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Life Under the Radioactive Cloud

by LINDA PENTZ GUNTHER

Mothers in Fukushima, Japan, worry that the food and milk that they must feed daily to their infants and children may one day kill them. Is that a fear that an American parent can even begin to fathom? That because of the secrecy, the intransigence and, ultimately, the criminality of your own government, you might be unwillingly killing your own children by feeding them produce contaminated with radioactive fallout? And yet, that is life in Fukushima Prefecture today.

You are a grandmother whose grandchildren can never visit you. You are a farmer whose crops are too contaminated to sell. You are a teacher who must tell children to jump into the school swimming pool’s cesium-laced waters. You are suffering ailments not unlike those found among populations exposed to the Chernobyl fallout. And whether your sufferings are physical or mental they are all equally real and equally serious and they are all caused, one way or the other, by the devastating nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi that, far from being over, could actually get worse. Much worse.

Would Americans live like this every day and accept it? It would be better never to learn the answer. Shutting down, rather than prolonging the life of US reactors, is the prudent choice that is, of course, not being made by the US government. More shockingly perhaps, given the level of suffering in the country, it’s a choice the Japanese government won’t make either. Instead, it is poised to re-start two of its 50 still operable reactors this weekend. Why?

Japanese reactors must be re-started to “preserve quality of life.” Yes, that’s actually what Prime Minister Noda said on June 8, just one day after a passionate protest and “die-in” by 70 Japanese women who feel that “quality of life” does not include breathing radioactive air; consuming radioactively contaminated food and water; exposing their children to radiation levels meant for nuclear workers; and abandoning their Fukushima homes and farms forever.

Noda has authorized the re-start of the two Ohi reactors in Fukui prefecture. The actual re-start is expected on June 15. Yet more than 70 percent of respondents to a Mainichi newspaper poll oppose the re-start. Public opinion in Japan has swung dramatically against continued reliance on nuclear energy – 70 percent, according to a November poll by national public broadcaster NHK, want to eliminate or reduce reliance on atomic energy. Yet the Noda government is turning a deaf ear to all of it.

Lessons learned from Fukushima? None, apparently. The same can be said of the US government who will not even authorize a temporary shutdown of the 23 GE Mark I Boiling Water reactors operating in the US – and identical to those at Fukushima Daiichi – to determine their vulnerability to a Fukushima-style disaster.

It’s easy to explain, of course. The White House has deep ties to the nuclear industry, beginning with Exelon, based in President Obama’s home town of Chicago, and created by his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now that city’s mayor. Obama right-hand man, David Axelrod, a former senior advisor and now communications director for Obama’s re-election campaign, lobbied for Exelon. The list goes on. Capitol Hill is dominated and controlled by the nuclear lobby, with a very small handful of exceptions.

In Japan, the government, high-flown scientific academics (a panel of which helped greenlight the Ohi restart), the nuclear industry and the corporate media have held tightly onto the reins of power for decades. An authoritarian culture of obedience has muffled public dissent. But not any more.

On the day of the June 7 die-in, ten women from Fukushima spoke before officials from Noda’s cabinet. Each began politely, solemnly, some choking back tears. But gradually, as emotions welled, their voices grew louder, their messages more urgent. Who could fail to be moved? The Noda government. It’s “turn ‘em on” announcement came the very next day.

It is impossible to put the case against a nuclear re-start in Japan more eloquently than those 10 women from Fukushima. Here are a few of their remarks:

“I wanted to raise my children with the safest possible meals, so I started organic farming. But all my paddies and fields have been contaminated. Every day, every time I prepare a meal, I wonder if it’s OK to feed my children with vegetables at a certain becquerel level. I’m worried if they might affect my children in the future.

“Can you understand this feeling? How many times have you come to Fukushima? How much of that contaminated air have you breathed in? How many times has Mr. Noda come? How many hours has he spent there? We are there every day, and every time we see helicopters flying over us, we really fear that something might be wrong with the nuclear plant again. That’s how it is in Fukushima.”

“It’s a great agony to live in a contaminated area. I lost hope to live. But to tell everyone about this agony…now I’m trying to live for that purpose. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’m going through.”

“I have an only daughter. She had a baby in late January last year and then that accident occurred. We thought we had to flee and tried to figure out the way to do so in all the confusion. But in those early days in Fukushima, there was no gasoline, no public transportation. The bullet train had stopped. The airport had stopped its operation. There were no means for us to evacuate. So we were compelled to decide to be exposed to radiation at home for a while. . . My highest priority is to protect children. If you have money to spend on decontamination, please use it for evacuating children first.”

“Did anyone take the responsibility for TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi accident? Who did? I don’t think anyone did. When I heard Prime Minister Noda say ‘I will restart nuclear plants on my responsibility,’ I realized he is living in a different world! I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all!”

“. . .Worrying about my children occupies my mind, so I cannot listen to music. . . I’ve been tense, both mentally and physically. In late June last year, I started to suffer from various health problems one after another. The problems are exactly the same as those found in the villages around Chernobyl . . . We were already exposed to a critical amount of radiation when the levels were high. In addition, now we are forced to be exposed to radiation internally every day. That’s why restarting Ohi nuclear plant should never be allowed!”

“During the past year, women in Fukushima relearned everything. Everything since the beginning of human history. Relearned how foolish humans are. How we have always fought each other. How we dug out the worst thing, a thing called uranium, and how we started to use it. We have learned those things more than any scientists.”

“We are really living in fear. Please imagine. For example, you can’t dry your clothes outside. You can’t dry your futon outside. You can’t take a deep breath. I have grandchildren but I can’t let them come to Fukushima, to my city of Koriyama because the radiation levels are high. And in the meantime, swimming classes at school are starting soon. A lot of radioactive material has stuck to the walls of the swimming pool. Concrete walls. A little scrubbing won’t remove it. A lot of cesium has accumulated on the bottom floor of the pool.”

“Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, what are you looking at when you decide your policies? You’re NOT looking at us at all! You put economy first. You’re such a shallow prime minister who tries to restart Ohi with shallow words, ‘it’s safe.’ I can’t forgive you. You said, ‘The ultimate responsibility rests with me.’ What do you mean by ‘the ultimate responsibility?’ Does it only mean giving the go-ahead? How are you going to take responsibility after that? Can you say you are willing to face a life sentence if anything goes wrong?”

When the women were done, an official thanked them for their “sincere outcry from the soul” and said he would relay their “fervent feelings” along with their letter of requests which would be handed not directly to the Prime Minister but to his secretaries. But the ten women would take no such brush-off from officialdom.

“Why don’t you hand it directly to him?” they clamored. “If you can’t, please bring the Prime Minister here now.”

Then they added: “What we told you is not our ‘feelings’ but our ‘actual damages.’”

Finally, one of their number asked: “I’d like to believe you will convey our messages directly to the Prime Minister so they are felt in his heart.”

You’d have to be made of stone not to feel their message in your heart. The video of their testimony should be mandatory viewing in Congress and the White House. It should be mandatory viewing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and in every community where there is a nuclear reactor. We must share in the suffering of the people of Fukushima and urge international intervention to prevent further catastrophe, at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 especially. And we must shame the Noda government for its reckless decision to restart Ohi.  If we don’t, the nightmare of Fukushima may soon become our own.

Linda Pentz Gunter is a founder of Beyond Nuclear and its international specialist. For more, see www.beyondnuclear.org


Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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