What does Fukushima mean?

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  • Published 20120306
  • ISBN: 9781921922008
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

‘Harrisburg, oh Harrisburg, the plant is meltin’ down,

the people out in Harrisburg are gettin’ out of town.

But when the stuff gets in, you cannot get it out.’

Harrisburg, Midnight Oil


‘If you walk across this country, you’ll find fifty-four nuclear reactors

School books and commercials told us they were safe…

It was always a lie, it’s been exposed after all

It was really a lie that nuclear power is safe.’

It was always a lie, Kazuyoshi Saito


I HAD PLANNED to go to Tokyo in March last year but decided to postpone my trip. At 2.46 pm on 11 March, the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake (Tôhoku Chihô Taiheiyô Okijishin or Dai Shin Sai) ripped the two tectonic plates off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture in the north-east. It was the largest ever recorded on the archipelago. The movement produced a tsunami of approximately fourteen metres which rolled over the coastline of Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures. A few hours later the government announced a nuclear emergency and implemented an evacuation radius of up to thirty kilometres from the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant. Roughly 470,000 residents were evacuated from the nearby city of Fukushima; more than two million people, including 271,000 children, remained. The locals have faced multiple problems: the loss of tens of thousands of lives, homelessness, salinated land, power and water outages, ruined businesses, unemployment and the sizeable cost of reconstruction.

While the Japanese are historically acquainted with large-scale natural disasters in the form of tsunami, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and fires, this one prompted Emperor Akihito to address the nation, the first royal address since his father Hirohito had announced Japan’s surrender in 1945. On both occasions, the message was to endure the significant hardship that was to follow. While Hirohito referred to the coming US Occupation, Akihito alluded not only to the grief and massive clean-up efforts, but to the ‘level 7’ emergency, on par with the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. While the exclusion zone limit mirrored that of Chernobyl, unlike that accident, the plant at Fukushima suffered multiple meltdowns, the full damage of which is yet to be fully ascertained.

Stories of tragedy, heroism, resilience and recovery filled the daily news in the weeks and months afterwards. Some told of being chased up hills by a wall of black water as relatives and friends were picked up and swept away one by one. Others told of the miraculous survival of new-born babies and the elderly while trapped in the rubble for prolonged periods. One local from the area responded in poetry:

The stars were amazingly beautiful, but I saw fire burning red beneath the black sky in the east. It was silent, but we could hear explosions somewhere, and the smell of burning was in the air.[i]

The Fukushima meltdowns have long been in gestation and were finally born from a movement of ocean and earth. Not so much an historical caesura as its ‘3/11’ naming suggests, Fukushima is a re-telling of an old story, only in capitals.

A necklace of fifty-four reactors gathered in clusters steadily accumulated since 1957 now ring the coastline of this narrow archipelago. Most of these reactors were stalled as the earth continued to shake for weeks after the initial earthquake. As radioactive smoke spewed from Fukushima 1, so did a backlog of stories of cover-ups of accidents, structural problems and insufficient safety measures that have plagued the ageing reactors over the years. The uneasy situation of so many reactors filled with nuclear fuel and waste balanced atop unpredictably volatile volcanic islands has long been obvious; the emission of irradiated pollution is now driving this home. The events have exposed the pillars upon which the edifice of new Japan has been built. Ironically, deep cracks have been rent in this structure by the very technology Japan relied upon for its post-war status and influence.

Surrounded by stories of ‘sagging confidence’, Japan’s sovereign debt downgrade last August signalled a serious warning to advanced economies about the euphoric dreams of nuclear power. Anticipating a deflating balloon, Germany, Switzerland and Italy have already begun to wean themselves from their current or future nuclear power plans. Yet in Japan, the disaster has set off a struggle between the economic priorities of the corporate-state and the social needs of the community.

Overwhelming international support for Japan’s recovery has shown the degree to which other economies are invested in its success. It is not coincidental that heads of state from France and Australia were the first to visit Japan, Julia Gillard claiming the title of first to the disaster zone where she posed for international news cameras. Restoring Japan’s brand as a credible state and lucrative market is also considered to be an important counterpoint to Chinese growth and influence.

