Four things you should know about the Fukushima nuclear disaster

The Fukushima nuclear disaster that began on March 11, 2011 was a scary time for the whole world. Some early reports even warned about radiation being carried on the wind as far as the west coasts of the USA and Canada, and many international companies flew their staff out of Japan. In dramatic attempts to cool the reactors, the Japanese military dumped tonnes of seawater from helicopters.

For many of us, the urgency of these moments has long ago faded; a lot of things happened in the intervening two years. But the Fukushima nuclear disaster never really ended. Although there are many things about Fukushima that are unbelievable and unfair, here a few shocking things that you may not be aware of:

1. Former employees of both General Electric and Hitachi became ‘whistleblowers’ to expose design and production flaws in parts of the Fukushima reactors.

As early as the 1970s, former General Electric employee Dale Bridenbaugh went public with flaws in the GE reactor designs being used to build Fukushima. Then following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, former Hitachi nuclear engineer Mitsuhiko Tanaka exposed the illegal cover-up of a construction problem in one of the pressure vessels built by Hitachi, “When the stakes are raised to such a height, a company will not choose what is safe and legal.”

That is the nature of the nuclear industry and Tanaka’s story is yet another, very scary, example of how far nuclear companies will go to put their own profits before safety.

2. The Red Cross calls the Fukushima disaster an “ongoing humanitarian crisis

Imagine being forced to leave your home so suddenly that you have to leave pets behind. Then imagine being told you may not be able to live in your home again for many decades to come. Even going back to get some belongings may be difficult because it is dangerous for you to be inside your home for long periods of time, you are exposed to too much radiation. You will wait for two years, but during this time you will never receive enough compensation to completely rebuild your life somewhere safe.

That is reality now for some 160,000 people who were forced to evacuate their homes. Two years later many of these people still live in temporary housing, have lost their jobs and are separated from their communities and families.

3. Compensation money for Fukushima evacuees may come with strings attached

Evacuees have been living in limbo for two years already, now to add to this burden their compensation money may have unwelcome conditions. Some evacuees who accepted certain compensation amounts, because they were pregnant or had small children at the time of the nuclear disaster, may have sacrificed their right to sue for further damages by taking the money. The authorities at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) responsible for setting the terms of compensation said on one occasion that people cannot file future compensation from illnesses caused by the accident, then on another occasion the same authorities said they did not rule out future claims. (Find more details in the Fukushima Fallout report.)

The conditions that come with the compensation money are not clear to the Fukushima evacuees, causing confusion and adding to their stress. While they fill out a 60 page compensation claim form, and wait to see how much their former lives destroyed by the disaster are ‘worth’ – the profits of the nuclear companies involved, like General Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba, remain intact.

4. Two of the Fukushima reactor makers: Toshiba and Hitachi, are now making money from the disaster clean up process.

Toshiba and Hitachi are, in effect, being paid to clean up their own nuclear mess. That’s right, these companies have now made money from Fukushima twice, first from building and maintaining reactors, and then again for cleaning up after those reactors failed. What an interesting business model.

How do these companies get away with this?

They are protected by dusty, old nuclear liability laws established in the 1950s, which place the burden of paying for nuclear disasters on the operators of nuclear power plants (in this case TEPCO), while companies that design or supply nuclear reactors are protected from paying, no matter what the circumstances of their involvement. After Fukushima TEPCO could not afford the cost of the nuclear disaster and was nationalised, shifting the majority of the costs onto the government, and therefore the Japanese public. This is the situation in Japan and nuclear liability laws are the same in almost all other countries.

When nuclear companies are not liable for the huge costs of nuclear risk, what incentive is there for them to avoid it? None.

This unjust situation can change. India created a strong nuclear liability law in 2010, which can hold nuclear supplier companies liable for the damages of a nuclear disaster. Last week the CEO of General Electric was quoted admitting that as long as this law is in place General Electric will stay out of the nuclear business in India. When they are forced to admit it, most nuclear companies will come to the same conclusion – the cost of nuclear risk is far too high.

An important step towards making nuclear companies liable for nuclear disasters, is that the public knows and understands this unjust situation – you can help.


Blogpost by Laura Kenyon

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