Five years on and the Fukushima crisis is far from over

122962_210629Scotland is over 9,000 km from Japan, but there’s something the two countries have in common. Along the Scottish coastline, buried in riverbeds, and mixed into the Irish Sea, you can find significant radioactive contamination coming from the other side of the world. Yes, radioactive contamination. All the way from Japan.

Since the 1970s, Sellafield, a nuclear-reprocessing plant in northwest England has been contracted to process high level nuclear waste spent fuel from Japanese reactors. More than 4000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel was shipped from Japan to Sellafield, including waste from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As result of reprocessing at Sellafield, more than 8 million litres of low level nuclear waste is discharged into the ocean every day. It’s been labelled the “most hazardous place in Europe” – with levels of contamination in the fields, soils and estuaries at a level that can only be described as a nuclear disaster zone. In fact, the Irish Sea is arguably the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world.

I remember waking up to the news on March 11, 2011. Though I was at home in Scotland, I’ve never felt so connected to the people of Japan. Having spent decades with Greenpeace actively campaigning against nuclear power in Japan, I knew deep down that a catastrophic accident was only a matter of time. With media requests coming in thick and fast, I recall appearing on BBC World News live. In mid-interview, as I was talking about the specific threat at Fukushima, I was interrupted as the news crossed to Japan where Reactor 3 exploded.

122960_210633Greenpeace Japan sent a team to the Fukushima evacuation zone to conduct independent radiation testing; and researchers on the Rainbow Warrior, kitted up in full body chemical suits, pulled floating seaweed from the surrounding area to use as samples. Our results were unfortunately as you would expect – high levels of contamination. Subsequently, we’ve also found radiation is still so widespread that it’s unsafe for people to return across large parts of Fukushima.

Nearly five years later and I’m in Japan on-board the Rainbow Warrior – this time with the famously anti-nuclear former Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Naoto Kan. It’s truly an honour and privilege to hear him describe the first hours and days of the accident in March 2011, as well as show him the research that we are carrying out. As we sailed within 2km of the nuclear plant the feelings are both profound and surreal. From the deck we’ve seen steel tanks holding hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated water; the four reactors now shielded behind temporary structures in an effort to contain some of the radioactive material from being released into the atmosphere; and inside the reactors themselves lie hundreds of tons of molten reactor fuel for which there are no credible plans to deal with.

But there’s another reason the Rainbow Warrior is here. A Greenpeace Japan research vessel is conducting underwater marine radiation surveys within a 20km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, with the Rainbow Warrior acting as campaign ship. As with the radioactive contamination near my home in Scotland, Greenpeace is aiming to further the understanding of the impacts and future threats from nuclear power and in particular the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

122957_210639For Mr Naoto Kan, who was Japan’s leader when the disaster hit, this voyage is as much personal as it is political. In the years since 2011 he has spoken out publicly against the nuclear industry, standing alongside millions of Japanese people opposed to nuclear power – a far cry from the current “tone-deaf” Abe administration, which is desperately trying to save a nuclear industry in crisis. Opposed by the majority of citizens, and beset by enormous technical, financial and legal obstacles, it’s an effort that I believe is doomed to failure.

But there’s hope.

Like the many communities across the country that are switching to innovative renewable power projects, Mr Kan knows that nuclear should be buried in the past. Renewables in Japan are rising. In the 2015 fiscal year, solar power capable of generating an estimated 13 TWh was newly installed – more than the two Sendai reactors in southern Japan that were restarted that year can produce.

For Japan to go 100% renewable it must urgently formulate more ambitious targets; stop all planned investments in new coal power plants and finally abandon plans to restart its ageing reactors and remove the institutional and financial obstacles to renewable energy growth.

A nuclear free future is not only possible it is essential. Renewable energy is the only safe and secure energy for the people of Japan and the world. .

Shaun Burnie is a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany.

Comments (8)

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  1. bringiton says:

    In the minds of the post imperial British establishment,a “little” contamination of the Irish Sea is a price worth paying in order to allow them to continue manufacturing nuclear weapons.
    That is what it has always been about.
    They are prepared to pour millions of tax payers money into subsidising more nuclear power stations because that allows the continuation of the myth of British military supremacy under the cover of energy security blah blah blah.
    It is only a matter of time before the Tories tell Cumbria that,whether they like it or not,they will have to put up with a long term High Active storage facility on their doorstep,or rather under their doorstep.
    There is and probably never was an economic case for nuclear power,given the astronomic costs of site clean up and long term secure storage of waste and this is particularly true now that renewables are becoming cheaper and more reliable.
    The Tories who don’t want windmills in their backyard should be offered the alternative of long term HA waste storage and given a choice of which they prefer.
    Westminster will never allow that debate to happen because they need to continue producing bombs for their expensive Trident system etc etc.

