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Fukushima nuclear waste decision also a human rights issue


By Baskut Tuncak

July 8, 2020

In a matter of weeks, the government of Japan will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world how much it values protecting human rights and the environment and to meet its international obligations.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, myself and other U.N. special rapporteurs consistently raised concerns about the approaches taken by the government of Japan. We have been concerned that raising of “acceptable limits” of radiation exposure to urge resettlement violated the government’s human rights obligations to children.

We have been concerned of the possible exploitation of migrants and the poor for radioactive decontamination work. Our most recent concern is how the government used the COVID-19 crisis to dramatically accelerate its timeline for deciding whether to dump radioactive wastewater accumulating at Fukushima Daiichi in the ocean.

Setting aside the duties incumbent on Japan to consult and protect under international law, it saddens me to think that a country that has suffered the horrors of being the only country on which not one but two nuclear bombs were dropped during war, would continue on a such a path in dealing with the radioactive aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.


kjlkmùBaskut Tuncak


Releasing the toxic wastewater collected from the Fukushima nuclear plant would be, without question, a terrible blow to the livelihood of local fishermen. Regardless of the health and environmental risks, the reputational damage would be irreparable, an invisible and permanent scar upon local seafood. No amount of money can replace the loss of culture and dignity that accompany this traditional way of life for these communities.

The communities of Fukushima, so devastated by the tragic events of March 11, 2011, have in recent weeks expressed their concerns and opposition to the discharge of the contaminated water into their environment. It is their human right to an environment that allows for living a life in dignity, to enjoy their culture, and to not be exposed deliberately to additional radioactive contamination. Those rights should be fully respected and not be disregarded by the government in Tokyo.

The discharge of nuclear waste to the ocean could damage Japan’s international relations. Neighboring countries are already concerned about the release of large volumes of radioactive tritium and other contaminants in the wastewater.

Japan has a duty under international law to prevent transboundary environmental harm. More specifically, under the London Convention, Japan has an obligation to take precaution with the respect to the dumping of waste in the ocean. Given the scientific uncertainty of the health and environmental impacts of exposure to low-level radiation, the disposal of this wastewater would be completely inconsistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of this law.

Indigenous peoples have an internationally recognized right to free, prior and informed consent. This includes the disposal of waste in their waters and actions that may contaminate their food. No matter how small the Japanese government believes this contamination will be of their water and food, there is an unquestionable obligation to consult with potentially affected indigenous peoples that it has not met.

The Japanese government has not, and cannot, assure itself of meaningful consultations as required under international human rights law during the current pandemic. There is no justification for such a dramatically accelerated timeline for decision making during the covid-19 crisis. Japan has the physical space to store wastewater for many years.

I have reported annually to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the past six years. Whether the topic was on child rights or worker’s rights, in nearly each and every one of those discussion at the United Nations, the situation of Fukushima Daiichi is raised by concerned observers for the world to hear. Intervening organizations have pleaded year-after-year for the Japanese government to extend an invitation to visit so I can offer recommendations to improve the situation. I regret that my mandate is coming to an end without such an opportunity despite my repeated requests to visit and assess the situation.

The disaster of 2011 cannot be undone. However, Japan still has an opportunity to minimize the damage. In my view, there are grave risks to the livelihoods of fishermen in Japan and also to its international reputation. Again, I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

(Baskut Tuncak has served as U.N. special rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes since 2014.)




July 10, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , , , | Leave a comment

From July 2011: Fukushima plant site originally was a hill safe from tsunami

nn20110713a2aGround zero: Bulldozers (top) take the top off a 35-meter bluff to prepare the site for the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the late 1960s in this image taken from the documentary “Reimei” (“Dawn”). Left: The construction site is seen after the leveling work. Right: An excavated area where the emergency diesel generators were installed is seen at the construction site.


Jul 13, 2011

The March 11 monster tsunami that hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant destroyed the critical backup power system and triggered the meltdown of hundreds of fuel rods in reactors 1, 2 and 3.

Video of the appalling damage and reactor building explosions led many — from regular people to nuclear and quake experts — to ask: Why wasn’t the coastal nuclear plant built in a location safe from all tsunami threats?

Katsumi Naganuma, 70, a former worker at Tokyo Electric Power Co., feels particular guilt because he knows that a 35-meter-high bluff overlooking the Pacific was shaved down to build the plant closer to sea level more than 40 years ago.

Tepco, assuming tsunami 3.1 meters or higher would never hit the coast, reduced the bluff by some 25 meters and erected the plant on artificially prepared ground only 10 meters above sea level.

When I see the situation now, I feel it was wrong to clear that much of the hill away,” said Naganuma, who worked at Tepco’s local office preparing for the construction in the late 1960s.

If they did not dig the ground down that much, we would not have faced this situation. (The nuclear disaster) would not have happened,” he said.

Naganuma, like thousands of other local residents, has been forced to evacuate from his home close to the crippled plant as it continues to spew radioactive materials.

Recent interviews and past documents examined by The Japan Times show it was Tepco’s decision to cut away the bluff so the nuclear complex could be built on low ground, leaving it vulnerable to massive tsunami like the one that struck on March 11.

Tepco dug another 14 meters below the surface to create basement floors, including those for the turbine buildings, where the emergency diesel generators were installed.

The tsunami easily flooded the compound and knocked out the power systems, including those for running the critical reactor core coolant equipment. The meltdowns became inevitable.

But Tepco is not the only one to blame. Like the utility, nuclear regulators and seismologists in the 1960s all believed a major earthquake and massive tsunami would never hit the plant, documents and records show.

In the past 700 years, Fukushima suffered almost no noteworthy damage from earthquakes except in the Aizu area (in current Fukushima Prefecture),” concluded a 1966 report attached to the application form that Tepco submitted to the government to seek approval for building the first reactor at the plant.

Thus the site can be described as an area of low-seismicity, even compared with all the other areas of the country,” the paper concluded, with little mention of the tsunami threat.

The paper was based on earlier research by seismologists and was approved by the government, which gave the green light to build reactor 1.In designing the Fukushima No. 1 plant in the 1960s, Tepco estimated the maximum possible tsunami would be only up to 3.1 meters.

In 2002, however, following recommendations from quake experts at the Japan Society of Civil Engineering, Tepco modified the facilities, so they could withstand tsunami of up to 5.7 meters. This was also approved by the regulators.

During a recent interview with The Japan Times, Masatoshi Toyota, 88, former senior vice president of Tepco, said one of the reasons the utility lowered the bluff was to build the base of the reactors directly on solid bedrock to mitigate any earthquake threat.

Toyota was a key executive who was involved in the Fukushima No. 1 plant construction.

It is actually common practice to build primary nuclear plant facilities directly on bedrock because of the temblor factor.

Toyota also cited two other reasons for Tepco clearing away the bluff — seawater pumps used to provide coolant water needed to be set up on the ground up to 10 meters from the sea, and extremely heavy equipment, including the 500-ton reator pressure vessels, were expected to be brought in by boat.

In fact, Tepco decided to build the plant on low ground based on a cost-benefit calculation of the operating costs of the seawater pumps, according to two research papers separately written by senior Tepco engineers in the 1960s.

If the seawater pumps were placed on high ground, their operating costs would be accordingly higher.

We decided to build the plant at ground level after comparing the ground construction costs and operating costs of the circulation water pumps,” wrote Hiroshi Kaburaki, then deputy head of the Tepco’s construction office at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, in the January 1969 edition of Hatsuden Suiryoku, a technical magazine on power plants.

Still, Tepco believed ground level was “high enough to sufficiently secure safety against tsunami and typhoon waves,” wrote Seiji Saeki, then civil engineering section head of Tepco’s construction office, in his research paper published in October 1967.

Engineers at Tohoku Electric Power Co., on the other hand, had a different take on the tsunami threat when the Onagawa nuclear plant was built in Miyagi Prefecture in the 1980s.

Like Fukushima, the plant was built along the Tohoku coast and was hit by tsunami as high as 13 meters on March 11.

Before building the plant, Tohoku Electric, examining historic records of tsunami reported in the region, conducted computer simulations and concluded the local coast could face tsumani of up to 9.1 meters.

Tohoku Electric had set the construction ground level at 14.8 meters above sea level — which barely spared the Onagawa plant from major damage from 13-meter-high tsunami that hit in March.

Former Tepco worker Naganuma said many locals now feel they have been duped by Tepco’s long-running propaganda on the safety of its nuclear facilities, despite the huge economic benefits the plant brought to his hometown of Okuma, which hosts the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Before construction of the plant, the coastal area was a barren, little-populated highland dubbed the “Tibet of Fukushima.” At the time, most local residents eked out a living in agriculture, and needed to go out of town as seasonal migrant workers during winter.

But the plant brought stable jobs, tax revenues and other big money projects to the local economy.

I couldn’t feel happier because I was able to receive a monthly salary and didn’t need to go away from home to work,” Naganuma said, adding he had “never expected (such a disaster) would occur.”

Naganuma said many local residents now feel badly betrayed by the nuclear plant.