Yet radioactive contamination layered over the destruction from the tsunami and earthquakes has caused serious problems for people living in the affected areas, the utility TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and local and federal governments. Large amounts of super-fine radioactive particulate are now deposited in the air, ocean, fish, soil, plants, livestock, the water table and in the bodies of the public who have consumed any of the above in their various forms. The passages of contaminated material do not obey the neat concentric lines used to demarcate radiation zones. Soon after the tsunami, high radioactive readings were detected in tea plants in Shizuoka, nearly four hundred kilometres away. Some land is considered permanently uninhabitable.

As the tourist population halved over the following months and nineteen countries banned importing produce from the area, a narrative calling for hope, unity and strength has been aimed at bolstering short-term confidence. Images of TEPCO workers and subcontractors performing Herculean tasks filled people’s TV screens. Politicians smiled as they consumed local produce in devastated areas. Sports-players and celebrities showed their fighting spirit in publicity campaigns dedicated to the people of Fukushima (Ganbare Nippon!). Meanwhile, Geiger counter and dosimeter stocks, once exhausted, were not replenished. Panicky behaviour such as hoarding (iodine, bottled water), boycotting produce from affected areas (beef, fish, spinach, milk, seaweed, mushrooms, tea, bamboo, tea, plums), purchasing products from Korea or China, or ‘running away’ was scorned.

To reassure public confidence and minimise panic, TEPCO and government officials repeatedly assured that there was ‘no immediate effect on the health of babies’. Knowing that the epidemiology of nuclear radiation is notoriously difficult to prove, some academics have denied the ill-effects of radiation in toto, a few even declaring that plutonium can be a health tonic (‘nuclear hormesis’).

The data and its interpretations were drip-fed to the public, while at the same time the government raised the legal limits of radiation exposure for civilians and workers.[ii]Anticipating possible bankruptcy, the new limits placed the onus of responsibility upon the individual for relocating from outside the exclusion zones; residents from non-designated areas who suffer radiation sickness in the future would not be compensated. Despite the fact that radioactive particulate has dispersed unevenly, the refusal to distribute advanced measuring technology such as semi-conductor imaging in local areas suggested that TEPCO and government officials have been aware of the clear and present danger. Consider the recruitment of sixteen hundred untrained non-TEPCO workers for clean-up operations; reticence shown by neighbouring prefectural governments to house the accumulated contaminated waste; known dangers of low-level internalised radiation from living near nuclear plants; and continuing stigmatisation of Fukushima émigrés. For the local inhabitant of affected zones, it has been a process of deciphering a noxious cocktail of conflicting information.

The confusion isin part due to the difficulty of measuring the location and amount of super-fine invisible particles now settled over and circulating through the lived environment. Accumulations of contaminated matter from Fukushima 1 are uneven and dependent upon variables in weather patterns, geography, hydrology and wind and ocean flows. As radioactivity is much higher in nuclear reactor fuel than in a nuclear bomb, the contamination is more severe. While it was initially reported by official scientists that only 14 per cent of the amount of radiation emitted from Chernobyl in 1986 was released into the air from Fukushima 1 between 11 and 16 March, more recently scientific reports from the US and Europe have arrived at a figure of 42 per cent of the Chernobyl amount, or 168.5 times that of a Hiroshima atomic bomb. Initial measurements were restricted to the air while neglecting soil and water contamination. Measurements of contaminated water discharged into the ocean off Fukushima have yet to be finalised, although images have now shown projected flows. Thermal calculations by an independent agency at Tokyo University have shown radioactivity to be the equivalent of twenty Hiroshima bombs.

The degree of internal exposure is also case specific. Variables in DNA, age, vulnerability and uneven ‘hot spots’ mean that not all people in a delineated area share the same risk. While prolonged exposure causes leukaemia and other forms of cancer, these can take between five and sixty years to manifest – the ‘creeping effect’ of mutation. An initial hit by radiation breaks open P53 DNA strands as the imbibed isotope decays. With rapidly dividing cells, foetuses and children are more susceptible because they proliferate damaged cells more quickly. Hair, blood and intestinal cells in adults are vulnerable for the same reason. While caesium and iodine accumulate in the liver, thyroid and bladder, plutonium affects the lungs and strontium the bones and teeth. Studies on Chernobyl now released have shown that 6 becquerels per litre of caesium take twenty to thirty years to mutate before onset of cancer.[iii]Four months after exposure at Fukushima, two to thirteen bq/l of caesium have been found in breast milk.

