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An aerial photograph of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe in 2011.

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Five years later

The people of Japan are still reeling from the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, a reminder of the dangers and consequences of nuclear power when the unanticipated becomes the reality

Each year since March 11, 2011, the Safe and Green Campaign — of which the authors of these pieces are members — has organized events locally to support the people of Fukushima, Japan, victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdowns. This week, we offer some of their observations on the anniversary of an event that has faded from daily headlines but has irreparably destroyed the lives and livelihoods of the Japanese people who lived in the shadow of that nuclear power facility.

Gary Sachs

Japan’s — and the world’s — nuclear problem has been called a “house built with no toilets.”

No one figured out a way dispose of one of the nastiest stuff that man has ever created — radioactive waste — before building Fukushima, or any nuclear power facility. Yet people cling to the illusion of nuclear energy as safe, even in the face of the evidence of the disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is mandated to promote nuclear power, stated that much of the cause of the triple melt-throughs at Fukushima was related to the Japanese workers and citizens believing too much in this illusion.

In July 2012, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that the disaster was really no accident; rather, they described it as “man-made”: preventable but for the hubris of human beings who think we can actually safely contain and control radioactivity.

The 1-meter-by-1-meter black and blue bags filled with radioactive debris and contaminated topsoil, now permanently associated with the Japanese countryside near Fukushima, remind me as a Vermonter of the plastic-wrapped white bales of hay we often see local farmers leave in the field before pickup.

But in Japan, the bags are not so benign. Now, 20 million of them — a cubic yard of contamination at a time, row upon row at the side of farmers’ fields and roadsides — are everywhere.

These bags contain the work results of thousands of Japanese citizens who have pressure-washed walls and roofs of buildings and peeled away inches of topsoil, even tree bark, to decrease the amount of free-floating radiation left from the radioactive releases from Fukushima Daiichi that started March 11, 2011.

More than 700 of these bags were swept away during a typhoon last fall, some ending up in rivers 160 kilometers away, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the Counterpunch, the total material in these bags could fill 15 baseball stadiums.

Decontamination is a monumental and risky job that supposedly has payoffs in that some of the lesser contaminated areas might be opened to human occupation again. The heavily contaminated areas next to the Daiichi reactor might never be habitable by humans.

This is just the contamination on land.

Fukushima Daiichi continues to spew 300-plus metric tons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean each day, roughly 1,830 days so far. Fish are turning up dead and/or with gruesome mutations. The water and the contaminated air have already reached the United States. Maybe all of it has come home to roost.

The head of the “clean up” in Japan stated once that it would take 200 years to attempt to do so with the Fukushima disaster. Yet just this past month, Fukushima engineers stated that it will take “only” 40 years to clean up Fukushima.

I’m massively surprised that the site of Fukushima Daiichi can supposedly be cleaned up more rapidly than Entergy is willing to clean up the Vermont Yankee site. At VY, we know where the high-level nuclear waste is. In Fukushima, scientists have no idea where the radioactive fuel could be, much less how to control or contain it. Five years after the disaster, a technique for retrieving the lost fuel, which supposedly melted through the bottom of the reactor, has yet to be developed.

On this fifth anniversary of the beginning of one of the most horrendous man-made disasters ever, it is past time to recognize the lessons we need to learn. To honor the nuclear refugees who have lost their homes and livelihoods, who have already started developing serious medical problems, and to the many more who will in the near future, we don’t need to just make a few minor adjustments to regulations for nuclear power plants, as our Nuclear Regulatory Commission has done.

Fukushima was not a wake-up call!

The writer credits Ann Darling of Easthampton, Mass., a former Brattleboro resident, for her contributions to this piece.

Leslie Sullivan Sachs

In 2011, soon after the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan, The Commons published my essay.

“I imagine myself a mother in Japan,” I wrote. “I am one of 140,000 people shepherding my children into a world where radiation is invisible, trusting those who have lied to me.”