But I think now more and more people (nationwide) have started feeling that way after March 11,” he said.
From July

July 10, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , | Leave a comment

Terrawatch: unearthing snow’s ‘Fukushima layer’

klmDisappearing snow levels on China’s Qilian mountains. 


June 30, 2020

Chinese glaciologists have found the freeze-thaw process has concentrated discharge from the disaster

The Fukushima nuclear accident has added a distinctive signature to snow and ice across the northern hemisphere, new research published in Environmental Research Letters shows. Triggered by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011, the disaster resulted in a month-long discharge of radioactive material into the atmosphere, ocean and soil.

Feiteng Wang from the Tian Shan glaciological station in Lanzhou, China, and colleagues collected snow samples in 2011 and 2018 from a number of glaciers (spanning a distance of more than 1,200 miles (2,000km) in north-western China. They expected the Fukushima signature to have faded away by 2018, but to their surprise the freeze-thaw processing had made it more concentrated, creating a strong and lasting reference layer in the ice.

Many reference layers from the last 50 years (such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) have melted away in recent warming events, making it difficult to date the upper layers of ice cores. “Reference layers are crucial and a prerequisite for telling the story of the ice core,” says co-author Jing Ming. “The Fukushima layer will be useful for dating ice in one or two decades when the snow transforms to ice,” he adds.

July 10, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , | Leave a comment

Fukushima’s Olympic makeover: Will the ‘cursed’ area be safe from radioactivity in time for Games?


By: Constantin SIMON | Aruna POPURI | Ryusuke MURATA

In a year’s time, the Olympic Games, dubbed the “reconstruction Olympics”, should allow Japan to move on from the Fukushima tragedy. The region, a symbol of the 2011 disaster, has officially been cleaned up but many problems remain, such as radioactivity and “forbidden cities”. Over the course of several months, our reporters followed the daily lives of the inhabitants of this “cursed” region.

In recent months, Japanese authorities have been working hard to finish rebuilding the Fukushima region in time for the Summer Games. This huge reconstruction and decontamination project is never-ending and is expected to cost nearly €250 billion.

Although the work undertaken over the past 10 years is colossal and the region is partly rebuilt, it’s still not free from radioactivity. The NGO Greenpeace has detected radioactive hotspots near the Olympic facilities. And at the Fukushima power plant, Tepco engineers continue to

battle against radioactive leaks. They also face new issues such as contaminated water, which is accumulating at the site and poses a new-fangled problem for Japan. Our reporters were able to visit the notorious nuclear power plant.

They bring us a chronicle of daily life in Fukushima, with residents determined to revive their stricken region.

July 10, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

This Will Still Be True Tomorrow: “Fukushima Ain’t Got the Time for Olympic Games”: Two Texts on Nuclear Disaster and Pandemic

Muto Ruiko

Introduced and translated by Norma Field


The fear of being forgotten that haunts the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster set in quickly in the months following March 11, 2011. The Tokyo Olympics, touted as the “Recovery Olympics,” has served as a powerful vehicle for accelerating amnesia, on the one hand justifying the rushed reopening of restricted zones and other decisions of convenience, on the other, programming moments highlighting Fukushima in the Games. As preparations for the latter, especially the torch relay, reached fever pitch, the novel coronavirus intervened to force an abrupt postponement. It also disrupted ongoing and special events planned for the ninth 3.11 anniversary. The essay below elaborates on that context as an introduction to two texts by Muto Ruiko, head of the citizens’ group whose efforts led to the only criminal trial to emerge from the Fukushima disaster. The first, a speech anticipating the torch relay, outlines what the Olympics asks us to forget about Fukushima; the second is a reflection on living under two emergency declarations, the first nuclear, the second, COVID-19.

Key words: Olympics; Fukushima; torch relay; COVID-19; coronavirus; Dentsu; activism; Muto Ruiko

Prologue from an Ever-Shifting Present

Everybody has experienced, from childhood on, time crawling and time galloping, or time simply standing still, against the indifferent tic-toc of the clock. For much of the world, there is now a recent remote past—before the pandemic—and a present of bottomless uncertainty. But time continues to move unevenly in the new present, marked by unpredictable drama, as in the case of a tweetstorm that forced Abe Shinzo’s government to shelve a bill extending the retirement age of prosecutors, or by unexpected power, as in the global fury unleashed by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The former, exploiting the attractive anonymity afforded by Twitter, punctuated years of quiescence following the demonstrations provoked by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when tens of thousands of Japanese were willing to show their faces in protest. The latter seems the logical culmination of only the most recent instances of police brutality hurled before our eyes by the unabated racism and structural inequality prevailing in the U.S. Although the Japanese instance has been related to the coronavirus, the U.S. case is indisputably magnified by the overwhelming disparity in COVID-19 suffering, whether in numbers of death, the preponderance of minorities in the under-compensated, risk-burdened ranks of essential workers, and the economic nightmare, owing to job insecurity and paucity of savings, produced by the pandemic, such that “logical” now has the force of “inevitable.” And yet, is so remarkable as to also seem unpredictable.

As one recent remote past is replaced by another, we cannot forget that the issues thrust upon us by each of these recent pasts have hardly been resolved. Even as they momentarily recede from the foreground, they constitute a cumulative, living—and therefore, shifting—seismic force upon our present. This is the spirit motivating the following examination of the Tokyo Olympics and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, meant to serve as an introduction to two reflections by Muto Ruiko, head of the Complainants for the Criminal Prosecution of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. The first was delivered in anticipation of the 2020 Olympic torch relay to be kicked off in Fukushima; the second, written in the midst of the COVID-19 emergency declaration. 


1No time for Olympics: Azuma Sports Park, Fukushima City
March 1, 2020.


A Dream Vehicle for Amnesia

In the early spring months of 2020 in the northern hemisphere, the grim march of infection numbers was punctuated by reports of miraculous sightings, some true, others false: swans (false) and fish (true) in the lagoons of Venice; or blue sky in New Delhi. It felt as if decades of devoted action, joined in recent years by youth from the world over demanding that the earth be habitable for them, were being mocked. As if only a pandemic could bring about conditions seemingly more hospitable to life forms even as livelihood for many threatened to imperil health or simply vanish.2

In Japan, as if to scoff at the concerted efforts to protest that fabulous exercise in deceit called the “Recovery Olympics,” postponement of the games was abruptly announced on March 23, 2019, a scant four months in advance of the opening, when the torch—dubbed the “Flame of Recovery”—had already begun its triumphal progress3 in northern Japan. Does this mean that the effort expended in opposing the Olympics was wasted? The question is rhetorical, of course. In the coming months and years, we will need to reflect on the political, socioeconomic, and experiential impact of the assaults brought on by two kinds of invisible agents, radionuclides and a pandemic-causing virus. But for now, let us pause over the actions of antinuclear activists confronting the convergence of Covid-19 and the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

There is nothing bold about claiming that a major design of the games was to put paid to the 2011 triple disaster, most especially, the nuclear disaster. That objective is trumpeted in the official moniker, the “Recovery Olympics” (or in the even less merchandise-friendly translation of fukko, “Reconstruction”). It is still worth remarking how quickly those wheels were set in motion—the goal announced and declared achieved in virtually the same breath, as in Prime Minister Abe’s “under control” statement before the International Olympics Committee in Buenos Aires, a claim at which even TEPCO would demur shortly after it was made. That was September 2013. But the domestic selection of Tokyo as Japan’s candidate city had taken place on July 16, 2011, an indecent four months after the terrifying explosions. Only one month earlier, the Japanese government had admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency that the molten fuel in reactors 1-3 had suffered a “melt-through” and not a mere “meltdown.” The daunting physical trials posed by the Fukushima Daiichi plant generated correspondingly difficult administrative challenges for Kan Naoto’s Democratic Party government. In late April, University of Tokyo professor Kosako Toshiso, hitherto a reliable government expert testifying against A-bomb survivors pressing for recognition, resigned as special cabinet adviser in a tearful press conference: as a scholar and from the standpoint of his “own humanism,” he could not condone raising the annual exposure rate for workers from 100 millisieverts (mSv)/yr to 250, or from 1 mSv/yr to 20 for primary school playgrounds in Fukushima.4 How could anyone in a position of responsibility have had the spare time to be plotting an Olympic bid during that period? 


2And in any case, I absolutely cannot inflict such a fate on my own children”
Special cabinet adviser Kosako Toshiso announcing his resignation at press conference
April 29, 2011.

A quick review suggests it was more a case of who was sufficiently determined to press on with pre-existing ambitions in the face of a catastrophe. Right-wing, nationalist politician Ishihara Shintaro, then Governor of Tokyo, had felt thwarted by the loss of the 2016 games to Rio de Janeiro.5 With strong encouragement from former prime minister Mori Yoshio (who would become head of the 2020 organizing committee), Ishihara declared that Tokyo would bid again once he was reelected on April 11. On that same day, Matsui Kazumi, a Hiroshima mayoral candidate opposed to that city’s Olympic bid, was elected, and in short order, withdrew the city from the running, leaving Tokyo as the de facto candidate from Japan.6 Ishihara, speaking in Tokyo on July 16, 2011, “passionatelyproclaimed the purpose of the “Recovery Olympics” (fukko gorin) to be the demonstration of Japan’s recovery from the 2011 disaster. By the end of 2011, a pet scheme opportunistically harnessed to the disaster by conservative politicians had won support across party lines. Noda Yoshihiko, who succeeded Kan as prime minister even or especially as the latter showed himself susceptible to public sentiment favoring de-nuclearization, declared that the Fukushima plant had successfully entered a “cold shutdown” on December 6. (See timeline here.) 