  2. willie says:

    The long term storage of high level waste is problematic. Indeed, given the timescale of toxicity, many conclude that there is no justification whatsoever for producing such waste in the first place. It is therefore no accident that like Trident waste storage and reprocessing is located up north in places like Sellafield. And we all know too why in the 60s the fast breeder was located in Dounrey. One solution however to the waste problem would be to inter the waste in London where much of the geological strata is composed of clays. As a medium for long term storage clay is self sealing in the event of seismic activity. Moreover storing material in a location where it is literally under the feet of millions would ensure that there is no out of sight, put of mind, in someone else’s backyard sentiment. It would in the current buzz phrase give London ” ownership “. Accordingly, if London wants nuclear power, then I can think of no better place where they can store the waste. Safe and secure for tens of thousands of years they know it makes sense.

  3. Mitchie says:

    yeah imagine building a nuclear reactor on a major geological fault line. Idiots.

  4. willie says:

    In May 2013 some two years after the Fukushima disaster a reactor at Dungeness B in Kent was quietly shut down for five months due to the Office of the Nuclear Regulator identifying the risk that the shingle sea wall flood defence was inadequate. And so, triggered by the events in Fukushima a nuclear power plant in the desnsely populated south east of England had to be shut down. And so when you need to shut down something like 550 megawatt of capacity down at a cost of around £100 million to beef up a sea wall, it brings into perspective the real possibility that London could have sustained a Fukushima event.

  5. willie says:

    And of further concern should be the concern that it was only in 2000 that Dungeness B had emergency back up control systems installed that would come into play in the event of power outages. Systems such as an Emergency Overlay System that would allow emergency control had not hitherto been built in. Of course, if the sea defence wall was inadequate, which it was recognised to be in 2013 then the upgrade wouldn’t have made any difference. As Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Windscale show, it’s only a matter of time.

  6. ramstam says:

    As a wee laddie at the schuil the teacher thocht the at that time experimental Dounreay nuclear plant wis sited weel awa frae London as naebody cuid guarantee that it wad be safe.
    Maist nuclear power stations are built on the coast for disposal o whit they cry ‘low level’ waste.
    If we dinna invest in renewables thair is nae secure future for energy supplies. Nuclear winna staun the test o time.
    Lang efter this dirty industry haes been consigned tae history oor descendants will yit be peyin for the clean-up.

  7. sheena mccreary says:

    Irish Sea most radioactive in the world. Depleted uranium shells dumped in the Solway Firth. Dounreay clean up will cost four and a half billion over sixty years.
    Apparently the best place to store nuclear waste (according to French experts) is the chalky deposits under Oxford…
    No2Nuclear Power has an interesting summary of the History of Nuclear Waste Disposal Proposals in Britain. It’s encouraging to see how people power can work.
    All that’s left now is to try cash incentives.
    A cynic might imagine that the long term strategy is to impoverish people, making them so desperate, they’ll accept nuclear waste if financial recompense is provided. I’m sure that’s not the case.

  8. handofkwll says:

    Usual range of anti-nuclear comments on here. The article itself I find extremely unbalanced but what else should I expect from a representative of Greenpeace (the effect of whose anti-nuclear stance has been to cripple nuclear research in the UK to such an extent that we don’t seem able to build a nuclear power station ourselves anymore) in Germany (a country which for some reason has an almost hysterical reaction to anything nuclear, unlike France the country next door).

    If you want to hear what is actually happening at Fukushima then I’d suggest looking at The site is run by an admitted supporter of nuclear power but he links to the sources he comments on so that the reader can at least judge for themselves what is happening. He also has the stories of most of the serious nuclear accidents so far, in detail. You can read what happened, what the authorities did, what the public were told. If you want to know how nuclear plants work, what the affect of the accidents has been, etc., then I have found no better site. Certainly more informative and balanced than Greenpeace, which I used to support.

    I do support renewables and energy conservation, which sensible person would not? In the future with advances in energy storage these may be all we need. However, for the time being I think we should keep looking at nuclear power, with a science based approach. In my opinion, Greenpeace pump out propaganda not science.

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