Japan is an island nation, connected to the rest of the world through the Pacific Ocean’s currents. For thousands of years those waterways have carried Japanese sailors to distant shores. Now they carry radioactivity to our coasts. Japan’s reluctance to ask for international help in managing Fukushima’s cleanup would be one thing if it put only its own people at risk. But with the rest of the world facing health risks, Japan’s mismanagement of its nuclear crisis is irresponsible and should not be accepted by other governments, especially the United States, whose food supply stands to be contaminated.
The contaminated water is the result of a process that cools the spent fuel rods at the site. TEPCO is storing the water in almost 1000 tanks on the site. About one-third of these tanks are more vulnerable to leaks because their steel walls are bolted together rather than welded. TEPCO will have to continue to build several hundred more each year. And with the decommissioning of the power plant taking 40 years, where will the new water tanks go?
TEPCO is already having a tough time keeping up with the growing variety of problems that storing the water has caused. The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority described the plant to the Japan Times as being like a “haunted house” in which “mishaps keep happening one after the other.” The Guardian reports that extremely high levels of radiation are coming from one tank. TEPCO does not know why the radiation levels spiked.
Through the summer, after TEPCO revealed contaminated water has leaked into the Pacific Ocean since the accident and proved its inability to handle the accident, Prime Minister Abe instructed the Nuclear Regulation Authority to take a more active role in decommissioning the plants. Its Chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, said: ‘We cannot fully stop contaminated water leaks right away. That’s the reality. The water is still leaking into the sea, and we should better assess its environment impact.’”
The irradiated water will continue to leak into the ocean. And with no room for new tanks, Japan will have to dump the irradiated water it is holding now as well.
The effects this will have on the ocean are largely unknown. We must remember that the Pacific Ocean connects most of the world, reaching the shores of both Americas, the long coasts and islands of Asia, and the barrier reefs of Australia. The web of life it contains is complex and rich.
Still, it is our use of its resources that concerns us most. Salmon swim east to Alaska, tuna swim off the coast of Japan. For now, fisheries around Fukushima have been closed. Ken Buesseler, leader of a radiochemistry research team that just finished work off the coast of Fukushima, makes clear that we still know little about the accidents’ effects on the marine ecosystem, but the increasing flow of irradiated water into the ocean is worrisome.
The Japanese formed a unique bond to the sea over thousands of years. In the last two years we have changed the legacy of that relationship forever. We cannot properly conceive of the effects on a network of life we know little about in the first place. As tenants of the planet, the Japanese and human beings have no right to pollute as we have.
The water crisis is just one thing that has gone wrong, and just one of many more that could go wrong but haven’t yet. Many scientists have explained the worst case scenario for Fukushima: four nuclear reactors were damaged by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. Of these, three reactors have not been repaired at all due to the high radiation and the fourth contains ten times the radioactivity of what Chernobyl released. If one of the reactors collapses, it will cause a global catastrophe. Earthquakes and structural damage contribute to this event’s likelihood.
Crisis. Catastrophe. The words I choose are those of alarm.
But a quick look at Prime Minister Abe’s agenda makes it clear that business continues as usual in Japan. Although he has come under recent criticism for mishandling the crisis (some have protested that Tokyo should not be a finalist for the 2020 Olympic Games), his strong position has let him carry on, his political course unchanged.
Instead, Prime Minister Abe should use his hard-won political independence to stave off a crisis. He has the opportunity to overcome Japan’s incapacitating national pride and ask for the best technical support and expertise the world can offer. The world would no doubt quickly come to Japan’s aid. Asking for assistance should be his first governing priority. Besides, it is good politics. How can he build a strong Japanese economy if a top export is radioactivity?
In fact, I find it hard to believe that preventing further disaster — a leaking water tank, a power failure to a cooling pool, another mega earthquake — is not his greatest concern. I believe he has grasped the huge challenge and the potential catastrophe, but with no clear solution to handle the damaged nuclear plants and underground contaminated water in ten years, Prime Minister Abe wishes to shift the public attention to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Game. With this strategy he can only hope that the next crisis will not take place during his term.
The threshold for government action is foolishly high. Especially in the United States. Leaders say that the science is uncertain, that we need more definitive evidence. This is negligent. Government has the unique ability to convene resources and intervene early to take precautionary action for public good. While Germany, Russia, France, and England could certainly help, the United States is home to some of the best technology and experts in science, engineering, and health. Japan needs to ask for their help in stemming the flow of water and stabilizing the four damaged power plants. American and Japanese leaders should realize that the irreversible nature of a large crisis will leave us with radiation and other health risks for a minimum of several hundred years.
While a politician can skip out on his responsibility thanks to terms of office, we the people cannot avoid whatever health risks ensue. We as Japanese do not want to carry the legacy as those who irreparably harmed the Pacific Ocean and we as Americans do not want to be affected by this crisis. We as humans do not want to see the Pacific Ocean polluted. But by letting Prime Minister Abe choose wealth over health, we are cementing our joint roles in the history books.
Japan must swallow its national pride and ask the best minds and technology from abroad to save Japan and the world.