3Preparing for official 2020 Tokyo bid:
Governor Ishihara Shintaro with Jacques Rogge, IOC chair
July 2, 2011.

With hindsight—and not much of that—it is easy to grasp that the disaster and the 2020 Games were a match made in Olympic heaven. Without this bit of serendipity, the 2020 bid might have floundered in search of a convincing brand. (The mission of the failed 2016 bid was “Uniting Our Worlds.”) In the coming months and years, one worthy goal or another was accentuated for Tokyo 2020, but Recovery has been the mainstay.7 The serendipity has proven to be priceless because the promotion-proclamation of recovery, regardless of cost to people, the environment, and even government credibility, was the guiding principle behind managing the disaster from the start, as reflected in the watchwords of “ties that bind” (kizuna), “recovery/reconstruction/revitalization” (fukko), and “reputational harm” (fuhyo higai). This triplet of key words—two carrots of hope, one stick of warning—has managed to police Fukushima discourse to the present day: who would resist the call for solidarity in the hope of recovery? Or impede recovery by expressing worries about food safety? The expression of anxiety, whether on the part of mothers who stayed on or Tokyo consumers, is susceptible to the charge of causing “reputational harm,” which can further be seen as participating in discrimination against Fukushima.8 Redefining evacuation zones, ever so narrowly defined from the start, along with assistance cutoff, began as early as September 30, 2011, well before the Olympics were secured, but convenient markers of recovery gained tacit and explicit reinforcement as soon as the Olympics appeared on the horizon.9

True to the adage that a good offense is the best defense, Fukushima itself was assigned a prominent role: to host the opening matches in baseball and softball, and perhaps even more significantly, to serve as the starting point of the torch relay.10 In other words, the intractable nuclear disaster, which had often taken a back seat to the earthquake and especially, the dramatic tsunami in invocations of the “triple” disaster, was to be featured front and center, albeit momentarily, in the form of its erasure: Fukushima would be displayed to the world as having recovered. And to further drive home the point, J-Village, the former national soccer training center that served as the frontline base for operations for Fukushima Daiichi (workers lodged, vehicles washed, protective gear donned and disposed of) from March 15, 2011, was selected for the start of the torch relay. Not surprisingly, despite extensive efforts to clean up and beautify—including having local elementary students planting grass seedlings—radioactive hot spots continue to turn up.11


4Getting ready for the Olympics in Fukushima
Children at work on turf seedlings at J-Village
May 8, 2018.

The Astonishing Journey of the Torch

By February, the crescendo of 2020 Olympics preparation in Fukushima took on a manic quality before descending into a surreal sublime and finally, sputtering into silence. Day one of the torch relay was to take runners through areas close to the plant. Futaba, one of two adjacent towns hosting the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, its entire population still under mandatory evacuation, was not on the original route. With a partial lifting scheduled for March 4, the organizing committee decided on February 13 to respond to the wishes of the prefecture and rearranged the schedule to include Futaba. This would, said the grateful mayor, “light the flame of hope in our hearts and become a boost for recovery.” On March 14, the severed sections of the Joban train line that connected this portion of Fukushima with Tokyo were reconnected for the first time in nine years. Some gathered to cheer on the platforms, despite the fact that not much of the land beyond the station was accessible, for most of the town was still designated as “difficult-to-return-to” in the tactful—that is to say, strategically obfuscating—parlance of Fukushima disaster management.12 The plan was to have the flame, carried in a lantern and accompanied by runners, transported by train to newly reconstructed Futaba Station as part of the relay on March 26. 

Back in the metropolitan region, in the meanwhile, the number of people aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama testing positive for the novel coronavirus shot up from 10 to 700 between February 4 and 28. With the Abe regime clearly hell-bent on holding the Olympics as scheduled, local organizers scrambled to stay one step ahead of the virus. They could not bring themselves to relinquish plans for displaying the torch in the three disaster-hit prefectures prior to the relay, not to say the relay itself. Whatever the precautionary advice, nothing like social distancing was on display as people flocked to see the “Flame of Recovery” at its various resting places. Most provocative, though, was the flame’s journey on the local Sanriku Railway in Iwate Prefecture. Secured in a lantern, it was placed between facing seats before a window, through which the “coastal townscape of recovery proceeding apace spread before the eye.”13 Passengers had been excluded, but the lantern could be viewed at key stops, where people gathered to welcome and then send off the flame.


5Lantern transported on Sanriku Railway from Miyako to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture March 22, 2020—two days before postponement announced. Source


6Lantern transported from Kamaishi to Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture on SL Ginga [Milky Way], inspired by the work of Iwate-born writer Miyazawa Kenji March 22, 2020. Source

Even as this frenzied prelude unfolded, anxiety mounted as to whether the torch relay itself could in fact take place. On March 17, it was announced that the relay would be held, but without the ceremonies planned at stopping points. Spectators would be permitted as long as they “avoided” overcrowding, though one resident expressed disappointment: she had thoughtthe sight of overflowing crowds would symbolize recovery.” In less than a week, on March 23, this plan was replaced by a new proposal: a torch relay with no spectators—and no runners. The flame would be driven around Fukushima Prefecture, stripped even of the romance of rail travel. The following day, however, the other shoe dropped: the Games were to be postponed until 2021, and the 2020 torch relay canceled altogether. Ever resilient, organizers put the flame on display at J-Village for a month beginning April 2, with the hope that it could tour other parts of the country in the interest of “revitalization.” This, too, came to naught within the space of one week, with the Prime Minister’s declaration of a state of emergency.14

It could be taken for parody, this frenzy over the torch relay. The Olympics were meant to be a magic wand waving a spanking new post-disaster world into existence. As those prospects began to dim, the flame burned ever more brightly. The fuel? Greed. Pride. A yearning for fantasy in the midst of a dubious recovery, and an appetite for exploiting it. And the apparent means to do so. Or deciding that the means existed, despite mounting cost overruns.15

Recently, it was reported that the Foreign Ministry was directing $22 million to AI monitoring of overseas coverage of Japan’s pandemic response—as if this were more a “PR challenge than a profound public health crisis” (Kingston 2020). Perhaps this mode is even more far-reaching than we cynically, or more neutrally, abstractly, imagine. About one year ago, Taakurataa, a remarkable little magazine published in Nagano Prefecture, managed, through tenacious use of Japan’s version of freedom-of-information requests, to discover that in the seven years between 2011 and 2018, the central government and Fukushima Prefecture had paid $224 million to the PR firm Dentsu. The Environment Ministry was by far the greatest customer, using approximately half that budget for Dentsu’s services in the campaign to inform the public about its decontamination and debris cleanup efforts. The guidelines were to make people feel “safe and secure” (anshin anzen) again, “bring people back to their home towns,” and “have citizens recover pride in their hometowns.” A study group was created, consisting of staff from the prefectural forestry and fishery division as well as newspaper and TV marketing divisions, not to purvey a message, but in order to monitor twitter users and identify those who could be classified as “sources of reputation harm,” “supporters of the right-to-evacuate trial,” or simply “noise,” if they said anything that would dampen enthusiasm for Fukushima agricultural products.16 It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a marketing firm had been appointed a principal actor, with potential censorship power, in deciding Fukushima policy. And of course, that same firm is a major player in Tokyo 2020: Dentsu Inc. is the Games’s official marketing agency

A briefly revealed, quickly forgotten detail about the Olympics-Dentsu chain of operations makes Fukushima seem a minor, though useful, link in that chain: a former Dentsu executive and member of the organizing committee disclosed, a few days after postponement was announced, that he had played a key role in securing the support of an African Olympics power-broker now under investigation by French prosecutors. He, Takahashi Haruyuki—still on the organizing committee—had been paid $8.2 million by the Japanese bidding committee, which presumably had some relation to the $46,500 the bidding committee paid to Seiko Watch. Seiko watches and digital cameras, said Takahashi, were “cheap,” and common sense dictated that “You don’t go empty-handed.” Dentsu’s contracts for Fukushima recovery—as known to date—come to seem almost reasonable, at $224 million over seven years, or $32 million per year. Takahashi singly was paid one-quarter of that to procure the Recovery Olympics. 