Such factors leave the public and local communities vulnerable to misleading narratives. In May 2011, only one Geiger counter and twenty US military survey metres (with English manuals) existed in the contaminated Minami Sôma city. Children were mistakenly transported to schools with higher radiation levels (Minami Sôma city to Iitate), in spite of early warning reports to the Prime Ministers’ office. Due to a policy aimed at preventing childhood anxiety, in the warm summer months Fukushima students were instructed by teachers to play outside in dust with readings equal to annual radiation received by nuclear plant workers.[iv]Cattle owners across four prefectures fed contaminated hay to thousands of cattle without knowing that radioactive particles had been absorbed in the feed. The beef was sold and consumed nationally before bans were imposed. And although low readings were initially found in sea water, official sources did not mention that caesium takes half a year to peak in fish, and accumulates up to one hundred times that measured in air. By July, high readings of iodine-131 and caesium-137 appeared in marine life in four prefectures and caesium-134 in waters next to the Fukushima plant. Detailed measurements of strontium and plutonium are yet to be released. These are just some examples of how misleading conclusions can be arrived at from the neglect of what is an infinitely more detailed situation.


UNDER THESE CONDITIONS one can understand why many Japanese stopped following the daily flow of data across their screens. Yet some citizen’s groups, in contrast to a noted desire to perceive a cultural affinity for the ephemerality of life (mono no aware), chose not to wait for proof. In formidable community spirit, they have scoured surfaces inhabited by children ­– schools, nurseries, parks, households – and confronted their local governments with their urine samples. Many refugees now deprived of their livelihood and who are dependent on government are requesting compensation for their permanent forced relocation.

In a situation where ‘politics’ has come to mean a struggle for control over perception, some teachers who have been suppressed from communicating inconvenient information to students resigned. Anti-nuclear and environmental activists participated in public demonstrations (sixty thousand protesters gathered in Tokyo in September 2011). Housewives’ associations and mothers’ groups are monitoring their children’s health and work with crowd-sourced micro-data. New citizen bonds have formed across previously entrenched divides.

At the same time a transnational consortium of pro-nuclear governments, corporations, agencies, media and their legion of employees has also been organising. Aiming to capitalise on significant investment in a ‘nuclear renaissance’, a corporate-government-media nexus continues to propagate the inevitability of nuclear power. Citing survival (limited resources) and fatalism (necessary risk) on the one hand, and technical confidence and denial on the other, this consortium has adopted a cautious but determined approach to ‘re-starting’ the idling fleet of reactors and developing a line in smaller reactors for wider distribution on the international market.

As radioactive particles continue to shower the area, such ameliorations cannot conceal the paradox that an industry with such high financial and environmental costs continues to be portrayed as clean, safe and even cheap energy for civilian use.

Given that the neglect which led to the accident at Fukushima 1 is the largest in a string of accidents since the 1970s, and that it is estimated to take roughly thirty years from ‘cold shut down’ to extract and re-house the fuel rods from the destroyed reactors, we can say that this release of heavy metals into the atmosphere, earth and ocean is a significant environmental hazard and a warning of similar accidents in the future.

Yet instead of declaring a moratorium on nuclear power – and despite the options availed to it by its technical capacities to re-direct its energy generation – the national focus turned to mobilising public sentiment and downplaying dissent. Understanding why such (trans)national inflexibility stymies the political will necessary to re-direct Japan’s energy policies is complex. In consideration of the facts as they emerge, it is already evident that the ecology of local inhabitants and of those further afield is threatened by the decisions of those obliged and committed to the growth of the nuclear industry.

The 2011 summerin Tokyo was considerably hotter as TEPCO implemented its power-rationing program. Some argue that an adequate supply of electricity can already be provided by major non-nuclear utilities to meet Japan’s industrial and domestic demands; however TEPCO has a monopoly over electricity generated and distributed to the Tokyo metropolis.

There is also the motivation to retain the status attributed to nuclear nations. Capability to partake in the nuclear fuel cycle can grant a nation membership to an exclusive club. Vietnam for example, a relatively new member, has recently bought into Japanese nuclear reactor technology, and its appetite for uranium is growing.

