The decontamination myth and a decade of human rights violations
The following is the Executive Summary from the new Greenpeace report. Download the full report.
As a result of a catastrophic triple reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on 11 March 2011, several tens of thousands of square kilometres in Fukushima Prefecture and wider Japan were contaminated with significant amounts of radioactive caesium and other radionuclides. The first Greenpeace radiation expert team arrived in Fukushima on 26 March 2011, and Greenpeace experts have since conducted 32 investigations into the radiological consequences of the disaster, the most recent in November 2020.
This report, the latest in a series, chronicles some of our principal findings over recent years, and shows how the government of Japan, largely under prime minister Shinzo Abe, has attempted to deceive the Japanese people by misrepresenting the effectiveness of the decontamination programme as well as the overall radiological risks in Fukushima Prefecture. As the latest Greenpeace surveys demonstrate, the contamination remains and is widespread, and is still a very real threat to long term human health and the environment.
The contaminated areas comprise rice fields and other farmland, as well as a large amount of forest. Many people who lived in these areas were employed as farmers or in forestry. Residents gathered wood, mushrooms, wild fruits and vegetables from the mountain forests, and children were free to play outdoors in the woodlands and streams. Since the disaster, tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their ancestral lands. The harm extends far beyond the immediate threat to health – as well as destroying livelihoods, it has destroyed an entire way of life.
Because of the government’s actions, many thousands of evacuees have been forced to make an impossible choice: to return to their radioactively contaminated homes or to abandon their homes and land and seek to establish a new life elsewhere without adequate compensation. This amounts to economic coercion and may force individuals and families to return against their will due to a lack of financial resources and viable alternatives. Given that these people lost their livelihoods, communities, and property as a result of a nuclear disaster they had no part in creating, this is grossly unjust.
The failure of decontamination
The Japanese government claims that, with the exception of the ‘difficult-to-return’ zones, decontamination has largely been completed within the Special Decontamination Area (SDA), which includes the municipalities of Namie and Iitate. Yet Greenpeace has consistently found that most of the SDA, where the government has taken direct charge of decontamination, remains contaminated with radioactive caesium. In fact, despite an enormous decontamination programme, analysis of the government’s own data shows that in the SDA an overall average of 15% has been decontaminated. In the case of Namie for example, of the 22,314 hectares that make up the municipality, only 2,140 hectares have been decontaminated – just 10% of the total. One major reason for this is that much of Fukushima prefecture is mountainous forest that cannot be decontaminated.
The Japanese government’s long-term decontamination target level is 0.23 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h), the level they estimate would lead to an annual dose of 1 millisievert per year (mSv/y). This is the recommended maximum level for public exposure to radiation other than from medical or natural background exposure. Confronted with radiation levels that would result in annual exposure above this level, in April 2012 the government changed the recommended maximum to 20 mSv per year, the same as the yearly average allowed for Japanese nuclear plant workers under normal circumstances. At no time since has the government given a timeframe for when ‘long-term’ targets of 0.23 μSv/h are to be reached.
In its radiation surveys over the last decade, Greenpeace has consistently found readings well above the Japanese government’s decontamination target levels. The following data are a selection from the most recent surveys conducted in November 2020.
- At a home in Iitate (Mr Anzai’s house) every measurement taken in five of the 11 zones surrounding the property still exceeded the government target of 0.23 μSv/h, with an average radiation level across all zones of 0.5 μSv/h.
- At a former school and kindergarten in the town of Namie, all of the 822 points measured in an adjacent forested area remained above the 0.23 μSv/h target and 88% measured above 1 μSv/h. In the area directly outside the school, 93% of all data points measured remain above the 0.23 μSv/h target. Nevertheless, this location has been open to the public since March 2017.
- In 70% of the points measured in Zone 1 along the Takase riverbank, radiation levels would give an annual dose of 3-5 mSv/year based on the Japanese government calculation method.
- At a home in the Namie ‘difficult-to-return’ exclusion zone (Ms Kanno’s house), which was previously subject to extensive decontamination efforts, dose rates for 98% of the points measured exceed the annual maximum exposure level of 1 mSv per year. For 70% of the points measured, dose rates could lead to an exposure of 3-5 mSv/y based on the government calculation method.