Perhaps this is all unsurprising—a version of normal operating procedure most of the time for certain strata of the world. If so, then here, as in countless other instances, we need to make the modest yet seemingly immense effort to refresh our capacity for surprise. And anger. That there is so much profit to be made in doing anything but genuinely contribute to Fukushima remediation, to in fact, profit by diverting attention and burying the disaster, as if “nothing had happened,”17 should rouse us all, in solidarity both with the few who sustain the struggle and with those who gave up long ago, too exhausted from maintaining daily life to keep insisting not only that something had happened, but that it was still happening. Some of the struggle-weary were likely in the throngs greeting the arrival of the flame from Greece, or taking selfies with the lantern-encased flame. And as astonishing as it seems, there is already a new generation of children who were infants or unborn in 2011 now grown old enough to enjoy a spectacle touting the recovery of their region, their pleasure untainted by responsible education about the long-term impact of a nuclear disaster.18 Their parents may have welcomed the chance to banish recurring reminders of the disaster: reports of the re-dispersal of radionuclides and especially conspicuous, images of decontamination waste bags unmoored in the flooding brought on by Typhoon Hagibis; or the agonizingly protracted, risky dismantling of a highly contaminated vent stack at the Fukushima Daiichi plant itself; or the Olympic plans themselves putting hot spots back in the news.19 Bread and circuses is the bright side of the coin whose other face is expert exhortation to accept living amid decontamination waste for the foreseeable future: “Why would other prefectures want to accept waste that you yourselves don’t want?”—exhortation sweetened by the assurance that Fukushima contamination is not, for the most part, harmful. Anxiety, after all, is a matter of the mind/spirit (fuan wa kokoro no mondai).20


7Radiation instruction for the very young: “Let’s block beta particles with ‘scissors’!”  Fukushima Prefectural Centre for Environmental Creation, Community Relations Wing – July, 2018

It was back in June of 2019, an eternity before Covid-19 would appear on anybody’s horizon, that the torch relay route was announced, omitting Futaba. Was that omission owing to the last, frayed shred of realist perception, in view of the fact that the town was still off limits to the entire population? As Kowata Masumi, councilor of Okuma, the other town hosting the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and one of the painfully few elected officials in Fukushima willing to address radioactive contamination, observed, “National Route 6 still has high radiation levels. There are places where hardly any residents have returned, and conditions are not suitable for people running or cheering from the roadside.” Voicing the common complaint that the Olympics were deflecting workers and materials from Fukushima, she told Our Planet-TV, “They seem to have turned the idea of recovery on its head.” Any legitimacy accruing to the commonsensical had long ago been extinguished in the fever dream of the Olympics. 

Protest and Pandemic

It’s all Olympics all the time,” said emails from Fukushima. But as February wore on, with the drumbeat of news from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the novel coronavirus became an ominous competitor for attention. Emails began to say, “It’s exactly the same. Deny it’s happening. Don’t test. Find experts who’ll support that policy.” And rather sooner than later, “Is anyone taking responsibility?”21 If COVID-19 cast a shadow on Olympic plans, it also was a challenge for groups long opposed to the games. This was the run-up period for the 9th anniversary of March 11, a difficult time for survivors and a crucial occasion for them and antinuclear activists to remind the rest of the country of what had happened and how much remained unresolved, with some hardships predictably aggravated, rather than alleviated, through the passage of time. Anguished discussions took place about canceling or proceeding with activities that had already consumed months of painstaking preparation. Sharing with other progressives a deep-seated antagonism to the Abe administration, activists were reluctant to relinquish the platform of the anniversary occasion, given already fading public interest exacerbated by the Olympics. Wouldn’t cancellation have a ripple effect on other organizations? Wouldn’t the government exploit this to apply pressure for “voluntary restraint” (jishuku)22 across a range of activities? At the same time, wasn’t the desire to safeguard health at the heart of the antinuclear movement? Was it appropriate for those who had made the agonizing choice to leave, not just Fukushima and immediately adjacent areas but the Tokyo region as well, to put themselves along with others at risk of exposure? If a valued keynote speaker were willing to appear remotely, were the organizers obliged to follow through? What were the ethics of putting one’s body on the line in these circumstances?23

Anniversary events, large and small, were postponed or canceled outright. One of the largest had been planned by FoE Japan (Friends of the Earth). Although not exclusively dedicated to the nuclear issue, it has been a leader in the field since 2011, remarkable for the depth of on-the-ground work underlying its educational and watchdog activities. Besides issuing its own carefully researched public comments, FoE has taken initiative to hold public-comment writing workshops, so that citizens unaccustomed to expressing themselves in this medium—never mind on such topics as evaluation of the Rokkasho reprocessing facility or the release of contaminated water into the Pacific—could be empowered to participate. In 2019, it launched an ambitious “Make Seeable(mieruka) project to contest the Olympics-accelerated obliteration of traces of the disaster, whether the number and circumstances of evacuees, the disposition of contaminated soil issuing from “decontamination,” or health effects. The March 2020 symposium would have brought together workers from Fukushima, a liquidator from Chernobyl, evacuees, physicians and scholars, a physician and energy specialists from Germany, for presentations in Tokyo followed by two venues in Fukushima.24 In April, as part of the “Make Seeable” project, FoE Japan planned to send young people to a workshop in Germany where they could network with youth from France and Belarus as well as Germany. This, too, was not to be. Here, as elsewhere in the world, the novel coronavirus, itself as invisible as radionuclides, asserted its power in unmistakably visible fashion—revealing what had been obscured and providing opportunities for new concealment in the process.

The days of “voluntary restraint” from activity, without economic support to speak of, have imposed hardships, predictably severe for the most vulnerable. They have also intensified antinuclear activists’ sense of urgency: not only have they witnessed the power of the coronavirus to swiftly and therefore visibly impact all sectors of society, but they soon came to realize that it provided cover to proceed with activities they strenuously opposed, such as paving the way for dumping “treated” water from the damaged reactors into the Pacific.25 On another front, court dates for the approximately thirty Fukushima-related cases winding their way through jurisdictions around the country have been postponed or even cancelled, eliminating a precious occasion for plaintiffs, lawyers, and citizen supporters to rally at the courthouse and hold press conferences—for themselves, for all of us who should care, and for the judges, who need to know that there is still a caring public. One of the most active and inclusive groups of plaintiffs (both mandatory and “voluntary” evacuees, from within and without Fukushima) seeking compensation, their attorneys, and supporters centered in the Osaka area put together a composite video message to fill the lacuna, reminding us of their goalssecuring normal lives, the right to evacuate, and a safe future—and giving us a glimpse of how nuclear evacuees are experiencing the coronavirus. The video format also reveals the still differing degrees of visibility participants feel able to tolerate—from full face, full name to full face but first/assumed name only to voice only.

With the pressure of the Olympics removed for the moment,26 these groups are having to grapple with the coronavirus as they continue to address the consequences of the nuclear disaster.


From Olympics to Pandemic: Two texts by Muto Ruiko

Muto Ruiko, who was propelled to antinuclear activism by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, captured the nation’s attention with a breathtaking speech at the first “Sayonara Nukes” rally in Tokyo in September of 2011.27 She became head of the Complainants for Criminal Prosecution of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, which, against all odds, led to the only criminal proceeding—against three former TEPCO executives—to result from the disaster.28 She is a respected leader, vital to many of the activities referred to above and more. The first text below, “Fukushima ain’t got the time for Olympic Games” is a speech delivered at Azuma Sports Park in Fukushima City on March 1, 2020, just as storm clouds were gathering for the Olympics-pandemic collision. It was an action jointly organized by HidanrenFukushima Gempatsu Jiko Higaisha Dantai Renrakukai (Liaison of Fukushima Nuclear Accident Victims’ Groups) and Datsugempatsu Fukushima Nettowaku (Fukushima Denuclearization Network). It is translated here with permission from Muto Ruiko; the original may be found here. The second is a reflection from May on the two overlapping emergency declarations: the nuclear emergency, issued March 11, 2011, at 19:03 and as yet unrescinded;29 and the novel coronavirus emergency, declared on April 7, 2020, and rescinded in stages, by locale and region, between May 14 and May 25, 2020. The second piece was written before the coronavirus emergency declaration was lifted, for the newsletter of Tomeyo! Tokai Daini Gempatsu Shutoken Renrakukai (Shut it down! Liaison of Citizens from the Metropolitan Prefectures Seeking to Close Unit 2 of the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant).30 The piece, from Nyusu No. 4 (June 2020) is translated here with their permission.

8Muto Ruiko outside Tokyo District Court on the morning of September 19, 2019, before the judgement. (Photo by N. Field)

Fukushima Ain’t Got the Time for Olympic Games

With the risks of the coronavirus in mind, we went back-and-forth about whether to proceed with this action, but considering that it would take place outdoors, that it wouldn’t involve large numbers, and that we would be equipped with face masks and alcohol, we managed to arrive at the decision to go through with our plans.


Nine years since the nuclear accident, the Olympics and the torch relay now dominate the news and the whole atmosphere of Fukushima Prefecture. 


Night and day, athletes are giving their all to prepare for the Olympics. 

Middle-schoolers have hitched their dreams to the torch relay and are eager to run. 

And probably, there are people looking forward to watching the relay and the ball games. 


Then why must we take this kind of action? 

Because we think this is no time to be hosting an Olympics in Fukushima. 


Have on-site conditions been stabilized since the accident?

Is the contaminated water under control?

How many workers have had to climb the vent stack to dismantle it?

Have victims been properly compensated?

Have their lives been restored?

Has industry returned to pre-accident levels?

Will these Olympics truly contribute to recovery?


Is it certain that neither athletes nor residents will be subject to radiation exposure?