Today 80,000 people from 11 towns have left the region. What have Fukushima families experienced in the five years since March 11, 2011 and the trauma of evacuation?

As I put myself in the shoes of a mother — again — the choices are overwhelming.

If I lived in Namie, I doubt we will ever return. Like Brattleboro, Namie is 5 miles northwest of its nuclear site; it was once a town of 15,000 people known for its tourism, fishing, and farming.

It is now nothing but a ghost town, and it might become a nuclear waste site.

As an evacuee, I have a housing allowance. Perhaps we moved to another small town, where “survivor stigma” marks us; some people call us freeloaders, or they act from fear that we are contagious. Maybe we gave up our rural roots to move to Tokyo, one of the biggest cities on earth.

Perhaps our family fled Iitate. This town of 6,000 is outside the evacuation zone, as Putney is to Vermont Yankee’s, and about as far from the Daiichi reactors as Putney is from VY.

The government wants us to return in 2017, but only 50 of its 200 square miles has been decontaminated, mostly fields and strips along roads. Forests and hillsides remain untouched, so heavy rains wash radiated soils back onto decontaminated areas.

Last fall, 400 bags of radiated waste washed into the local river. I worry about my children’s health. Already, more than 100 children have thyroid cancer. Yet if we refuse to return, the government will cut our housing subsidy because we will be “voluntary refugees.”

What kind of education and social life would my kids have there? Of the towns that reopened this September, only 2 percent of evacuees have returned, mostly old folks. Maybe we would have found that mold has destroyed our home, and it will cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean it up.

The town of Naraha is reopened but has no schools, and half the town is a “temporary” contamination dump. Almost everyone who has returned to Naraha and Hirano work at the Daiichi reactors and are housed in new buildings.

But how safe is it to work there? The government says no workers are dying, but others say that workers quit when they get sick from radiation, so they are not counted when they die a month later.

If my husband gets a job cleaning up the Daichii nuclear reactors, would my children and I stay in our new home, while he comes home only on weekends, as many other couples are doing? But that has led to so many divorces.

Everywhere I look there are huge bags — 9 million, at last count — of radioactive debris, stacked three and four bags high, covering whole fields and parking lots.

The radioactive debris is the responsibility of the prefecture (state) it is found in. If I lived in Kawauchi, I could return to one part of town, but the sections in the evacuation zone are full of these bags.

Can I trust our government to tell us the truth? Two former prime ministers say nuclear power should be eliminated. Our newest prime minister, Shinzo Abe, passed a state secrets law, and now journalists are being jailed for writing critically about nuclear energy.

Abe lied to the International Olympics Committee, saying everything would be cleaned by 2020. Money for refugees and for cleaning up is drying up and is instead flowing to Tokyo for the Olympics. And 2,300 of the 3,600 public radiation monitors — including those in schools and parks — are being removed to save money.

Because Fukushima was once famous for its agriculture and food, the government is raising the limit of allowed deadly cesium and strontium-90 in food, promoting farming there again, making public schools buy the produce for school lunches. Is it really safe?

How can I trust my government or TEPCO, the owner of the Daiichi facility, to tell me the truth about radiation?

This week — five years after the fact — TEPCO admitted that it waited two months before telling the public that the nuclear reactors had, indeed, melted down. TEPCO told the government three days after the disaster, so the government covered up, too.

It is not our way to defy authority, but this has changed everything.

For five years, I have been faced with tough choices and bureaucracy, but raising children in this new world has been the hardest part. Like the average evacuee, we have moved four times. They are anxious from the trauma of evacuation, from the separation from their grandparents, cousins, schools, and friends, and from mom and dad fighting over what to do, over money.

I have had to comfort my children when they were ostracized for being nuclear refugees; other children can be so cruel. There are still many days I can’t bear to let them outside, even after 5 years and after being told it’s safe.

I have had to explain to them that no one can see radiation, but it could be in the playground’s dirt, in the rain, in the snow. Now they fear what they cannot see.

