In an office building adjacent to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, newspapers from March 11, 2011 are stacked high, with the front page headline of the day reading “Magnitude 8.8, largest in country.” Since the day of printing, the papers have remained untouched, eerily documenting the beginning of the Fukushima nuclear crisis that unfolded soon after the earthquake.
Over three years have passed since that headline was first printed. The Fukushima crisis wreaked unprecedented levels of damage politically and socially on the Japanese population and ecologically on the surrounding marine environment. Last week, evidence surfaced that the extent of the harm caused by relentless leakages had been suppressed by government officials and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the plant, in the weeks after the crisis began. This malfeasant attempt to conceal the magnitude of the devastation may have caused irrevocable damage by not providing the relevant authorities accurate information to contain the leakages.
Fukushima leaks 400 tons of what TEPCO deems “light water,” water laced with radioactive particles, every day. The ecological catastrophe from this water is on a scale unprecedented since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Marine biologists have already noticed unusually high levels of radiation in orcas and other marine wildlife, affecting migration and feeding patterns. Of even more concern are the 100 tons of highly radioactive water that leaked from storage tanks last month. Compared to the light water, the recent leak is far more dangerous. Stepping in a puddle of radioactive water can have life-threatening consequences. Each liter of the water contains 115 million particles of Strontium-90, which, if absorbed by the human body, can cause bone cancer and leukemia.
The Japanese government and TEPCO have flagrantly overestimated their own capabilities at managing the containment operation by downplaying the severity of the leakage in a wave of hubris. TEPCO has left the cleanup operation to a woefully-inexperienced and poorly-equipped group of laborers. Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise and a contractor and former plant engineer at General Electric, told The New York Times, “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”
National pride should not come at the expense of endangering lives. It is long overdue for the Japanese authorities to request international assistance to address the unceasing leakages. Without an honest reassessment of the containment operation, the legacy of Fukushima will be one of tragedy and mismanagement.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 24 print edition. Harry Brown is a staff columnist. Harry’s Take is published every Monday. Email him at email@example.com.