With problems piling up one after the other, the people of Fukushima, both the ones living here and the ones who’ve left, are desperately trying to live their lives. 

There isn’t a single person who doesn’t wish for a true recovery from the disaster. 

In Fukushima today, what is it that we should be prioritizing first and foremost?

Stupendous sums of money are being poured into the Olympics and the torch relay. Multiple problems, hidden by the Olympics, are receding from view. We are worried about what will be left once the Olympics are finished.

It’s not the Fukushima that looks recovered on the surface that we want to make known. It’s the true conditions we want the world to know, about the cumulative problems that can’t be solved in nine short years—the suffering and the struggle caused by the harms of the nuclear disaster.

Then let us today, all together, proclaim heartily, “Fukushima ain’t got the time for Olympic Games!”


Life Under Two Emergency Declarations

In Fukushima, the “declaration of a state of emergency” issued with the spread of the novel coronavirus was superimposed on a “declaration of a nuclear emergency situation” that has never been rescinded. For victims of the nuclear accident, this occasion calls up many memories of that experience: staying indoors; wearing a mask; searching frantically for information; fighting the mounting tide of anxiety. In the early days of the contagion, we felt terribly oppressed, psychologically. 

But gradually, it became possible to see that there were commonalities and differences between the nuclear accident and the spread of the coronavirus. Fearing that people would panic, the government concealed the truth. It limited testing as much as possible, and without disclosing accurate case numbers, made them seem trivial. Ad hoc measures led to the sacrifice of the most vulnerable. Expert opinion was distorted to suit political power. Taking advantage of the disaster, opportunistic capitalist ventures rose to press their interests. These are some of the commonalities.

Some of the differences are the speed with which the infection has spread, making it more readily graspable; the dispersal of the afflicted in large numbers throughout Japan; and large-scale citizen protest prompted by the government’s coercive actions with little regard for laws and statutory authority, such as the sudden request for school closures or the proposal for revision of the Public Prosecutor’s Office Act.

After the nuclear accident, we anticipated a transformation in values, in worldview. It turns out that such a wish is not readily granted. Maybe this time—we can’t help hoping. But, in a world where more chemical substances are added to the environment by the day, where climate change is intensifying, it is possible that the next emergency is already waiting in the wings. Rather than tossing and turning between hope and despair, we need to work hard, together, to gain clarity on what we should prioritize for protection in the event of such an emergency. Otherwise, we run the risk of letting our fear and sense of oppression invite the heavy hand of authority.

Eventually, the state of emergency occasioned by the coronavirus threat is likely be lifted, although questions about appropriateness of timing and extent will remain. But how long will the “declaration of a nuclear emergency situation” remain in effect, imposing on people annual exposure levels up to 20 millisieverts per year, or leaving behind waste with levels of radioactivity 80 times pre-disaster levels? In the shadow of the coronavirus, problems that demand resolution are accumulating, while opportunistic measures are advanced, such as the use of the torch relay to trumpet Fukushima recovery, or the release of contaminated-ALPS-treated water into the environment.

Living under a double state of emergency, I have come to hold, more than ever, that we must commit ourselves in earnest to the following simple task: “to learn the truth and to help each other.” Failing that, it will be difficult for us humans, along with other living things, to survive on this planet. 


10March 1, 2020. Source



The original wording, “Fukushima wa orimpikku dogo de nee,” which quoted a senior citizen from a township hard hit by the nuclear disaster, has been adopted by many activists. My translation used in this article, “Fukushima ain’t got the time for Olympic Games” is an attempt to suggest the flavor in English.


Although the extent to which air quality has improved is debatable. See, for instance, NPR (May 19, 2020).


The imperial allusion is intended. See note 12, below.


20 Millisieverts for Children and Kosako Toshiso’s Resignation (APJ-Japan Focus, December 31, 2012). It has been standard for most countries to follow the recommendations of the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP): 20 mSv/yr for occupational exposure (averaged over a 5-year period, not to exceed 50 mSv in any given year), 1 mSv/yr for the general public. See Japanese government site providing a Comparison between ICRP Recommendations and Domestic Laws and Regulations. These standards are subject to fierce contention worldwide, from both those who find them too protective and those who find them inadequate. The Japanese government has made 20 mSv/yr the de facto threshold for reopening restricted areas. See discussion in Jobin, The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and Civil Actions as a Social Movement (APJ-Japan Focus, May 1, 2020).


On Ishihara and the Olympics, especially with respect to overlapping aspects of 1964 and 2020, see Tagsold (APJ Japan Focus, March 1, 2020).


In 2009 Hiroshima City and Nagasaki City submitted a single bid for summer 2020, appealing to the principle of promoting peace that, after all, constituted a cornerstone of “Olympism.” The mayors of the two cities linked the bid to the goal of nuclear abolition by 2020 (Asahi Shimbun, October 10, 2009), but the plan failed to make headway against the one-city rule. The Hiroshima-Nagasaki bid was not necessarily supported by hibakusha, as exemplified by the trenchant criticism, utterly applicable to Fukushima, of Yamada Hirotami (age 78), then Secretary-General of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council (Nagasaki Gembaku Hisaisha Kyogikai): “If the Games were to be held in Nagasaki, it would be an enormous technical and financial burden. […]They say that holding the Olympics in the cities where the atomic bombs were dropped means lots of people coming from all over the world, and that would raise awareness about nuclear abolition, but I think it would just detract. During the 1964 Olympics, even here in Nagasaki, everybody was swept up. How many gold medals did we get—that sort of thing was all that anyone could talk about. In that kind of frenzy, any interest in nuclear abolition goes out the window. [As with previous Olympics] there’s the risk of getting distracted by commercial priorities. […] There’s an atmosphere that makes it hard to voice opposition when they say that the Olympics are for the cause of spreading peace, but we need to discuss this rationally. […]The activism of Japanese hibakusha has gained the respect of NGOs around the world. We’re not about performance” (Nagasaki Shimbun, October 24, 2009). The Olympic-nuclear connection is worthy of examination in its own right, beginning with the striking use of Hiroshima in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There, the runner of the last leg of the torch relay, the one to light the cauldron, was Sakai Yoshinori, born on August 6, 1945 to be sure, but in Hiroshima Prefecture, not City. That fact was conveniently overlooked, and he was quickly dubbed “Atomic Boy.” Perhaps this was an initial source of ambivalence (Tokyo Shimbun, June 3, 2020), but he became a lifelong believer in spreading the message of peace through the Olympics (Withnews, September 10, 2014).


On the challenges of branding Tokyo 2020, see Kingston (APJ Japan Focus, February 15, 2020). Kingston has edited two special collections on the Olympics, here and here.


A position elaborated in a collection with the title, Shiawase ni naru tame no “Fukushima sabetsu” ron (2018) (Discourse on “anti-Fukushima discrimination”: For our happiness). “Real harm(jitsugai) is sometimes used to contest the widespread use of “reputational harm.”


See Fukushima Prefectural maps of zone changes here.


The addition of baseball and softball was finalized in August of 2016 though both sports have been dropped from the roster for Paris 2024. Azuma Stadium in Fukushima City was approved in January of 2017. The decision to start the torch relay in Fukushima came more than a year later, in August of 2018. Only one baseball game, in contrast to six softball matches, have been scheduled for Azuma Stadium. Olympic softball is a women’s sport, cautioning us to keep in mind research showing radiation exposure resulting in disproportionately greater harm to women and girls than to men and boys. See Gender and Radiation Impact Project.


On March 23, 3030—the day before postponement of the Games was announced—TEPCO held a press conference at which it disclosed that, in accordance with its own standards, it had returned J-Village to its owner foundation without first decontaminating it (Okada, Toyo Keizai, March 27, 2020). Subsequent disclosures, both through TEPCO’s press conferences and responses to Toyo Keizai magazine’s freedom-of-information filings, have revealed additional egregious transgressions, such as TEPCO’s storing radioactive waste exceeding 8000Bq/kg on J-Village grounds and the prefecture’s demanding that TEPCO not disclose the location of such storage (Okada, Toyo Keizai, June 23, 2020). See Shaun Burnie’s “Radiation Disinformation and Human Rights Violations at the Heart of Fukushima and the Olympic Games” (APJ-Japan Focus, March 1, 2020).


See celebratory account in Hirai and Watabe, The Mainichi, March 14, 2020, and a more guarded one by McCurry, The Guardian, March 4, 2020.


The positioning of the lantern makes it seem as if this passage were written from the viewpoint of the flame (Yomiuri Shimbun, March 22, 2020). The extraordinary treatment accorded the flame, the rhapsodic attribution of hope made real, invokes the journeys—progresses—of Emperor Hirohito through the war-devasted country.


See Kingston, PM Abe’s Floundering Pandemic Leadership (APJ-Japan Focus, May 1, 2020) on the consequences of action delayed for the sake of the Olympics.


Reports of cost overruns have been predictably common, with the postponement now adding a hefty $2.7 billion according to the organizing committee.


