September 16, 2012

Opinion – Dave Sweeney, Sunday orning Herald

Our uranium fuelled Fukushima; it can’t be business as usual.


THE signs that things are not as they should be start gently enough:
weeds appear in fields, the roadside vegetation covers signs and there
are few people about. The country looks peaceful, green and sleepy –
then the radiation monitor two seats away wakes up and starts

I am on a bus heading along a narrow and winding road towards the
Fukushima exclusion zone. The trip has been organised by a Japanese
medical group and my fellow travellers are doctors, academics and
radiation health specialists from around the world. They have come to
see and hear the story behind the headlines and to bring their
considerable expertise to support the continuing relief and response

In March last year, the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima
Daiichi reactor complex was shattered by the earthquake and tsunami
that tore through Japan’s east coast. The world held its breath as
images of emergency workers in radiation suits, bewildered and fearful
locals, and grainy aerial footage of an increasingly vulnerable
reactor dominated our screens and newspapers, and while the headlines
might have faded, the radiation, dislocation and complexity has not.

Fukushima means ”fortunate island” but the region’s luck melted down
alongside the reactor.

Last September, a United Nations special report detailed some of the
impacts: ”hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage”,
”serious radioactive contamination of water, agriculture, fisheries”
and ”grave stress and mental trauma”.

To this day, about 150,000 people cannot return to their homes. Lives
have been utterly disrupted and Fukushima remains a profound
environmental and social tragedy.

A grandmother who was moved away from the exclusion zone hosts us in
her new home. The clusters of caravan-park style cabins are a long way
from her former village life. Her eyes light up and her years drop
down when she speaks of her three grandchildren and the three
great-grandchildren due later this year. But then she is asked how
often she sees them and the light fades. The interpreter stumbles, the
room falls silent and we all look down and feel sad and strangely

A doctor at a nearby medical centre tells of how more than 6000
doctors, nurses and patients were relocated there from the adjacent
exclusion zone. The hill behind is criss-crossed with red tape that
marks the progress of decontamination work.

When asked by a German doctor, the doctor confirms that while they now
have iodine tablets in the hospital, they weren’t equipped with them
when the disaster struck. ”Then it was too late,” she says. ”Yes,”
he confirms, ”then it was too late.”

We visit a local organic farmer – one of the first in the area to have
bravely returned to his land. Beside the farmer’s house is a cedar
tree that is 1200 years old. His ancestors had the honour of supplying
rice to the Shogun feudal lords – now the rice from those same fields
is radioactive. I sit by a pond in his rice paddy as he explains his
hope that if the ducks eat enough worms and grubs they might remove
the radiation from his soil. No one has the heart to contradict him.

On deserted roads we pass skeletal abandoned greenhouses, increasingly
wild fields, empty houses and rotting sheds. Long dormant vehicles
have grass in the wheel arches and the landscape is dotted with
recently removed contaminated soil wrapped like round hay bales in
blue plastic. Traffic cones and stern signage to deter looting block
the smaller side roads, and police and relocated residents share
patrols to keep thieves away.

But the biggest thief is invisible. Radiation has robbed this region
of much of its past, present and future. Radiation hits hardest at
growing cells and many parents are understandably concerned and have
moved. The old remain and in the absence of the young their years

The manager of the local store shows us sophisticated point-of-sale
radiation monitoring equipment and warns us against eating wild

A doctor speaks of the lack of community confidence in the official
radiation data and declares that another nuclear accident would be
”the ruin of Japan”, and all the while the radiation monitor on the
bus keeps clicking.

And each click counts the decay of a piece of rock dug up in
Australia. In October 2011, a formal Australian government statement
confirmed ”that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the
Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors”.

Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima. Australian uranium is now
radioactive fallout that is contaminating Japan and beyond and the
response of the Australian government and the Australian uranium
producers and their industry association has been profoundly and
shamefully deficient.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks of business as usual, Resources
Minister Martin Ferguson talks of the ”unfortunate incident” and the
more bullish of the uranium miners have called the crisis a
”sideshow”. There can be no atomic business as usual in the shadow
of Fukushima. The nuclear debate is live in Japan and now needs to
come alive in Australia. We need a genuine assessment of the costs and
consequences of our uranium trade. To fail to learn from this tragedy
is deeply disrespectful and increases the chance of Australian uranium
fuelling future Fukushimas.

■Dave Sweeney is nuclear-free campaigner for the Australian
Conservation Foundation.