at the end of the world

i. cause

The rice paddy on the edge of Iitate village is 30km back from the coast, framed by steep forested hills, and we stop here briefly because the scene is so strangely heraldic.

At first glance, this looks like any other rural Japanese town in late summer, but it isn’t any more. The precise geometries of the fields are softened with neglect and waist-high weeds. Two empty police cars sit out front of the vacant community hall. Crickets hum in the mid-day humidity, in sleepy counterpoint to the rumble of diesel engines. A work team of several dozen men in white masks and overalls tend a slow assemblage of earthmoving equipment out in the field, but this is something other than agriculture.

Iitate village is dead, evacuated after the wind swung to the northwest in the days following the tsunami that smashed hundreds of kilometres of Tohoku coastline into oblivion. The workers today are harvesting caesium-137, half-life 30 years. They’re carefully stripping the top 50 cm of soil from the abandoned field, dumping it in neat windrows wrapped in blue plastic. Our counters silently log a gamma dose of about 3.7 μSv per hour, 13 times the normal background level. Radiocaesium is found only in the wake of bomb fallout or downwind of failed nuclear reactors. Broken uranium atoms from Kakadu and central South Australia, fissioned under a hail of exquisitely tuned neutron bombardment into uneven fragments of iodine, strontium, xenon. It is everywhere now, invisible, sucked into the pores of the soil itself.

At a lonely intersection gone weedy and planted with warning signs, we record 9.2 μSv/hr in the undergrowth. In the days after the disaster with three reactor cores exposed to the air, levels within the plant spiked a hundred thousand times higher. Workers in close proximity suffered lifetime radiation doses in a few hours.

In Minamisoma, a coastal city 20 km to the north of the wrecked Fukushima complex, they’re getting their park back this morning. Seventeen months with the kids unable to play outside, and the locals are balancing the risks of radiation with the risks of physical inactivity, vitamin D deficiency and depression. The City has put the machinery we saw in the dead village to work here at Takami Koen, stripped the topsoil, sealed it into a plastic cocoon and covered the mound with uncontaminated earth. The community has backed this effort with its own independent radiation monitoring, confident now that the park is their own again. The six year old bounding up the slope of the mound doesn’t know he’s chasing his ball up the side of a small radioactive waste dump, and there is something compelling about the resumption of normality in a landscape so dramatically altered.

The foul smelling water seeping out of the ground saves Mrs Murakami’s life. At 14:46 the great Tohoku earthquake had struck 70 km to the north-east of their Ryokan at Tsurushi, the traditional Japanese inn that she runs with her husband. The whole island of Honshu has just been shunted 2.4 m to the east. As the ground heaves with bruising aftershocks, the black water bubbling up recalls a dim childhood memory and she grabs her husband, demanding they get in the car and get out. Following a brief, blazing argument they make their way up the road. A short time later a 17.5 metre wall of water obliterates the world, killing everyone who remains. 19,000 dead, without warning, for no reason whatsoever. This story is told to us with wry sidelong glances at the memory of the domestic dispute that saved their lives, in a neat cubefarm in Shinchimachi city not far from the coast. They have rebuilt a traditional Japanese community of reciprocity and care while they await a small allotment of land and some money to rebuild their homes.

On the coastal plain 15km south of the memory of the Ryokan, the afterimage of the tsunami still hangs in the air. Odaka was inside the 20km exclusion zone until this April, and the reconstruction effort amidst carefully sorted debris piles a dozen kilometres to the north has not begun here. Apart from the height of the weeds, it appears this incomprehensibly vast destruction occurred only yesterday. Cars lie crushed like tinfoil toys smashed at the hands of giant, vengeful children. The suburbs have been levelled as though with a laser, leaving only a concrete cuneiform of empty foundations. Here and there a stand of broken houses cluster on higher ground, or sit alone in ruins on the floodplain. The GPS unit on the dashboard is politely informing our driver to take turns into roads that no longer exist.

We come across a twisted hatchback by the side of the road, a padded baby seat in the back. A rag flutters at the end of a length of bamboo, and a candle sits in the cradle of the shattered windscreen.

