the greater anxiety caused by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station."

Also in September, Dale Klein, former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and current chair of TEPCO's 'Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee', told TEPCO that it was stumbling from "crisis to crisis" and that: "It appears that you are not keeping the people of Japan informed. These actions indicate that you don't know what you are doing ... you do not have a plan and that you are not doing all you can to protect the environment and the people." Hirose apologised: "I apologise for not being able to live up to your expectations."

In October, Hirose apologised to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) for sloppy standards at Fukushima, as yet another problem with radiation-polluted water emerged. "The problems have been caused by a lack of basic checks," NRA secretary general Katsuhiko Ikeda told Hirose. "I can't help but say that standards of on-site management are extremely low at Fukushima Daiichi."

In November, Hirose apologised to the estimated 150,000 local residents who have been forced to leave their homes due to radiation levels, and may in some cases never be able to return: "I have visited Fukushima many times, met the evacuees, the fishing union, the farmers, many people whose businesses have been damaged very much. I feel very sorry for them."

In December, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party Shigeru Ishiba apologised after describing citizens participating in anti-nuclear protests outside the Japanese parliament as "engaging in an act of terrorism by causing excessive noise". People were protesting against disgraceful new secrecy legislation which will deter nuclear whistleblowers from coming forward and deter journalists from reporting such information.

In December, another blanket apology from TEPCO President Naomi Hirose: "We deeply apologise to all residents around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, as well as the broader society, for the concern and anxiety that has arisen on account of the accident at the power station."

Hirose began 2014 with a New Year's speech in which he acknowledged that TEPCO was incapable of adequately dealing with problems in 2013, and was continually responding late to issues as they arose.

Hirose said TEPCO will do its best "not to have any problems" in 2014. Fat chance.

Nuclear apologists

Sadly, nuclear apologists have been slow to apologise for peddling misinformation. Adelaide-based nuclear advocate and conspiracy theorist Geoff Russell and Adelaide University's Barry Brook insist that the Fukushima disaster was "deathless" despite a growing number of scientific studies giving the lie to that claim.

Last year the World Health Organisation released a report which concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).

Estimates of the long-term cancer death toll include:

  • a Stanford University study that estimates "an additional 130 (15-1100) cancer-related mortalities and 180 (24-1800) cancer-related morbidities";
  • an estimate of 1,000-3,000 cancer deaths by physicist Ed Lyman (based on an estimated collective whole-body radiation dose of 3.2 million person-rem to the population of Japan); and
  • an estimate of around 3,000 cancer deaths from radiation biologist and independent consultant Dr Ian Fairlie.

Indirect deaths must also be considered, especially those resulting from the failure of TEPCO and government authorities to develop and implement adequate emergency response procedures. A September 2012 Editorial in Japan Times noted that 1,632 deaths occurred during or after evacuation from the triple-disaster; and nearly half (160,000) of the 343,000 evacuees were dislocated specifically because of the nuclear disaster. A January 2013 article in The Lancet notes that "the fact that 47% of disaster-related deaths were recognised in Fukushima prefecture alone indicates that the earthquake-triggered nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant caused extreme hardship for local residents."

In Fukushima Prefecture, 1,656 people have died as a result of stress and other illnesses caused by the 2011 disaster according to information compiled by police and local governments and reported in February 2014. That number exceeds the 1,607 people in Fukushima Prefecture who were drowned by the tsunami or killed by the preceding earthquake.

"The biggest problem is the fact that people have been living in temporary conditions for so long," said Hiroyuki Harada, a Fukushima official dealing with victim assistance, "People have gone through dramatic changes of their environment. As a result, people who would not have died are dying."

The claim by Barry Brook and Geoff Russell that Fukushima was "deathless" has no basis in truth. They ought to take a leaf from Naomi Hirose's book, bow deeply and apologise.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. A referenced version of this article is available from [email protected]