Until I met its victims, my response to nuclear power plants was simplistic and ill-informed. Whether nuclear power was safe and clean, I was an agnostic, given the opinions of scientists on both sides of the argument.
A recent visit to South Korea and Japan changed all that. The dangers facing us are infinitely greater.
My view was (and remains) that we must not let President Jacob Zuma get away with the unaffordable R1-trillion deal he wants with Russia, which lacks transparent conduct and includes the possibility of backhanders. Being told of government and corporate lies in Japan and South Korea was an eye-opener. The 2011 Fukushima disaster was triggered by a tsunami or earthquake. But that tells only half the story.
Contaminated food, children’s sandpits, water
My journey started with a visit to a parish church in Iyaki Laiki, 47km from the epicentre of the 2011 accident. The parish had opened its doors to people evacuated from the centre of the disaster. In all 24 000 people were evacuated, not because of the huge wave of seawater, but because of the high levels of radioactivity. Even here at this distance, radioactivity remains, six years after the accident, unacceptably high. In the local crèche children may not play outside because radioactivity of the playground sand, the swings and jungle gym remains dangerously high. Instead children play inside a pen with sand imported from hundreds of kilometres away.
Government radioactivity meters on street corners measure lower levels of radioactivity than locals’ meters. There is a reason for this: it costs the government millions to provide essential services to those evacuated. The government wanted them to return to their homes in Fukushima by April 1 2017, when all support and aid stops. The government says it is safe to do so but the people I met do not trust its advice. In what was the church vestry there are now two detector cubicles that measure and decontaminate food. Consumers have learnt that food they buy is often contaminated with high levels radioactivity. It takes an hour to decontaminate a litre of milk and three to four hours for water.
In Iyaki Laiki contamination levels vary from 1 to 2 on private meters. Everyone has one. In Tokyo, the government says 0.06 is acceptable. In the world we live in we consider 0.01 acceptable. High incidences of cancer and deformities in newborn babies have placed a blanket of trauma over everyone I met.
Next we drove into the moon landscape that once was Fukushima. In our bus we had five different measuring devices. As we got closer to where the nuclear plant ruptured, the devices started ticking faster and faster, starting at .09 but soon crossing the 2.0 mark, then 3.0 and then off the scale. We were in danger if we stayed.
Police and government officials in astronaut-like protective clothing stop people from entering houses or streets where contamination remains very high. The houses were left in haste and nothing could be taken because of it oozing radioactivity. Abandoned cars in driveways are covered in dust and have flat tyres. Earthmoving machines are scraping away the topsoil of former rice-paddy fields, bagging the soil and disposing of it. I asked, where to? Well, whoever in the world offers to put it deep into the Earth’s crust – to be forgotten about.
Wherever you stop a tannoy voice warns you not to leave the road and to move on. It is eerie to see fields devoid of animal life or crops. No birds.
For as long as the rupture of the Fukushima plant can be blamed on the tsunami and an earthquake the Japanese government and its associated Tokyo Electricity Company (or rather the taxpayer) pay for rehabilitation and the loss to life and limb Direct and indirect fatalities from the disaster numbers 1 600 people; the health damage to the survivors cannot yet be estimated.
The company that built the Fukushima plant, Toshiba/Hitachi, avoids responsibility. It is here that I learnt my first lesson: Toshiba, which built scores of nuclear plants in Japan and elsewhere, ignored major risks to save costs. Legal investigations point to Toshiba’s liability. Angry Japanese charge that Toshiba places profit before the lives of people — and its effect will be felt by those not yet born. In a nation that has suffered more than its share of nuclear outfall, I heard the words repeatedly: the government-corporate nuclear mafia cannot be trusted; we don’t want compensation, we want prevention.
Back at the parish church the reverend asks that we don’t publicise his name and church for fear of reprisals from those in power. His parting comment: for every child elsewhere that has thyroid cancer we have 180 children.
The message from my hosts is moral and compelling: Toshiba, supplier globally to the booming nuclear energy industry, must stop exporting its lethal technology. Their call is to boycott, disinvest and call for sanctions against this evil industry. Between Japan, South Korea and the coast of China about 130 nuclear plants are in operation or are under construction. There are 90 in Western Europe and 104 in the United States.
South Korea’s pain
In Kori, South Korea, is another nuclear plant, partly shut down because of its age. The real danger of the plant is kept from them. We met Mr Lee and his disabled son. Mr Lee has stomach cancer. His wife contracted thyroid cancer two years ago. They charged the local nuclear plant company for her illness. The court found in her favour on the basis that the company hid the fact that radioactive material had leaked from the plant. Since the court victory 1 000 locals have instituted legal action because their health has been similarly compromised.
Mr Lee continues to run his small business but illness and grief stands written all over his face.
Mrs Yoshi Zaki Sachie, 77, is a Hiroshima survivor. As a five-year-old all she remembers is the huge light when the bomb was dropped. Her family’s distance from the epicentre of the bomb ensured it did not kill her. It maimed her.
Mrs Sachie She has devoted her life to campaign against the lethal power of nuclear plants. She never thought that nuclear power would haunt Japan again. Today the Japanese are perpetrators seeking to sell unsafe nuclear technology to others.
Racism against Koreans is not far from this debate either. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki was bombed, Korea was a colony of Japan. Of those killed, at least 22 000 were Koreans, partly forced labour, in Japanese armaments factories. They have not been acknowledged or compensated. Social prejudice persists to this day.
Koreans not killed but maimed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki returned, mainly, to Hapcheon in South Korea. At the memorial and victim care centre, I saw first, second and third generation victims – their bodies and minds impaired by nuclear venom.
South Korean citizenry is as opposed to nuclear plants as the Japanese are. Koreans want recognition and compensation for their A-bomb victims from the United States.
Taiwan has decided against new nuclear plants while Vietnam cites financial woes to keep out of the Japanese, South Korean and Russian clutches. In Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia popular sentiment opposes nuclear plants in the face of their governments buckling under corporate pressure.
South Koreans have a special concern: they worry that nuclear plants are the Trojan horse through which a new nuclear arms race will ensue. The US has induced the South Korean government to allow American bases to be built with nuclear warheads aimed at North Korea and potentially at China.
A moral revolution against governments in cahoots with the mega corporations is on the move — the Japanese and Korean Citizen’s Peace Solidarity Against Nukes. South Africa needs to join the global wave of popular uprising and stop the Zuma-Putin deal.
Horst Kleinschmidt’s visit was at the invitation of the movement against corporations in the nuclear industry in South Korea and Japan. Kleinschmidt is an activist. He was arrested and then went into exile in the 1970s, returning post-1994 to turn around the sea fisheries department. Besides opposing the Zuma-Putin deal, he does other ecological and social justice work.