From Fukushima to Hinkley Point

Climate change is a major security threat, but it can’t be solved with the 20th century’s nuclear technologies. On her return from meeting people trying to revive abandoned villages left contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster,  Rebecca Johnson raises concerns about plans for a new generation of nuclear power reactors in Britain, starting with Hinkley C.

A week after getting back from Fukushima, I found myself talking with three women in Bristol who were handing out leaflets and urging people to take action to stop the building of the new Hinkley C nuclear power reactor in Somerset.  Their leaflet showed the evacuation zones if Hinkley were to suffer the kind of accident that caused fires and explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in March 2011.  Cardiff lies 20 miles away, across the Bristol Channel. Bristol is less than 35 miles away.  At those distances from Fukushima, Japanese families with young children or women of child-bearing age have been evacuated. I saw their homes and schools standing eerily empty, with rampant weeds choking the play equipment and pushing through broken windows and greenhouses.

I visited Fukushima together with doctors from Australia, India, Britain, Germany, Canada, Finland and the United States. We had earlier been in Hiroshima for a meeting of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Our trip, which took a couple of hours by train and bus from Tokyo, was organised by a group of Japanese physicians (PANW), who had arranged for us to meet local doctors, farmers and politicians.

The fields, homes and roadside verges as the bus left Fukushima City were immaculately tidy, as expected in Japan.  This was the familiar rural landscape of Japan – pretty houses interspersed with fluorescent green rice paddies or dark green soya bean fields, with long greenhouse frames or poly-tunnels of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other summer vegetables.

A few miles out of the city the scene suddenly changed. Gone were the tidy squares of rice and other crops. Instead, a riot of wild vegetation climbed up buildings and telegraph poles, obscuring the welcoming road signs with their waving cartoon characters.  Now the roads were practically empty of cars, though our bus passed a few police vehicles and heavy diggers. Like the boarded-up schools, some of the empty shops and houses still had gardens where bright flowers fought for space against the creeping weeds.  In fields and lining the roadside we saw rows of bulging sacks, which local doctors told us were filled with contaminated topsoil and vegetation awaiting collection for disposal as radioactive waste.

Decontamination is a never-ending job here, as rain washes more radiation down from the hills and forests into ‘decontaminated’ fields and gardens.  Pink tape marked the boundary of a decontaminated area behind a health clinic we visited, but the doctors admitted this was relative.  In front of the clinic an electronic counter displayed current levels of radioactivity.

Measuring radiation levels outside a health clinic in Fukushima prefecture

For us, as temporary and middle-aged visitors, the radioactivity shouldn’t be a problem, as we took basic precautions.  But it’s not healthy for babies or families who have or want children.  The shocking implications of this became clear when we reached Kawauchi village. Around 12-15 miles south-west of the crippled nuclear power station, Kawauchi is closer than the abandoned villages we passed through earlier, which suffered heavier contamination as the wind at the time of the explosions and fires sent the main radiation plume towards the north-west.  We met the local mayor, Yuko Endo, who expressed his determination to keep the village alive.  He evaded questions about the nuclear power plant, but spoke of the evils of the evacuation, saying that 63 people from the area had died due to ‘evacuation stress’, and that the elderly suffered most as their communities were disrupted and they lost touch with their friends.

On the outskirts of Kawauchi we stopped at a beautiful farmhouse near a little duck pond next to rice and soybean fields. Things looked almost normal. But the 67 year-old farmer, Sonoko Akimoto, told us that the ducks were being used as a means to monitor the levels of contamination.  She and her husband had practically retired and handed over to the next generation, but after the nuclear power disaster their children and grandchildren had to be evacuated, so now they were alone and struggling to keep things going.  They had planted their crops this year in the knowledge that – like last year’s – they would have to be dug up, bagged up and treated as radioactive waste.  Maybe next year’s crops could be eaten, she said hopefully. But the clicking geiger counter warns of a bleaker future.