See report on the first disclosures by Taakurataa by Our Planet-TV 2019. As for bringing “people back to their home towns,” the meagerness of such assistance as was provided beleaguered evacuees, both “mandatory” and “voluntary,” has also served as a powerful inducement to return. Late in 2019, Fukushima Prefecture doubled rents and threatened legal action (Our Planet-TV, August 29, 2019 and Taminokoe Shimbun, November 30, 2019). The Prefecture has taken four households to court even as their conditions have become further straightened because of the pandemic and associated loss of income (Hidanren, March 27, 2020).


A phrase often repeated in Fukushima. See Ogawa, “As If Nothing Had Occurred: Anti-Tokyo Olympics Protests and Concern Over Radiation Exposure(APJ-Japan Focus, March 1, 2020).


In March of 2018, the Reconstruction Agency issued a 30-page pamphlet titled “Hoshasen no honto” [The truth about radiation] for widespread circulation through other government agencies, events within Fukushima and elsewhere, PTA gatherings, etc. True to the mission of the authoring agency, it argues in multiple ways that harmful health effects have not been shown to have resulted from the nuclear disaster. The text may be found here. In October of 2018, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry issued revised editions of supplementary readers, “Hoshasen fukudokuhon,” for elementary and middle/high school levels. These may be found with the 2014 versions here. The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) critically reviews both sets of documents here (2019).


On the redispersal of radionuclides following weather events, see Burnie, Radioactivity on the move 2020: Recontamination and weather-related effects in Fukushima (Greenpeace International, March 9, 2020). Specifically with respect to the Olymics, see Burnie, Fukushima and the 2020 Olympics (Greenpeace International, February 5, 2020). Arnie Gundersen writes of the sampling trip he and Marco Kaltofen (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) took in 2017: “When the Olympic torch route and Olympic stadium samples were tested, we found samples of dirt in Fukushima’s Olympic Baseball Stadium that were highly radioactive, registering 6,000 Bq/kg of Cesium, which is 3,000 times more radioactive than dirt in the US. We also found that simple parking lot radiation levels were 50-times higher there than here in the US[emphasis in original]. Atomic Balm Part 1: Prime Minister Abe Uses the Tokyo Olympics as Snake Oil Cure for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Meltdowns (Fairewinds Energy Education, March 1, 2019).


Tanaka Shunichi, former head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority and now reconstruction adviser to Iitate Village in lecture at Fukushima City on September 18, 2019. Quotations taken from Fukushima Minpos lavish report, “Fukko arata na kyokumen e” (November 1, 2020). Much like a school teacher chastening and encouraging his pupils, Tanaka—himself only recently in a position of responsibility for government nuclear policy—directs the people of Fukushima to forget the promise by the central government to remove decontamination waste from the prefecture in thirty years’ time. This was, after all, their “own” waste. The article reports that 85% of the overflow audience of 2800 responded they were satisfied by the contents of the lecture. Only one critical respondent is quoted by the paper, to the effect that a promise by the government is a promise. The photo of the audience in rapt attention as they are being “given courage,” as one respondent puts it, to, in effect, embrace their victimization is haunting.


Personal emails. An immediate example of the “don’t test” approach is the prefectural survey of pediatric thyroid cancer. See Aihara, Follow Up on Thyroid Cancer! Patient Group Voices Opposition to Scaling Down the Fukushima Prefectural Health Survey (APJ-Japan Focus, January 15, 2017).


Government measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus have taken the form of “requests” (yosei) for “voluntary restraint,” or jishuku. See, for example, Japan Declared a Coronavirus Emergency. Is It Too Late? (New York Times, April 7, 2020.) The extent to which jishuku can lead to mutual policing and censorship will be familiar to those remembering the long final illness of Emperor Hirohito from late 1988-early 89.


These are examples of issues raised on a listserv focused on evacuees and their supporters.


For the original program, see here. For written and video messages from presenters, see here. The video messages of those who have stayed and those who have left are short, but informative and moving. Two are now available in multiple languages: former dairy farmer Hasegawa Kenichi here and evacuee Kanno Mizue here. See FoE’s informative statement in English released for the 9th anniversary here.


Contaminated water leaks have been a persistent issue for TEPCO, whether contaminated groundwater escaping from the basements of the reactor buildings and underground tunnels containing cables and pipes (Radioactive Water Leaks from Fukushima: What We Know (Scientific American, August 13, 2013) or from storage tanks (Fukushima daiichi gempatsu: Konodo osensui ga tanku kara moreru (NHK News Web, October 7, 2016). The difference now is that TEPCO is attempting to make contaminated water release the explicit solution to ever-accumulating storage tanks. “Treated water” (shorisui), the compliant media now call it, having cast aside the earlier designation of “contaminated water” (osensui). In 2018, TEPCO itself admitted that the ALPS filtration system had failed to remove, not just tritium, but other radionuclides at levels exceeding allowable limits in 80% of the contaminated water store in the forest of tanks. FoE Japan uses the term “ALPS-treated contaminated water” (ALPS shori osensui) and has taken a leadership role in public-comment workshops. See its summary of remaining radionuclides and the circumstances of TEPCO’s admission here.


See, for example, The Tokyo Olympics Are 14 Months Away. Is That Enough Time (New York Times, May 20, 2020). Just recently, Takahashi Haruyuki—he of the Seiko cameras as bargain bribes—became the first official to suggest that further postponement was possible, but that cancellation had absolutely to be avoided (Nikkan Sports, June 16, 2020).


See, for example, Yamaguchi and Muto, Muto Ruiko and the Movement of Fukushima Residents to Pursue Criminal Charges against Tepco Executives and Government (APJ-Japan Focus, July 1, 2012); Field, From Fukushima: To Despair Properly, To Find the Next Step (APJ-Japan Focus, September 1, 2016); Hirano and Muto, “We need to recognize this hopeless sight…. To recognize that this horrible crime is what our country is doing to us”: Interview with Muto Ruiko (APJ-Japan Focus, September 1, 2016).


For an authoritative account of the criminal trial and district court ruling, see Johnson, Fukurai, and Hirayama, Reflections on the TEPCO Trial: Prosecution and Acquittal after Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown (APJ-Japan Focus, January 15, 2020). On the significance of Fukushima-related trials, Jobin, The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and Civil Actions as a Social Movement (APJ-Japan Focus, May 1, 2020). For statements by 50 complainants, Field and Mizenko, Fukushima Radiation: Will You Still Say No Crime Was Committed? (Kinyobi, 2015).


See also former Kyoto University nuclear engineer Koide Hiroaki’s views on the Olympics and the nuclear emergency declaration in The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and the Tokyo Olympics (APJ-Japan Focus, March 1, 2019).


For a general account of the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant, see here. Tatsuya Murakami, who was mayor of Tokai Village at the time of the JCO criticality accident and took personal initiative to evacuate the residents, has been a leading voice in opposing nuclear restarts. TEPCO, on life-support with taxpayer money after the Fukushima disaster, has committed to supporting the aging Tokai No. 2 plant to the tune of $2 billion (The Asahi Shimbun, October 29, 2019).

July 10, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers

Wired Magazine ignores the reality of radiation for Fukushima residents. It’s one thing to stigmatize the mental health of those living there, but it’s an entirely different to act as though radioactivity is not, in fact, a real threat!

Beneath the obligatory ‘subsiding’ spin, there are some heroic citizen scientists at the heart of this article…
& more than mental health ‘still’ at risk

Mizue Kanno, 67, a Fukushima evacuee and anti-nuclear activist, recalls Yamashita telling an audience in Japan just eight days after the accident, “Radiation does not affect people who smile. It affects people who worry.”

His comments caused furore. “My friend and I took a photo of us smiling at the evacuation centre when he said that. And we both still got cancer,” says Kanno, pulling down her turtleneck to show a neat scar across her neck. “They took half my thyroid.”


1The road from Namie (pop. 1,238) to the Fukushima plant


If it were not illegal, Ayumi Iida would love to test a dead body. Recently, she tested a wild boar’s heart. She’s also tested the contents of her vacuum cleaner and the filter of her car’s air conditioner. Her children are so used to her scanning the material contents of their life that when she cuts the grass, her son asks, “Are you going to test that too?”

Iida, who is 35, forbids her children from entering the sea or into forests. She agonises over which foods to buy. But no matter what she does, she can’t completely protect her children from radiation. It even lurks in their urine.

“Maybe he’s being exposed through the school lunch,” she says, puzzling over why her nine-year-old son’s urine showed two-and-a-half times the concentration of caesium that hers did, when she takes such care shopping. “Or maybe it’s from the soil outside where he plays. Or is it because children have a faster metabolism, so he flushes more out? We don’t know.”

Iida is a public relations officer at Tarachine, a citizens’ lab in Fukushima, Japan, that tests for radioactive contamination released from the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Agricultural produce grown in the area is subject to government and supermarket testing, but Tarachine wants to provide people with an option to test anything, from foraged mushrooms to dust from their home. Iida tests anything unknown before feeding it to her four children. Recently, she threw out some rice she received as a present after finding its level of contamination – although 80 times lower than the government limit – unacceptably high. “My husband considered eating it ourselves, but it’s too much to cook two batches of rice for every meal. In the end we fed it to some seagulls.”

