Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why the Fukushima Disaster is Worse Than Chernobyl

Why the Fukushima Disaster is Worse Than Chernobyl


    Japan has been slow to admit the scale of the

    meltdown. But now the truth is coming out.


David McNeill reports from Soma City


The Independent (UK)

August 29, 2010


Yoshio Ichida is recalling the worst day of his 53 years: 11

March, when the sea swallowed up his home and killed his

friends. The Fukushima fisherman was in the bath when the

huge quake hit and barely made it to the open sea in his

boat in the 40 minutes before the 15-metre tsunami that

followed. When he got back to port, his neighbourhood and

nearly everything else was gone. "Nobody can remember

anything like this," he says.


Now living in a refugee centre in the ruined coastal city of

Soma, Mr Ichida has mourned the 100 local fishermen killed

in the disaster and is trying to rebuild his life with his

colleagues. Every morning, they arrive at the ruined

fisheries co-operative building in Soma port and prepare for

work. Then they stare out at the irradiated sea, and wait.

"Some day we know we'll be allowed to fish again. We all

want to believe that."


This nation has recovered from worse natural - and manmade -

catastrophes. But it is the triple meltdown and its

aftermath at the Fukushima nuclear power plant 40km down the

coast from Soma that has elevated Japan into unknown, and

unknowable, terrain. Across the northeast, millions of

people are living with its consequences and searching for a

consensus on a safe radiation level that does not exist.

Experts give bewilderingly different assessments of its dangers.


Some scientists say Fukushima is worse than the 1986

Chernobyl accident, with which it shares a maximum level-7

rating on the sliding scale of nuclear disasters. One of the

most prominent of them is Dr Helen Caldicott, an Australian

physician and long time anti-nuclear activist who warns of

"horrors to come" in Fukushima.


Chris Busby, a professor at the University of Ulster known

for his alarmist views, generated controversy during a Japan

visit last month when he said the disaster would result in

more than 1 million deaths. "Fukushima is still boiling its

radionuclides all over Japan," he said. "Chernobyl went up

in one go. So Fukushima is worse."


On the other side of the nuclear fence are the industry

friendly scientists who insist that the crisis is under

control and radiation levels are mostly safe. "I believe the

government and Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco, the plant's

operator] are doing their best," said Naoto Sekimura, vice-

dean of the Graduate School of Engineering at the University

of Tokyo. Mr Sekimura initially advised residents near the

plant that a radioactive disaster was "unlikely" and that

they should stay "calm", an assessment he has since had to reverse.


Slowly, steadily, and often well behind the curve, the

government has worsened its prognosis of the disaster. Last

Friday, scientists affiliated with the Nuclear and

Industrial Safety Agency said the plant had released 15,000

terabecquerels of cancer-causing Cesium, equivalent to about

168 times the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the event

that ushered in the nuclear age. (Professor Busby says the

release is at least 72,000 times worse than Hiroshima).


Caught in a blizzard of often conflicting information, many

Japanese instinctively grope for the beacons they know. Mr

Ichida and his colleagues say they no longer trust the

nuclear industry or the officials who assured them the

Fukushima plant was safe. But they have faith in government

radiation testing and believe they will soon be allowed back to sea.


That's a mistake, say sceptics, who note a consistent

pattern of official lying, foot-dragging and concealment.

Last week, officials finally admitted something long argued

by its critics: that thousands of people with homes near the

crippled nuclear plant may not be able to return for a

generation or more. "We can't rule out the possibility that

there will be some areas where it will be hard for residents

to return to their homes for a long time," said Yukio Edano,

the government's top government spokesman. "We are very sorry."


Last Friday, hundreds of former residents from Futaba and

Okuma, the towns nearest the plant, were allowed to visit

their homes - perhaps for the last time - to pick up

belongings. Wearing masks and radiation suits, they drove

through the 20km contaminated zone around the plant, where

hundreds of animals have died and rotted in the sun, to find

kitchens and living rooms partly reclaimed by nature. "It's

hard to believe we ever lived here," one former resident told NHK.