If I put myself in the shoes of a Fukushima mother, this is what I imagine I feel: I grieve for my lost town and the generations of farmers and fishermen who were my ancestors there. I grieve for my children’s loss of childhood.

I think of the babies now being born in Chernobyl, deformed by radiation through the mother’s DNA, and I worry about my children’s children and the fate of Japan.

Nancy Braus

Here’s the thing about the Fukushima nuclear disaster: just having passed the fifth anniversary, there is still no end in sight. We are no closer to a date, a year, or even a decade when we can say “Fukushima is no longer a dangerous toxic waste site.”

After five years of failure, no one can say with certainty when radioactive water will stop polluting the Pacific Ocean with tritium and other nastier elements, or how to decommission and clean up the irradiated debris from multiple reactors whose cores have melted into the earth.

On March 11, 2011, when the earthquake and resulting tidal wave struck the coast of northern Japan, the world watched in horror and fear: fear for the future of those living and working in the area of Fukushima, and fear for all of us.

Most people had no idea that a technologically advanced country like Japan would cram six nuclear reactors into an ocean site that is a seismic time bomb.

When we watched the reactor fires and hydrogen explosions, when we watched the buildings crumbling, when we saw how helpless the disaster management professionals appeared, it was clear that this environmental crisis was not going to be solved quickly, or maybe not at all.

One thing about splitting the atom: it generates a huge amount of heat and radiation. There is a fundamental need to control every aspect of nuclear power. When this cannot happen, as happened at Fukushima — when the electrical power failed, and the back-up power failed — the results are lethal.

The area immediately surrounding Fukushima was heavily radiated and became uninhabitable forever. Imagine a landscape that begins in Northfield, Mass. and continues through Vermont in Vernon and Brattleboro and north through Putney, including the Connecticut River.

Water might be the most pervasive and ongoing problem. Like all nuclear waste, there is really no good solution to water disposal. Hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive water is accumulating in tanks, some leaky, around the area.

Against the protests of the fishing businesses, environmental groups, and area citizens, some of this water has already been dumped into the ocean; 320 tons a day circulate through the four reactors to cool them. Additional water pours through the reactor site and becomes radiated, like the water that is being contaminated with tritium by getting into the buildings at Vermont Yankee.

Much of that water will make its way to the Pacific Ocean, some into groundwater. Until the basic problem of cleaning up the melted down reactor cores occurs, this water will continue to accumulate.

The nuclear industry has never faced a disaster of this magnitude and complexity, and it does not yet have the technology to deal with it.

Each of four reactors is damaged differently, so there are four unique decommissioning projects; three are in different states of meltdown or melt-through.

The cores are too dangerous for humans to do the necessary work. Robots fail after hours; one failed for four days.

And then there is the problem of dismantling the spent-fuel pools; the fuel rods have melted through and lie in masses on the floors of the reactors, not in pools above them. No one knows how far into the earth below three reactors the rods have melted through. This is a first — no, three firsts — in nuclear-power history.

Once those challenges are met, what will they do with the intensely radioactive waste that were once the fuel rods? One heavily contested proposal by the government is to actually construct a burial site 13 miles offshore, under the bed of the sea. The government says that workers will reach this dumping ground through tunnels, but in an area of constant earthquakes, what could go wrong?

I have followed the news coming from Japan for the past five years because I live in Putney, just outside Vermont Yankee’s nuclear evacuation zone, and because I have been a strong opponent of nuclear energy for my adult life.

I will not pretend to be technologically savvy, with an immense grasp of all that has gone wrong, will go wrong, and how, when, and if the Fukushima disaster will finally be resolved.

However, I know that placing our air, land, water, food, people, animals, and plant life — really, all that matters in the world — in jeopardy to produce electricity that could be produced sustainably is not sane or smart.

We all need to bear witness to Fukushima’s endless catastrophe, and work for no more Fukushimas.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #348 (Wednesday, March 16, 2016). This story appeared on page E1.

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