Fukushima's Invisible Crisis

Don’t expect coverage of Japan's nuclear power disaster on the evening news: unlike other environmental catastrophes, Fukushima’s ongoing crisis offers little to film.

On July 22, one day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party won control of Japan's upper house of Parliament, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revealed that contaminated groundwater from its Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was leaking into the Pacific Ocean. The head of the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative, Hiroyuki Sato, complained to the local paper, Fukushima Minpo, "TEPCO is saying that the pollution will stay inside the harbor, but the harbor is connected to the ocean, and the tide flows in and out. You can't say there won't be any impact. We want them to take action immediately." The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations called the handling of the disclosure "a betrayal of the fishing industry and of the citizens of Japan."

More than two years after the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima plant is still in crisis. TEPCO still has no sufficient explanation for when the leaks began or why it waited until after the election to reveal them. Its assurances that the contamination is staying within the seawalls of the harbor are less convincing after weeks of assurances that there was no leak at all. The government has estimated that at least 300 tons of contaminated water are being released per day. TEPCO officials would not confirm the estimate.

This disclosure is only the latest in a series of well-documented problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant: a power outage, the release of radioactive steam and the limited space to store the contaminated water (320,000 tons to date, with plans to build more tanks to hold up to 700,000 tons of radioactive water by 2015). The cycle is now familiar: first denials and delays, then admissions and apologies from TEPCO officials. In retrospect, the December 2011 declaration of the stable cold shutdown of the reactors has the ring of George W. Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech in the early stages of the Iraq War.

Dale Klein, a former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission invited to serve on TEPCO's outside advisory committee, reacted to the latest revelation by excoriating the company's executives: "These actions indicate that you don't know what you are doing, and that you do not have a plan, and that you are not doing all you can to protect the environment and the people." The editorial board of the major daily Asahi Shimbun declared it had "zero faith" in the "incompetent" utility, adding that "allowing the company to handle nuclear energy is simply out of the question."

Earlier in the month, TEPCO joined Japan's other power companies in moving to restart their nuclear reactors, which had been shut down by government order for safety inspection after the Fukushima disaster. And though the latest polls still show the majority of the public supports phasing out nuclear power, the Liberal Democratic Party's victory in the July elections makes that increasingly unlikely. This summer the party's chief of policy, Sanae Takaichi, argued for a restart of the country's reactors on the grounds that no one had died because of the accident, a claim that outraged those who blame the death of family members on the evacuations caused by the disaster. In the meantime, Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet ministers have been actively promoting the sale of nuclear power equipment abroad to countries such as Turkey, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Cordoned off inside the forbidden zone, the leaking plant has come to be a source of embarrassment and anxiety that is too easily ignored. Unlike other environmental catastrophes like BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima crisis offers little to film, and thus nothing much to lead with on the evening news, aside from pictures of press conferences and the grim face of TEPCO president Naomi Hirose, bowing in yet another apology. The coverage, despite the alarming numbers, seems to suggest there's nothing to see here. And so the story, when it gets reported, rarely gets the attention it deserves.

The paradox of radiation is that its invisibility makes it both easier to ignore and to fear. For some, the answer to Fukushima is to restart the country's other reactors and build newer and better nuclear power plants. For others, the danger seems to be everywhere, a slow buildup of harm measured by Geiger counters and cancer screenings. One reason for this discrepancy lies in the fundamental inequality of nuclear power: while the energy it yields is distributed widely, the greatest risk is local. The newspapers in Fukushima still carry the latest radiation readings alongside articles telling anxious parents whether it's safe to allow their children to swim during summer vacation. Those displaced too often feel that they have become invisible, inconvenient reminders of the country's unfinished reconstruction and of a debate over energy cut short. But even if those of us farther away have less to fear, it's a crisis we can no longer afford to ignore.

One of the lessons of Fukushima is how difficult it is to distinguish between the feeling of security and the fact of it, between freedom from fear and freedom from danger. To feel secure requires an act of faith, faith in infrastructure, in government oversight, faith that what you cannot see will not hurt you. It may be too late to have faith in TEPCO. The effect of Prime Minister Abe's declaration that his government will take on a greater role in the crisis remains to be seen. Freedom from danger is never guaranteed by the assurances of those in power. When there are accidents, as there inevitably are, it's up to the people to demand that a full and transparent accounting have consequences. And that may mean giving up our freedom from fear.

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