Several other areas northwest of the plant have become

atomic ghost towns after being ordered to evacuate - too

late, say many residents, who believe they absorbed

dangerous quantities of radiation in the weeks after the

accident. "We've no idea when we can come back," says

Katsuzo Shoji, who farmed rice and cabbages and kept a small

herd of cattle near Iitate, a picturesque village about 40km

from the plant.


Although it is outside the exclusion zone, the village's

mountainous topography meant radiation, carried by wind and

rain, lingered, poisoning crops, water and school playgrounds.


The young, the wealthy, mothers and pregnant women left for

Tokyo or elsewhere. Most of the remaining 6000 people have

since evacuated, after the government accepted that safe

radiation limits had been exceeded.


Mr Shoji, 75, went from shock to rage, then despair when the

government told him he would have to destroy his vegetables,

kill his six cows and move with his wife Fumi, 73, to an

apartment in Koriyama, about 20km away. "We've heard five,

maybe 10 years but some say that's far too optimistic," he

says, crying. "Maybe I'll be able to come home to die." He

was given initial compensation of one million yen (£7,900)

by Tepco, topped up with 350,000 yen from the government.


It is the fate of people outside the evacuation zones,

however, that causes the most bitter controversy. Parents in

Fukushima City, 63km from the plant, have banded together to

demand that the government do more to protect about 100,000

children. Schools have banned soccer and other outdoor

sports. Windows are kept closed. "We've just been left to

fend for ourselves," says Machiko Sato, a grandmother who

lives in the city. "It makes me so angry."


Many parents have already sent their children to live with

relatives or friends hundreds of kilometres away. Some want

the government to evacuate the entire two million population

of Fukushima Prefecture. "They're demanding the right to be

able to evacuate," says anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko

Smith, who works with the parents. "In other words, if they

evacuate they want the government to support them."


So far, at least, the authorities say that is not necessary.

The official line is that the accident at the plant is

winding down and radiation levels outside of the exclusion

zone and designated "hot spots" are safe.


But many experts warn that the crisis is just beginning.

Professor Tim Mousseau, a biological scientist who has spent

more than a decade researching the genetic impact of

radiation around Chernobyl, says he worries that many people

in Fukushima are "burying their heads in the sand." His

Chernobyl research concluded that biodiversity and the

numbers of insects and spiders had shrunk inside the

irradiated zone, and the bird population showed evidence of

genetic defects, including smaller brain sizes.


"The truth is that we don't have sufficient data to provide

accurate information on the long-term impact," he says.

"What we can say, though, is that there are very likely to

be very significant long-term health impact from prolonged



In Soma, Mr Ichida says all the talk about radiation is

confusing. "All we want to do is get back to work. There are

many different ways to die, and having nothing to do is one

of them."


Economic cost


Fukushima: Japan has estimated it will cost as much as

£188bn to rebuild following the earthquake, tsunami and

nuclear crisis.


Chernobyl: There are a number of estimates of the economic

impact, but thetotal cost is thought to be about £144bn.




Fukushima: workers are allowed to operate in the crippled

plant up to a dose of 250mSv (millisieverts).


Chernobyl: People exposed to 350mSv were relocated. In most

countries the maximum annual dosage for a worker is 20mSv.

The allowed dose for someone living close to a nuclear plant

is 1mSv a year.


Death toll


Fukushima: Two workers died inside the plant. Some

scientists predict that one million lives will be lost to



Chernobyl: It is difficult to say how many people died on

the day of the disaster because of state security, but

Greenpeace estimates that 200,000 have died from radiation-

linked cancers in the 25 years since the accident.


Exclusion zone


Fukushima: Tokyo initially ordered a 20km radius exclusion

zone around the plant

Chernobyl: The initial radius of the Chernobyl zone was set

at 30km - 25 years later it is still largely in place.




Fukushima: Tepco's share price has collapsed since the

disaster largely because of the amount it will need to pay

out, about £10,000 a person

Chernobyl: Not a lot. It has been reported that Armenian

victims of the disaster were offered about £6 each in 1986




Fukushima: The UN's Office for the Co-ordination of

Humanitarian Affairs reported bilateral aid worth $95m

Chernobyl: 12 years after the disaster, the then Ukrainian

president, Leonid Kuchma, complained that his country was

still waiting for international help.


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