The flag indicates someone was found in the vehicle, our guide tells us quietly. Standing here as the light fades from the landscape, 10,000m from the still smouldering shell of a wrecked nuclear power plant, words from earlier in the day come to the surface. Here is the end of the world.

15:42, March 11 2011. The wave height at Fukushima Daiichi is 14 metres. Tens of millions of tonnes of water overtop the 5.7 m seawall and inundate a reactor complex already severely compromised by the immense force of the earthquake. Debris-laden seawater cascades through the site and the backup generators go down. Two of the operators are killed in the impact; the rest of them are on their own, and will have to manage the emergency without power for more than a week.

As designed, the three operating units scrammed an hour earlier; shut down immediately on detection of the earthquake. Now heat is the enemy; with the reactor cooling systems powered down, the decay heat of the fission reactions begins to melt the fuel assemblies. Zirconium in the fuel cladding reacts with the water cooking off inside the pressure vessels, forming a buildup of explosive hydrogen gas. Horrifying and iconic, the images will shortly beam around the planet: the outer containment buildings of four nuclear reactors blown apart in sequential hydrogen explosions. In the three units operating at the time of the earthquake, molten nuclear fuel slumps to the floor of the pressure vessels and a plume of carcinogenic fission products begins to boil into the Pacific Ocean.

Within days, TEPCO headquarters is demanding to have its workforce cut their losses and abandon the plant. They have a point: their staff on-site are suffering terrible radiation exposures as they improvise to keep the cores immersed in seawater that churns through the wrecked complex as fast as they can pump it in. Continued aftershocks threaten to ignite the huge bank of spent fuel perched in Unit 4. On March 15 Prime Minister Naoto Kan storms into TEPCO headquarters and demands they stay on site and get the place back under control. He too has a point: if the utility pulls its staff back and lets the accident run its course, the exposed cores will burn through what remains of the containment structures, releasing uncontrolled amounts of radiation.

It is later revealed that against this possibility, senior officials have briefed the Prime Minister on the logistics of abandoning the northern half of Honshu Island, including Greater Tokyo, population 30 million.

”It was a crucial moment when I wasn’t sure whether Japan could continue to function as a state,” he told journalists in September 2011. It is arguable that his temper outburst at TEPCO headquarters saved the country.

Flash forward to August 2012, with 150,000 people evacuated from places like Iitate. The mood in the region is dark. A young high school teacher downloads the unvarnished truth in a loungeroom in Fukushima City the night before our trip down to the coast. “I’m lying to a room full of students,” he tells me, daring me to break eye contact. Like many thousands of others, his wife and children now live in temporary accommodation well outside the contaminated area, but Japan has no social security net to speak of and people can’t just walk away from jobs. Now he is grappling with a hateful dilemma, addressing a room full of students in a city he believes is no longer safe for children. Fukushima City, population 290,000. Kōriyama City, population 336,000. Both of them hit by the plume that carried fission products from the broken reactors to the north-west before the wind swung briefly towards Tokyo.  I hesitate, then ask. Should this city be evacuated? He pauses a long time before answering, and finally drops his gaze. Yes.

Others disagree. The radiation has not travelled in some smooth, predictable path, but has fallen out in stochastic hotspots, burning some communities and sparing others. Wholesale evacuation is not the answer, many believe; the solution will be much finer grained. In any event, the Government has no intention of assisting any further evacuations. The work of supporting those stranded in areas outside the forced evacuation zone has fallen entirely on civil society organisations and local authorities.

Several hundred thousand people now live with the subliminal impacts of chronic low level radiation exposure, which the Government has addressed by raising the allowable ‘safe’ dose 20-fold. More than a third of children tested already have abnormal growths on their thyroid glands, an immediate consequence of exposure to radioiodine. The effects of long-term exposure to caesium and other longer lived isotopes will take much longer to manifest: the subtle violation of a whole population’s DNA; rising incidence of fatal and non-fatal cancers; slow outbreaks of diseases with no name. It won’t be immediate, it won’t occur in neat categories, and most of the health impacts will never be documented or attributed. Ionising radiation is sub-microscopic cellular bombardment, forcing genetic repair mechanisms into overdrive. It shortens lives.

The demand of the high school teacher and hundreds of thousands of others, is a simple one. The right to informed, supported evacuation: “Tell us what we are being exposed to, and if we choose to leave, support us to rebuild our lives elsewhere.”