Tarachine is one of several citizen labs founded in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, which obliterated a swathe of the country’s northwest coast and killed more than 18,000 people. The wave knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering a meltdown in three of the reactor cores and hydrogen explosions that sprayed radionuclides across the Fukushima prefecture. More than 160,000 people were forced to evacuate. A government decontamination programme has allowed evacuation orders to be lifted in many municipalities, but one zone is still off limits, with only short visits permitted.

Driven by a desire to find out precisely how much radiation there was in the environment and where, a group of volunteers launched Tarachine in Iwaki, a coastal city that escaped the worst of the radioactive plume and was not evacuated, through a crowdfunding campaign in November 2011. It is now registered as a non-profit organisation, and runs on donations.

In a windowless room controlled for temperature and humidity and dotted with screens showing graphs, two women sort and label samples, either collected by staff or sent in by the public: soil from back gardens, candied grasshoppers, seawater. In the beginning, mothers sent in litres of breastmilk. Tarachine initially charged a tenth of what a university lab would charge to make the testing accessible to as many people as possible; last year, they made it free.

To test for caesium-137, the main long-term contaminant released from the plant, staff finely chop samples and put them inside a gamma counter, a cylindrical grey machine that looks like a centrifuge. Tarachine’s machines are more accurate than the more commonly accessible measuring tools: at some public monitoring posts, shoppers can simply place their produce on top of a device to get a reading, but this can be heavily skewed by background radiation (waving a Geiger counter over food won’t give an accurate reading for the same reason). Tarachine tries to get as precise readings as possible; the lab’s machines give results to one decimal place, and they try to block out excess background radiation by placing bottles of water around the machines.

Measuring for strontium, a type of less penetrative beta radiation, is even more complicated: the food has to first be roasted to ash before being mixed with an acid and sifted. The whole process takes two to three days. Tarachine received training and advice from university radiation labs around the country, but the volunteers had to experiment with everyday food items that scientists had never tested. “There was no recipe like ‘Roast the leaf for two hours at so-and-so Celsius’, you know?” says Iida. “If it’s too burnt it’s no good. We also had to experiment with types of acid and how much of the acid to add.”

Japanese government standards for radiation are some of the most stringent in the world: the upper limit of radioactive caesium in food such as meat and vegetables is 100 becquerels per kilogram, compared with 1,250 in the European Union and 1,200 in the US (the becquerel unit measures how much ionizing radiation is released due to radioactive decay). Many supermarkets adhere to a tighter limit, proudly advertising that their produce contains less than 40 becquerels, or as few as 10. Tarachine aims for just 1 becquerel.

“How I think about it is, how much radiation was there in local rice before the accident? It was about 0.01 becquerel. So that’s what I want the standard to be,” says Iida.


2Ayumi Iida in the Tarachine radiation testing lab


Nine years on from a disaster known locally as Japan’s 9/11, victims continue to deal with the ongoing aftermath of the nuclear accident. Tsunami survivors in other prefectures are moving on. But few in Fukushima feel the crisis is anywhere close to resolved.

Some radiation experts would say women such as Iida are unduly worried about radiation – paranoid, even. Global agencies charged with creating radiation guidelines and advice – the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) — have said that radiation levels in Fukushima have been much lower than in Chernobyl and predict no discernible increase in future cancer rates and hereditary diseases as a result of the accident. Estimated internal doses, based on reconstructions, are much lower than among those affected by the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which has been attributed to comprehensive food testing and lower consumption of wild or foraged food.

The secondary effects of the disaster seem more lethal than the radiation itself: although no one was killed by the initial explosion, the hurried evacuation of hospitals and nursing homes led to 50 deaths, due to hypothermia, dehydration, and lack of support for medical problems such as renal failure. Countless people trapped in the rubble after the quake and tsunami likely died as a result of the rescue effort being called off as the radioactive plume spread. And, in the years since, a prolonged evacuation – so long that some say evacuees have more in common with refugees than disaster survivors – has been linked to suicides, heart disease and other illnesses that have caused 2,286 deaths – more than those killed by the tsunami in the prefecture. Diabetes and other lifestyle diseases have spiked alarmingly. Overstretched medical staff and social workers are suffering from burnout, insomnia and other stress disorders.

Under current international guidelines, the radiation released meant that the initial evacuation was unavoidable. And while the Japanese government has tried to move people back to evacuated areas as soon as possible by hiking the legal annual exposure limit for ordinary citizens in Fukushima from 1 millisievert per year to 20, previously the limit for nuclear plant workers, the move has enraged the public. Not only does the new limit mean some re-opened areas would be classed as uninhabitable elsewhere in Japan and the rest of the world (the ICRP recommends a public dose limit of 1 millisievert per year on top of regular background radiation levels), the government also uses it as justification for cutting off financial aid to former residents once evacuation orders are lifted. A special rapporteur from the United Nations Office of the Higher Commissioner on Human Rights has urged Japan to stop its relocation policy to protect the rights of children and women of reproductive age.

The government also raised the limit for nuclear workers from 20 millisieverts per year to 250 millisieverts, a level permitted by the IAEA for emergency situations.


3Michiko Sakai, whose husband worked at the Fukushima Daiichi plant


“It was this unthinkable level! My husband was so angry,” says Michiko Sakai, whose husband, Hiroaki Sakai, worked at the plant. He was summoned a week after the accident to go up in a crane to inspect the damage to the fourth reactor, and received a dose of radiation equivalent to half the new annual limit. He was later diagnosed with salivary gland cancer.

Some workers have been awarded compensation after Japan’s health and labour ministry recognised their leukaemia or cancer as a “work-related” health issue. The first was 41 years old, and had received an accumulated dose of 16 millisieverts — well under 100 millisieverts, the level beyond which international agencies say a statistically significant increase in cancers is observable.

“They say it’s nothing to do with the radiation. But it makes you think. My husband says we can’t know,” says Sakai. “People around him say, why don’t you sue? But he says, there’s no proof. We just can’t know.”

The precise relationship between doses of ionising radiation and their effect are the subject of fierce debate. Some scientists believe the dangers have been exaggerated, while others believe that even low doses over time may induce cancer.

After the accident, Fukushima Medical University set up the Health Management Survey, a study consisting of four parts to track the physical and mental health of the two million people who had been in Fukushima at the time of the disaster. One part is a screening for thyroid cancers among those who were children at the time of the accident, as a higher incidence of these cancers was the biggest physical health impact observed after the Chernobyl disaster. From the outset, Dr. Shunichi Yamashita, a government-appointed radiation risk management adviser who led the screening, emphasised that the survey was primarily being conducted to assuage anxiety about radiation.

To date, 186 cases of thyroid cancer among children have been found. Doctors at FMU contend that these are likely due to the “screening effect”, in which widespread testing of a population – 300,000 children, in this case – turns up diseases that would otherwise have remained undetected. They add that thyroid cancers only appeared to increase four years after the Chernobyl accident, and in Fukushima most were found in the first round of screening, with fewer diagnoses each round. The age pattern of children with tumours in Fukushima is also different to that in Chernobyl, where incidence was higher amongst younger children.

But some activists and doctors reject these explanations, arguing that doctors in the USSR missed tumours in the early years because they were diagnosed by hand rather than ultrasound. They also note that thyroid doses have only been estimated based on reconstructions, rather than actual measurements taken immediately after the accident.

Mizue Kanno, 67, a Fukushima evacuee and anti-nuclear activist, recalls Yamashita telling an audience in Japan just eight days after the accident, “Radiation does not affect people who smile. It affects people who worry.”

His comments caused furore. “My friend and I took a photo of us smiling at the evacuation centre when he said that. And we both still got cancer,” says Kanno, pulling down her turtleneck to show a neat scar across her neck. “They took half my thyroid.”

Data from Chernobyl shows that the incidence of thyroid cancers rose only in people who were exposed to high doses of radiation as children, making it unlikely that Kanno’s tumour was caused by the release at the Fukushima plant. Nonetheless, to Kanno and others, Yamashita’s remarks have become a symbol of what they perceive as the medical establishment’s callous arrogance.

In response to parents’ concerns, Tarachine opened a clinic in 2013 where anyone – even adults – could have their thyroid checked, or get a second opinion. “In Japan, everyone has a lot of respect for doctors and sees them as kind of superior, so people don’t find them very approachable and they find it hard to ask questions,” says Iida. Since radioactive iodine, which causes the thyroid tumours, has a half-life of just eight days and was fully decayed within a few months of the accident, the government screening only covers children born before the accident. Iida has had her three children born since the accident tested anyway.

“I think we just can’t know for sure,” she says. “You often hear, ‘Statistically, this number of people in Fukushima will get sick’. But mothers can’t relate to that. I have a child right in front of me, that’s who I’m concerned about.”


4Masaharu Tsubokura, a radiation specialist at the Soma Central Hospital in Fukushima


Sakai and her husband’s home in Namie was swept away in the tsunami. “Completely obliterated. There was nothing left. Only the concrete foundations,” she recalls. Because of radiation levels, it was three years before she was allowed to go back to see the devastation for herself.

By then, her family had been broken up: her husband was working at the plant and living in a company dormitory nearby, while her mother-in-law moved into temporary government housing to be close to her former neighbours. With her son at university, Sakai and her daughter moved inland to Fukushima City.

