Five years after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, Dahr Jamail reported that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) officials in charge of the plant continue to release large quantities of radioactive waste water into the Pacific Ocean. Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president, called Fukushima “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of humankind.” As Jamail reported, experts such as Gundersen continue warning officials and the public that this problem is not going away. As Gundersen told Jamail, “With Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now with Fukushima, you can pinpoint the exact day and time they started…but they never end.” Another expert quoted in Jamail’s Truthout article, M.V. Ramana, a physicist and lecturer at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and the Nuclear Futures Laboratory, explained, “March 2011 was just the beginning of the disaster, which is still unfolding.”
Although the Fukushima plant has been offline since the disaster, uncontrolled fission continues to generate heat and require cooling. The cooling process has produced “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tons” of highly radioactive water, Jamail reported. TEPCO has no backup safety systems or proactive plan for dealing with the accumulation of contaminated water, so much of it is released into the Pacific Ocean. Drawing on reports from the Asahi Shimbun and Agence France-Presse, Common Dreams reported that, on September 14, 2015, “Despite the objections of environmentalists and after overcoming local opposition from fishermen, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) pumped more than 850 tons of groundwater from below the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean.” Each day, according to these reports, TEPCO was pumping approximately 300 tons of groundwater to the surface for treatment before placing it in storage. Officially no water is released into the ocean until it is tested for radioactive content, but many experts are skeptical of this claim. As Jamail reported, “The company has repeatedly come under fire for periodically dumping large amounts of radioactive water.”
According to Helen Caldicott, the antinuclear advocate and author, once it is released, “There is no way to prevent radioactive water [from] reaching the western shores of the North American continent and then circulating around the rest of the Pacific Ocean … At the moment, it seems like this is going to occur for the rest of time.” Radioactive water affects ocean life through a process described by Caldicott as “biological magnification.” The effect of radiation expands each step up the food chain—from algae, to crustaceans and small fish, up to the ocean’s largest creatures.
While biological magnification may ultimately impact human health, a December 2015 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution study showed a 50 percent increase in seawater radiation levels 1,600 miles west of San Francisco. That report indicated that these levels are far below what the US government considers dangerous, but Caldicott and other experts question the standards that the US government and other official agencies use to determine safe levels of radiation exposure.
Meanwhile, Linda Pentz Gunter, writing for the Ecologist, reported that the Japanese government has kept its citizens “in the dark” from the start of the disaster about high radiation levels and dangers to health. “In order to proclaim the Fukushima area ‘safe’,” Gunter wrote, “the Government increased exposure limits to twenty times the international norm,” a determination preliminary to Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s stated goal of lifting evacuation orders and forcing displaced Fukushima refugees to return home by March 2017. Government policy is now to “‘normaliz[e]’ radiation standards,” Gunter wrote, and to tell the Japanese people that everything is all right, despite medical or scientific evidence to the contrary.
At a conference in February 2016, prefectural governors urged young people to return to Fukushima. Doing so would facilitate the region’s reconstruction and “help you lead a meaningful life,” said Fukushima’s governor, Masao Uchibori. However, as Gunter reported, young people appear not to be cooperating. Instead, most of the returning evacuees are senior citizens, with stronger traditional ties to the land and their ancestral burial grounds. This creates a further dilemma for local authorities, according to Gunter: Local tax revenues are levied on both individuals and corporations, with nearly a quarter of the taxes collected by local prefectures and municipalities coming from individuals. “The onus is on governors and mayors,” she wrote, “to lure as many working people as possible back to their towns and regions in order to effectively finance local public services.” Retired senior citizens do not contribute to income tax.
Gunter reported the public remarks of Tetsunari Iida, the founder and executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP) in Japan: Prime Minister Shinzō Abe “says ‘everything is under control’… Yes—under the control of the media!” While Iida directed his critique to Japan’s press, it could easily apply to US corporate media coverage of Fukushima and its aftermath, as documented by sociologist Celine-Marie Pascale of American University. Pascale conducted a content analysis of more than 2,100 articles, editorials, and letters to the editor on Fukushima, published by the Washington Post, the New York Times, Politico, and the Huffington Post between March 11, 2011 and March 11, 2013. Her analysis focused on two basic questions, “Risk for whom?” and “Risk from what?” Pascale found that just 6 percent of the articles reported on risk to the general public. “This in itself,” she reported, “is a significant finding about the focus of news media during one of the largest nuclear disasters in history.”
More specifically, Pascale found that the great majority of news coverage that focused on risks to the public significantly discounted those risks. Sixty-five of the 129 articles that focused on risk to the general population characterized it as being “quite low on the basis of comparisons to other risks or claims of no evidence.” (For example, Pascale wrote, “Media practices encouraged publics to understand the largest nuclear disaster in history as no more significant than the radiation produced by the sun.”) An additional forty-four articles characterized risk as low on the basis of uncertain evidence. In other words, assessments of uncertain risk were interpreted by news media as low risk. Over two years, the four major US news outlets that Pascale studied reported just seventeen articles that characterized the disaster as having even “potentially high risk to the general population.” Pascale concluded: “The largest and longest lasting nuclear disaster of our time was routinely and consistently reported as being of little consequence to people, food supplies, or environments. Impressively this was done systematically across The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post. In short, the media coverage was premised on misinformation, the minimization of public health risks, and the exacerbation of uncertainties.”
A flurry of corporate media coverage around the fifth anniversary of the disaster for the most part reproduced the pattern identified by Pascale. For example, as CNBC’s anniversary report acknowledged, “Elevated [radiation] levels off the coast of Japan show that the situation is not yet under control, and that the facility is still leaking radiation.” But, the report continued, “the levels observed near the United States are below—very far below—those set by health and safety standards, and are also far outstripped by naturally occurring radiation.”
In February 2016, the Associated Press and other news outlets reported that three TEPCO executives, including Tsunehisa Katsumata, TEPCO’s chairman at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, were formally charged with negligence in the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Dahr Jamail, “Radioactive Water from Fukushima is Leaking into the Pacific,” Truthout, January 27, 2016, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34565-radioactive-water-from-fukushima-is-leaking-into-the-pacific.
Linda Pentz Gunter, “No Bliss in This Ignorance: The Great Fukushima Nuclear Cover-Up,” Ecologist, February 20, 2016, http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987222/no_bliss_in_this_ignorance_the_great_fukushima_nuclear_coverup.html.
Celine-Marie Pascale, “Vernacular Epistemologies of Risk: The Crisis in Fukushima,” Current Sociology, March 3, 2016, http://csi.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/03/03/0011392115627284.abstract.
Student Researcher: Harrison Hartman (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)