One can also find answers in Japanese post-war history which shows how nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are two sides of the same coin. For roughly ten years after the atomic bombings of 1945, the Japanese public were denied knowledge of the scientific findings of the bombs’ aftereffects. To preserve the optimum conditions for scientific testing, a policy called ‘research without treatment’ was applied in which American and Japanese scientists conducting research in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the US-commissioned ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission) were prohibited from publicly sharing aid or findings on the medical effects of radiation.

When twenty-three Japanese fishermen on the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 vessel died from exposure to radioactive ash from a US thermo-nuclear test in waters near Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954, the public veil over radioactive effects was lifted. Popular anger at being poisoned and being lied to about it helped to spread the anti-nuclear movement.

Eager to maintain their strategic alliance during the Cold War, US agencies invested in local partners to counter the public ‘allergy’ to atomic energy. A young Harvard graduate and eventual Liberal Democratic Party leader, Nakasone Yasuhiro, had spotted an opportunity to appropriate President Eisenhower’s 1953 ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative and spruik it to the Diet in Japan. In 1954, with the assistance of US agencies, the daily Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon TV launched a media campaign to counter the budding anti-nuclear movement by promoting nuclear power as safe, clean, cost-effective and peaceful. Later that year the Diet made a significant commitment to nuclear power research and began importing technology from the US for a nuclear energy program.

In response the anti-nuclear movement mounted public demonstrations, initially Left-led, which grew into a mass student-led protest movement from 1960 and throughout the decade. Although the three non-nuclear principles announced by Prime Minister Satô Eisaku in 1967 (which became a Parliamentary resolution in 1971) seemed to appease the tension by prohibiting the possession, production or conveyance of nuclear weapons in Japanese territory, ‘secret treaties’ with the US in 1960 and again in 1969 continued to allow nuclear weapons to be kept and transported through American bases in Japan.[v]

By the time the land had been bought and the technology was ready for installation in the early 1970s, Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s program for large-scale rural industrialisation – which included the installation of the General Electric Mark 1 reactors at Fukushima 1, on the ceilings of which are stored cooling ponds of intensely radioactive waste – relied on making offers that local governments and land owners found difficult to refuse. In exchange for agreeing to nuclear installations and waste storage on their land, locals received lucrative employment contracts and investment in public works programs. This sort of totalised nuclear program suggests how most levels of power become complicit in a systemic program, while citizens’ interests are reduced to the lowest priority.

Since the 1970sscientists have known that rates of cancer are higher in habitats downwind from nuclear reactors. Studies of contamination from ruptures at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima – combined with knowledge from decades of nuclear testing – confirm the environmental danger from high radioactivity leached from spent fuel in cooling pools. Once cooled, this waste must be stored above ground for three hundred years before it is entombed in large underground holdings, at enormous cost and heightened risk. Yet the continuing tendency to smooth over inconvenient realities has benefited from thirty years of rehearsal in Japan’s ‘nuclear power village’.

As those campaigners who have not been bought argue, the underlying conflict remains the same. Despite the obvious options in more sustainable, less costly or risky energies, the media-corporate-state nexus will narrate recovery and resilience, citing economic priorities, security and low carbon emissions of nuclear energy, while consolidating on their investments.

The nuclear industry’s attempts to control access to information is forcing non- resigned citizens to realise that their health and safety are not as much of a priority as they may have once thought. This drives them to become more fluent in the various mediations with which they are blandished. In Japan we are seeing independent and cooperative research to protect the inalienable public right to clean water, food and habitus. As cases of cancer, mutagenic deformations and dead zones appear over the next twenty years in Japan, the meltdowns at Fukushima 1 must be seen as signifying a warning and a limit-point for the nuclear corporate-state, if we are to progress towards a more sustainable existence.


FROM A BROADLY philosophical perspective, in a Cartesian divide between earth and human worlds, in which stages of evolution demonstrate a development toward the latter, is a story told in parallel with the cultivation of man-made industries. It is often opined that our enhanced capacity to instrumentalise through a detached objectification of nature has made it possible to sustain this ascension. Without these endeavours (for which we must all be thankful) we are told that we would not have achieved our remarkable human achievements beginning with our trip to the moon. Rather than revisit the hackneyed arguments which reduce to an either/or between technology and nature, the responses by heads of state and their consorts to the 3/11 disaster (and comparative lack thereof to the meltdowns) indicate the degree to which the scales of value are out of balance. While we may perceive the historical process by which this view has taken shape, through displacement from land and de-habituation in autonomous life practices, our perception of and responsibility to ourselves and the earth has been impoverished.

