Five years after the earthquake-triggered events that led to the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, significant levels of radiation remain in the area – particularly in the forests near the disaster site.
The Japanese government has been attempting to clean up the radiation in the villages near the plant so that they can be repopulated, but so far, the surrounding countryside has been left alone, based on the advice of the Atomic Energy Commission.
The cleanup efforts have greatly reduced the amount of radiation in the villages, but according to a new report published by Greenpeace that was based in part on several peer-reviewed studies, the forests near the plant have become “radiation reservoirs,” where radiation-induced mutations are now appearing in several plant and animal species.
The “complex and extensive” environmental consequences are in the early stages, and will likely continue for hundreds of years, due to the long half-life of the radioactive elements released during the disaster.
From the Greenpeace report:
“Clearly, some early impacts are already being seen: internal tissue contamination in forest plants and trees resulting in caesium translocation in bark, sapwood, and heartwood; high concentrations in new leaves, and at least in the case of cedar – pollen; apparent increases in growth mutations of fir trees with rising radiation levels; heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations; DNA-damaged worms in highly contaminated areas; high levels of caesium contamination in commercially important freshwater fish; apparent reduced fertility in barn swallows; and radiological contamination of one of the most important ecosystems – coastal estuaries.”
The Fukushima disaster was the worst such event since the nuclear accident that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986. But unlike Chernobyl, where the affected area was completely abandoned, the Japanese government is planning to lift evacuation orders by March 2017 for many of the villages near the Daiichi plant.
According to the Greenpeace report, this could lead to disastrous long-term health consequences for those who choose to return to their homes.
The ongoing coverup
Japanese government authorities, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and TEPCO (the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear plant), have consistently attempted to downplay the seriousness of the disaster and its long-term human health and environmental implications.
For example, a 2015 report by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that:
“No observations of direct radiation induced effects in plants and animals have been reported, although limited observational studies were conducted in the period immediately after the accident. There are limitations in the available methodologies for assessing radiological consequences, but, based on previous experience and the levels of radionuclides present in the environment, it is unlikely that there would be any major radiological consequences for biota populations or ecosystems as a consequence of the accident.”
It’s difficult to imagine that the IAEA was unaware of the peer-reviewed studies that the Greenpeace report was based on, and so it would appear that the authorities involved are willing to risk the health of thousands of people in their efforts to cover up the true extent of the dangerous radioactive contamination in the area near the plant.
In fact, according to the Greenpeace report:
“The current approach of Japanese authorities to forest decontamination is the removal of leaf litter, soil, and understory plants in 20 meter strips along the roads and around homes that are surrounded by forests. In terms of decontaminating the large areas of Fukushima this approach is futile. Over seventy percent of Fukushima prefecture is forested, which is not possible to decontaminate.”
Furthermore, the melted fuel rods beneath the three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant have still not been contained, and no one is sure when the problem will be solved – or if a workable solution even exists.
As the Greenpeace report concludes:
“[T]he people of Fukushima, who have lost so much to TEPCO’s nuclear disaster, deserve to have accurate and complete information so that they may face the decisions ahead with clarity and knowledge.”
Unfortunately, that information is not being provided by those who are responsible for the disaster and its ongoing cleanup.