Seventeen months on, it’s not happening. Limbo is now recognised in these stricken communities as formalised Government abandonment.

It required a spark to ignite the suppressed fury and resentment building across the country. On July 1, 2012, the Japanese Government provided it.


ii. effect

Just briefly, Japan was nuclear free. For 55 days, the country’s entire fleet of 50 reactors lay silent in deference to the ruination of Fukushima. The industry’s central lie is exposed: Japan does not need this technology, and it never did. On 1 July, Unit 3 of Kansai’s Ōi plant to the north of Kyoto simmers back to criticality despite weeks of furious demonstrations across the country. Five months earlier, the first of what would become weekly rallies outside the Prime Minister’s residence, drew around three hundred people.

Tonight, we are more than a hundred thousand. The massive demonstration is cordoned along the footpaths behind crash barriers and lines of police, swelling as the humid afternoon gives way to evening, and still they keep coming. The volume mounts, drums, whistles, chants, tens of thousands of voices raised in defiance. Above the trees at the end of the wide empty boulevard, the pyramidal rooftop of the Japanese Parliament, the Diet, lies just out of reach.

An impossible number of people now pack the footpaths. Sometime around 7pm, a handful of people spill onto the road and are pushed back by young, nervy police officers. On the opposite side of the street voices go up and the crowd surges from both sides, unplanned and unstoppable. A huge cheer goes up; the police line vanishes as Tokyo residents take back their street.

In the morning, it will be reported that this is the largest assembly yet. Newspaper editorials are as uncharacteristically fed-up as the demonstrations themselves: the nuclear industry is in disgrace, the political system is paralysed, and this weekend’s emergence of the Japanese Greens is being heralded as a way to give a louder voice to those who now know that the official deafness is systematic and unyielding. A quiet fury has set into the national psyche. The Japanese are a patient people, but for the millions touched by this disaster, the patience has run out.

The industry is openly spoken of as the ‘nuclear mafia’. At last it seen for what it is: a parasitic, well connected syndicate with roots deeply entrenched in formal Japanese power structures. This is going to take time: on the same day as the demonstration, a prominent anti-nuclear scientist-turned-candidate is emphatically defeated in a regional election by a well resourced pro-nuclear incumbent. It will cost the Greens the equivalent of about A$70,000 just to lodge the nomination form for each candidate we field in forthcoming national elections. The launch of the new party is cheerful, moving and timely, but this is truly a David and Goliath matchup.

The reason David wins in this story is that under no circumstances can he afford to lose. With a slightly different fall of the dice, the Fukushima meltdowns would have cost the people of Japan their country. Another cruel accident of plate tectonics and it still could. There is no place on this archipelago for nuclear power, and tens of millions of Japanese now understand this. Everything has changed.

In Australia, Fukushima has faded uneasily from the headlines into the subconscious. Japan is one of our most important uranium clients, but from here on all the news is bad for the investors and promoters of this unhappy sector. BHP has pulled back from development plans at Olympic Dam and Yeelirrie. Cameco and Mitsubishi have shelved the Kintyre project in the East Pilbara. Toro struggles towards inevitable defeat at the unworkable Wiluna Project in the North-East goldfields. Koongarra, Angela Pamela, Arkaroola, Jabiluka: the uranium mines that never were, and must never be. The strange craze of investor optimism that washed through the market two years ago died at Fukushima, and it won’t return. There is no room for ambiguity here. This industry must close, on the same premise we closed the asbestos industry. There are other ways of shunting electrons down wires, starting with the ridiculous abundance of energy falling free out of the sky.

By now, I imagine the workers in their white overalls have moved on to another small corner of the caesium fields of Tohoku. It is burned into my minds’ eye now: this endeavour of vast futility, the hopes and fears of the atomic age sealed into blue plastic piles, destination unknown, out on the edge of the dead village.

Scott Ludlam August 2012
First published on the Drum, ABC online:

Deep thanks to Koriyama Masaya, Akira Kawasaki, Meri Joyce, Sasaki Keiko, Matsumoto Namiho, Rikiya Adachi, Kurakata Masanori and Mr and Mrs Murakami.