The strontium-90 threat
Radioactive releases from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and the contamination measured in 2020 are dominated by radio caesiums. However, other isotopes were released by the accident. This includes radioactive strontium-90 (Sr-90). Strontium 90 is a bone seeking radionuclide which if ingested concentrates in bones and bone marrow, increasing the risks of contracting cancer. Greenpeace sampling and analysis of cedar needles collected from forests in areas of Fukushima Prefecture confirmed the presence of Strontium 90. Rather than conducting the large-scale and expensive Sr-90 laboratory analysis needed for accurate measurement, the Japanese government has used calculations based on an anticipated constant ratio between radioactive caesium and strontium. Research published in 2015 warned that this is likely to result in error, and potentially underestimate the strontium risks. The Japanese government continues to largely ignore the potential hazards from strontium 90 and other radionuclides in Fukushima Prefecture.
The greatest threat from strontium-90 comes from the enormous amount at the Fukushima Daiichi site, and in particular the amount in the melted reactor fuel cores in reactor units 1-3. There are uniquely hazardous risks from current plans to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi reactors where this strontium and other radionuclides exist. A smaller but significant amount is also present in the 1.23 million tons of contaminated tank water stored at the site, and which the government is preparing to announce plans to discharge into the Pacific Ocean.
Human rights violations
Evacuation orders have been lifted in areas where radiation still remains above safe limits, potentially exposing the population to increased cancer risk. This is a particular hazard for children and women. In 2020, further plans for the lifting of restrictions have emerged, including the opening up an area of Iitate that is currently part of the ‘difficult-to-return’ exclusion zone.
Up until 2018, 13 million man hours of work had been applied in decontamination of the SDA, the majority by subcontractors. As documented by Greenpeace, some workers are at risk from exposure to radiation above safety limits, and coerced into accepting hazardous working conditions because of economic hardship. They have also received inadequate training and protection.
During the past decade, the violations have been challenged by multiple United Nations human rights bodies, as well as UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs, including Baskut Tuncak. In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2018, Mr Tuncak stated that, “It is disappointing to see Japan appear to all but ignore the 2017 recommendation of the UN human rights monitoring mechanism (UPR) to return back to what it considered an acceptable dose of radiation before the nuclear disaster.” In his report, he urged the Japanese government to halt the ongoing relocation of evacuees, including children and women of reproductive age, to areas where radiation levels remain higher than that considered safe or healthy before the 2011 nuclear disaster. He also criticised the Japanese government’s decision to raise by 20 times the level of radiation exposure it considered acceptable, stating that it, “was deeply troubling, highlighting in particular the potentially grave impact of excessive radiation on the health and wellbeing of children.”
Greenpeace recommendations to the Japanese Government and Fukushima Prefecture
- Suspend the current return policy, which ignores science-based analysis, including potential lifetime exposure risks to the population.
- Immediately clarify its long-term decontamination target of 0.23 μSv/h, equal to 1 mSv/y. Set a date for when 0.23 μSv/h is to be attained and halt any plans to revise the target level to a higher limit.
- Urgently assess the public health risks posed by radioactive hotspots, including the presence of caesium-rich micro particles.
- Abandon plans to lift evacuation orders in the six municipalities of Futaba, Okuma, Namie, Tomioka, Iitate and Katsurao, including the Namie districts of Tsushima, Murohara, Suenomori and Obori.
- In the interests of worker protection, suspend current decontamination programmes in the difficult-to-return zones.
- Establish a fully transparent process to consider and reflect residents’ opinions on the evacuation policy and create a council of citizens that includes evacuees.
- Provide full compensation and financial support to evacuees and allow citizens to decide whether to return or relocate on the basis of scientific evidence and free from duress and financial coercion.
- Respond in full to the offer of dialogue and guidance from UN Special Rapporteurs, and accept outstanding requests for Special Rapporteurs to visit Japan.
The above is the Executive Summary, reproduced with kind permission, of the new Greenpeace report, Fukushima Daiichi 2011-2021. The decontamination myth and a decade of human rights abuses. Download the full report.
Headline photo: Toru Anzai in his home town, Iitate, Fukushima prefecture. (November 21, 2020)