In driving towards ever-greater heights measured in unitary value, we deny our inextricable need for not just inhabitable but flourishing ecology as the bedrock of our stability. Regarding the ecological quality as a mirror of our condition is to reach across the relatively fresh cleavage between human and nature, and re-suture ourselves to an all-enveloping natural living subject.

In our hubris, we perceive our occupation and expropriation of ‘territory’ and ‘resources’ as unquestionably logical. The rapid privatisation of the planetary commons and concomitant breakdown of core rights is a problem of global proportions. No matter how much the commons are exploited and exhausted, our indivisible existence within it reflects our delusionary proclivity to perceive ourselves as otherwise. It is critical to adjust our scale and spectrum of value before our slow despoliation of the environment makes it more hostile to our presence.

Not unlike a cancer, global capitalism is a system that vigorously proliferates and imprints its ideals and attributes upon the host planet and everything in it. At its zenith it facilitates great human feats of construction, ingenuity, sophistication and beauty. At its nadir it produces eternally uninhabitable dead zones. The present situation in Japan demonstrates that decision-makers in advanced corporate-states are less able to control its fluctuations, nor to accurately diagnose when its systems are malfunctioning.

In this blip in planetary history which we seem to be calling the ‘anthropocene’, since the Trinity tests in the Nevada desert, through the detonations, spills, leaks and ruptures until Fukushima, a geological script will be legible for thousands of years to come. Ironically, such permanence is antithetical to the capitalist dynamic, which prefers desire, immediacy, transformation and waste production.

As with the concept of economic growth, the costly production of permanent nuclear by-product is fraught with paradox. Despite the sanitised depictions of a clean, cheap and safe energy, the Fukushima meltdowns demonstrate the real outcomes of nuclear energy: exorbitant costs in extraction and production; vast tracts of land rendered unfit for habitation; irrevocable alteration of febrile ecological structures including our own; spatio-temporal consumption. On our anthropocentric balance sheet, short-term returns are far less than long term costs. Our ability to prefer ephemeral status and power for tiny groups of individuals while ignoring actual and sustained value, breathtaking in its idiocy, is the dysfunctional kernel from which this dystopian Hydra grows.

If we are to see a level of change required to stem the deterioration of our lived habitus, it is obvious and evident that a significant shift to renewable energy systems must take place. Neither fossil nor uranium-based fuels are tenable from this perspective. The effects of the meltdowns at Fukushima 1 are just one more reason for taking steps away from the nuclear apparatus and its short and narrow view of the world, and towards a longer and broader, even more realistic understanding of the nature of things.


[i]Mayu Yoshida, ‘Wartime story inspires newspaper’, 7 May 2011, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20110507f2.html

[ii]Decided at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) convention, 25 April, 2011. Additionally, it was decided that workers who exceed radiation exposure of 100 millisieverts should not engage in operations that would expose them to further radiation for the remaining years of the five-year period.

[iii]Dr Shoji Fukushima at the Japan Bioassay Research Centre studies the health effects of chemical compounds, and diseases involving the urinary tract since the Chernobyl accident. Dr Fukushima and doctors in the Ukraine studied bladders removed from five hundred cases of prostatic hypertrophy. http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/07/part-2-professor-tatsuhiko-kodama-of.html

[iv]Concerned that their children may develop mental problems after taking minimal safety measures to play outside, the Network to Protect Fukushima Children from Radiation organised seven hundred parents to demand Education Minister Yoshiaki Takaki to evacuate children from the prefecture.

[v]This was expanded to a Four Pillars Nuclear Policy permitting nuclear power for peaceful purposes, promoting global nuclear disarmament and relying upon US deterrence. More recently, this has been under review by legislators who argue for nuclear weapons for national defence capability.

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About the author

Adam Broinowski

Adam Broinowski is a writer and theatre-maker.He has a doctorate in modern Japanese history and aesthetics from the Centre for Ideas and School of...

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