Hiroshima Memo: Indiscriminate and far-ranging damage caused by the nuclear crisis

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

The severity of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has been raised to Level 7, the same level as the accident at Chernobyl. My recent visit to the affected area was a short trip, to a limited number of sites, but I was nonetheless shaken deeply by the grave impact of the disaster. As it appears that the radiation leaking from the four reactor units at the nuclear plant cannot be contained in the foreseeable future, the impact will likely continue to expand broadly in scope.

Shinobu Watanabe, 66, and his wife, Fumiyo, 59, are fruit farmers in Fukushima City. The couple are deeply concerned about the continuing aftershocks of the earthquake, telling me, “When the aftershocks are a level 5 or larger on the Japanese seismic scale, the first thing that comes to our minds is the possible impact on the nuclear power plant.” They are afraid that the nuclear facility might be further damaged by the aftershocks, which could result in a greater leak of radiation. Located about 60 kilometers northwest of the nuclear plant, their large orchard commands a distant view of the Azuma mountain range. Including saplings, there are more than 100 cherry trees, 300 peach trees, and 40 apple trees in the orchard. Early June is the season to start harvesting cherries.

Their son, 28, and his wife are set to take over the orchard. They have been promoting “Fukushima Fruit Land” in Japan and overseas via the Internet and have received orders from South Korea, Hong Kong, and other spots overseas. They have also had tourists, from neighboring Asian countries as well, who enjoy picking cherries and peaches. However, due to the news coverage of the “Fukushima” nuclear plant, they are receiving emails that express concern over the fallout of radiation from the plant.

Mr. Watanabe said, “Even if the level of the radiation contamination is negligibly low, and we are able to ship our fruits to the markets, we will no doubt suffer from the harmful rumors.”

Fruits, rice, vegetables, milk, flowers… Even if the farmers of that area were not rattled directly by the disaster, none residing in Fukushima Prefecture can escape the adverse effects of such rumors. The impact, though, goes beyond agriculture, affecting the fishery, tourism, and even export industries, which are moving out of the prefecture.

The potential damage to human health due to radiation is another issue of top priority. On April 10, a university professor was invited to Iitate-mura in Fukushima Prefecture by the Tokyo Electric Power Company and gave a talk on the health effects of radiation. The professor reassured the local people, saying, “The level of radiation has gone down and you can open your windows at home.” The following day, however, the whole area encompassing Iitate-mura was designated a “planned evacuation zone” as a consequence of health concerns from the accumulating radiation exposure.

Iitate-mura is about 40 kilometers from the nuclear power plant, but this area has recorded higher levels of radiation than other areas in the prefecture. The residents, who have been continuously exposed to radiation for over a month since the crisis began, are now facing uncertainties about their future livelihoods as well as growing concerns over their health.

Naturally, the most urgent question is the health of the many workers who are laboring to stabilize the critical conditions at the plant while suffering exposure to high levels of radiation. Outside the evacuation zone, too, many families with pregnant women and small children have voluntarily evacuated from their areas.

In the past, I have reported on the reality of radiation damage caused by the accident at Chernobyl and by nuclear tests conducted by the United States, the former Soviet Union, and other nations. Based on what I have learned through these experiences, I find it hard to be as optimistic as the “experts” who appear on television as commentators. When human beings are unable to contain a crippled nuclear power plant, it wreaks indiscriminate and far-ranging havoc on a large number of lives. I cannot help but see nuclear power plants as intolerable, now bringing us a magnitude of grim consequences.

(Originally published on April 18, 2011)

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Radiation from crippled nuclear plant upending lives in eastern Japan (April 23, 2011)