Sonoko Akimolo with contaminated soybeans on her family farm near Kawauchi

Kawauchi village spans the 20 km total exclusion zone, known locally as the ‘red zone’.  Rather than leave the area completely, some evacuees preferred to move a few miles into temporary housing built in and around Kawauchi.  Some had worked at the power plant and are now employed on various decontamination projects.  One woman dabbed at tears as she showed us round a tiny anonymous room in her evacuation hut and spoke of her beloved home near the sea where she had lived with her son and his family.  To protect his children, her son had moved to Tokyo and was now living with relatives. She stayed in response to the mayor’s call to keep the community alive, but misses her family dreadfully.  Her final, sad question continues to haunt me: “How can we keep this village going without any children or young people?”

Thousands more people died in the towns flattened by the March 2011 tsunami along Japan’s North-Eastern coast, but where as these are now ringing to the sounds of active rebuilding and the laughter of children, the villages of Fukushima are quietly slipping into long term depression.  Local doctors say there are few signs of illness directly attributable to the outpourings of radioactivity, but confirm raised levels of suicides and health problems due to disruption and stress.

Since March 2011, Japan has significantly cut its energy consumption, increased investments in sustainable energy and subsidised micro-production. In my two weeks in Japan the consequences were immediately visible, as solar panels grace more houses and small businesses than before, and many villages and factories are building wind turbines to provide for their local needs. Citizens groups are organising the largest anti-nuclear demonstrations in decades, marshalling tens of thousands in Tokyo every week against the planned re-start of any of the nuclear power plants that had been shut down.  Yet, for the contaminated zones in the Fukushima area it appears that ‘out of sight’ means ‘out of mind’.

Bales of contaminated crops awaiting disposal as radioactive waste.

Having seen how these communities are being slowly suffocated, I look again at the area around the new nuclear power plant that EDF Energy (Electricité de France) plans to build at Hinkley Point, with generous subsidies from the UK government.   Bridgwater and the M5 motorway are less than 10 miles from Hinkley, so would be well within any total exclusion zone if Hinkley C were to be built and suffer a nuclear accident.  Depending on wind direction for a radioactive plume, Cardiff, Taunton and Bristol are close enough to be turned into ghost towns bereft of children and women of child-bearing age.  Think about it.

When the Fukushima nuclear reactors were built, there was some local opposition – pointing out the dangers of radiation, earthquakes and tsunami.  But most people supported the construction, which brought jobs to an area dependent on farming and fishing.  They were happy to believe that the Japanese nuclear industry was the safest and best managed in the world. They were assured that the reactors would be earthquake proof.  The government provided subsidies and local politicians rallied support, ignoring the few dissenters who warned of potential catastrophe.

Now the same thing is happening here, with far less excuse. Britain doesn’t have significant earthquakes or tsunami, but that isn’t the point.  We do have accidents, terrorist attacks and sometimes even hurricanes.  Any of these could precipitate a ‘perfect storm’ scenario in which a power plant’s cooling system and its ‘fail-safe’ back-ups were destroyed, leading to radiation releases from the exposure of reactor fuel or a meltdown.  Climate change is undoubtedly a major security threat, but it can’t be solved with the 20th century’s catastrophic nuclear technologies.

Japan, an industrialised island nation with twice Britain’s population, has been shocked into radically altering its energy policies. It plans to reduce reliance on both nuclear and fossil fuels, conserving through reduced consumption and shifting from centralised production towards greater micro-generation and sustainable solar, wind and tidal energy production.

Far from justifying nuclear power, climate chaos makes the rush to nuclear even crazier.  Sea level rises and increases in extreme weather will exacerbate nuclear risks, not least because most power plants are built close to seas and rivers due to their insatiable need for cooling water.  EDF’s design for Hinkley C is neither tried nor tested.  The nuclear industry is trying to revive itself at our expense, though it has still not solved the problems of decommissioning and radioactive waste disposal from 50 years of nuclear power operations.

We may not be able to do much to help the stricken communities near Fukushima. But we could help ourselves to avoid such a calamity occurring here.  The demonstrations at Bridgwater and Hinkley on October 6-8 give us an opportunity to show that we, like Japan, are learning the lessons of Fukushima.