“If we had been pulled apart by a natural disaster, I think we would have been able to knit the family back together. But because of the radiation, we were separated,” Sakai says. She lost friends after her village community was scattered during the evacuation. “I had no sense of who was dead and who was alive. Even if I heard they had died [in the tsunami], I had this feeling that they’d just evacuated elsewhere. The realisation that they were dead didn’t hit.”

Some of the few community ties that remained have been aggravated by enmity over compensation money. Evacuees have even been bullied for receiving compensation – to the extent that Sakai didn’t tell her new neighbours where she was from, not wanting to invite resentment.

“What the radiation broke was my heart,” she says. “It’s not about my body being exposed. You can measure that. But the emotional pain it causes – you can’t see that.”

Indeed, the impact of the nuclear accident goes well beyond worries about the physical impact of radiation: in 2017, fewer than two per cent of callers to a mental health helpline for Fukushima evacuees touched on radiation-related concerns, in contrast to other health issues, which were discussed in 80 per cent of calls, and family issues, which came up in a third.


5The motorway exit for the site of the Fukushima Daiichi plant


The accident forced tens of thousands out of their homes, shattering communities, wrenching apart families, and robbing them of their jobs. Evacuees have lived in limbo for years, not knowing when they will be allowed to move home, or even whether they want to, given the shrunken and now inconvenient towns that await them.

“The consequences of the radiation accident is not purely about exposure to radiation. It’s also not purely psychological. It’s changes in lifestyle, family issues, changes in society, hospitals closing, stigma, bullying, money,” says Masaharu Tsubokura, a radiation specialist at Soma Central Hospital in Fukushima. “Hardly anyone here talks about radiation. Those people don’t come back.”

Those most concerned about radiation fled as far as they could, and stayed away; some even moved to Okinawa, the island prefecture south of the Japanese mainland. Some 30,000 evacuees still live outside Fukushima prefecture.

Over the past nine years, as background radiation levels fall and evacuation orders have gradually been lifted, the government has encouraged — or pressured, through the withdrawal of financial aid — people to return. But the longer it took for the evacuation orders to be lifted, the fewer people came back. Towns have been left frozen in time, and still lack supermarkets, schools, hospitals and clinics — not to mention citizens.

In Okuma, once a picturesque town of 11,500 people, curtains are blowing through broken windows. Huge, grand houses nestled into golden hillsides have been ruined with mildew, and are too contaminated to live in. There is a small patch where decontamination has beaten background radiation back enough to meet the government standard. Here, a tight cluster of grey identikit prefabs have been built for former residents. Across the road are similar units for those who work at the nuclear plant or in decontamination.

In an airy, high-ceilinged cafeteria, bearing the faintly plasticky smell of fresh construction, men in work clothes queue up with trays. “I never usually come here. There’s nowhere to meet friends,” says Masumi Kohata, a local council representative. “They’ve built a bar, but that’s only for workers — the residents are all elderly and don’t go out drinking.”

Only between around 10 to 15 per cent of former residents of towns close to the plant, like Okuma, express a desire to return, and actual returnee rates are even lower. Shrinking and ageing populations are a problem all over rural Japan, but in the towns affected by radiation, the effect is particularly acute. The nuclear accident functioned like a second, ageist tsunami: the plume dragged everyone out, but the riptide of government policy deposited only the elderly back. Those over 60 feel more intensely a traditional obligation to be close to their ancestors’ graves. Younger people tend not to come back due to a lack of work opportunities, schools for their children, or because they have settled elsewhere.


6Kazuma Yonekura, a psychiatric nurse who works at a clinic in Minamisōma


In many cases, men stayed behind for work in Fukushima while their wives and children moved elsewhere in Japan. Such stresses led to the break-up of so many marriages that a new word was coined: genpatsu-rikon, or nuclear divorce. Other families were split along generational lines as younger members moved away. Even those who evacuated inside Fukushima were often separated from their communities, leading to the disintegration of the social fabric. On average, evacuees have moved four to five times; eight moves is not unusual.

“The extended evacuation meant people couldn’t settle down and come to terms with what had happened. They didn’t know whether to make a decision to move back, or to put it off. They were – some still are – living in limbo,” says Kazuma Yonekura, a psychiatric nurse at Nagomi, a clinic in Minamisōma that is part of Kokoro No Care, a mental health organisation that has been set up in the wake of disasters since the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

Compensation money and the loss of work meant people smoked more, gambled more, and drank more; in 2014, one in five male evacuees and one in ten female evacuees in Fukushima were considered problem drinkers. Those who had lived active lives were suddenly cooped up in cramped temporary housing units; the change in lifestyle and diet, compounded by stress and inactivity, has triggered a massive rise in diabetes among the middle-aged and elderly. Some 10,000 people are considered at risk of depression.

Yonekura recalls one nuclear plant worker in his 40s who took sleeping pills with alcohol, knocking himself out for such long periods that he got bedsores. “We realised that medical treatment could only go so far,” says Yonekura, who brought the man to soup kitchens and fetched hot water from a local bathhouse when he couldn’t pay his gas bill. “Doctors can give out prescriptions, but then it’s left to people to change their lives.”

After waiting for so long, returnees often become depressed upon encountering the reality of their unrecognisable hometowns: suicides spike in towns after the evacuation orders are lifted.

The stress of seeing one’s old life wiped off the map can be equally distressing. “My friend decided to move back here and build a new house to make a fresh start,” says a waitress named Aiko Watanabe in a cafe in Tomioka. “But when she watched her old house being demolished, she had a heart attack, and died.”

Not all such deaths are included in the official count of “disaster-related deaths”, which now stands at 2,286 — compared to 469 in Iwate and 928 in Miyagi, the other two prefectures also affected by the tsunami. The nuclear accident has drastically complicated Fukushima’s recovery. Due to the scale and complexity of issues that victims still face, Kokoro No Care will continue to operate in Fukushima for 20 years in total, even though it was wound down after five years in Miyagi and Iwate.

But staff at Kokoro No Care and other relief workers, such as civil servants and medical staff, are overstretched. Three years after the disaster, nine per cent were considered at risk of suicide, and 18 per cent had symptoms of depression. “People working in support roles have too much work but they feel they can’t quit. Citizens are depending on them, but they feel stuck and can’t cope,” Yonekura says.

“That’s what the radiation accident caused. A loss of purpose. The loss of feeling at home, the feeling of being connected. There’s many people who suffered from that. And a lot of people suffered from the perception that they or their products were contaminated.”


7Masahura Maeda, a professor at Fukushima Medical University’s department of disaster psychiatry


Stigmatization is one of the reasons doctors want to quell concerns around radiation. Children and adults from Fukushima have been bullied because of where they are from; some evacuees were initially refused entry to friends or relatives’ homes because they were perceived as being a danger.

“Some friends said we were still contaminated. I wasn’t offended, I think they were right,” says Kanno. “In Osaka, I felt like a mouldy orange. You know when an orange rots in a cardboard box, it spreads the mould around? That was me… I thought a mouldy orange should stay put and not spread the contamination around.”

Some 30 per cent of people in Fukushima believe the effects of radiation exposure are hereditary, with 15 per cent of people thinking it is “very likely” – in spite of the Life Span Study tracking 86,000 survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finding no evidence of this.

“Many people believe that these women should not get married or reproduce. That’s really worrying,” says Masaharu Maeda, a professor at Fukushima Medical University’s (FMU) Department of Disaster Psychiatry who has led the mental health response for evacuees. The stigma is even worse outside Fukushima: in one survey of 1,000 people in Tokyo in 2019, 40 per cent thought the effects would be transmitted to the next generation.

Maeda says that concern has fallen in Fukushima due to public education campaigns, pointing to a survey showing that just under a third of respondents in Fukushima now believe that effects are hereditary, down from half in 2012. But he and other doctors are worried about the small group of people – the 15 per cent – who still believe that they or their peers are genetically contaminated, despite official reassurances. In a survey of evacuees, Maeda and his colleagues were shocked to find that the biggest risk factor for “severe distress” was increased perception of risk from radiation exposure and the belief that it would affect one’s children or grandchildren.

“That’s the tricky thing about radiation,” says Koichi Tanigawa, vice president of the FMU and senior director of the Radiation Medical Science Center. “Someone’s way of thinking or what they believed [before the accident] has quite a big influence on their understanding of the issue. Scientific figures or research isn’t going to do much to change their mind.”

The full impact of the accident will take years to emerge – and even then, assessments will differ. Deaths caused by radiation-induced cancers may well be under- or overestimated, due to the difficulty of isolating radiation as a cause amidst a tangle of other lifestyle factors. Deaths from diabetes as a result of the evacuation may never be counted.

“A manmade disaster is much harder than a natural disaster,” says Maeda. He notes that after natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Kobe, it usually takes around five years for people to “recover”. One marker of this is the construction of a memorial, which allows people to begin mourning. Another is when the majority of those affected no longer consider themselves victims. “If you look at Fukushima,” Maeda says, “it’s nowhere near. The disaster is still ongoing.”




July 10, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment