Andreas Späth

Fukushima’s lasting legacy

2015-08-24 10:18

Andreas Wilson-Späth

As the South African government continues to pursue its dangerous and pricey policy of building a fleet of new nuclear power plants, we’d do well to take another long and critical look at the consequences of the earthquake- and tsunami-induced meltdowns at Japan’s Daiichi reactors in the March of 2011.

A newly released scientific paper demonstrates that the amount of radioactive material released into the Pacific Ocean from the stricken plant peaked about a month after the accident, but continued at levels substantially above those measured in 2010 for an unexpectedly long time afterwards.

While the authors consider the health impact likely to be felt by marine life and humans directly exposed to the polluted seawater to be minimal, their work paints a sobering picture of the long-lasting effects of nuclear disasters, as small fractions of radioactive material buried in offshore sediment get periodically re-suspended and moved during seasonal typhoons.

Well beyond the most obvious physical consequences, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the psychological trauma of having been exposed to potentially dangerous doses of radioactivity along with the enormous stress of losing one’s home has had a significant impact on the people who used to live in the Fukushima Prefecture and surrounding areas from which more than 160 000 were evacuated, many of them for good.

As Dr Ian Fairlie reminds us in a recent article in The Ecologist, nearly 2 000 individuals perished during or as a result of the evacuation process. The elderly, women and children were especially vulnerable to debilitating anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and even Japan’s Cabinet Office acknowledges a notable increase in the suicide rate among people who used to live in the area around the Daiichi power station.

Although the dangers associated with the radiation which leaked from the damaged reactors is frequently downplayed in the official narrative, research has suggested a statistically significant rise in early infant mortality, spontaneous abortions and a drop in live births in the most severely affected regions following the accident. The longer-term health impacts, including cancers and other diseases, are sure to become apparent in years to come.

When the first Japanese nuclear reactor was restated earlier this month, the decision was met with widespread popular opposition and protest. Many Japanese people have seen the devastation this technology can inflict on humans and the wider environment, and they’ve had enough of it.

It’s high time that we as South Africans join them in their outrage and let our own government know – by taking to the streets, if necessary – that we don’t want any of it either. The future is renewable, not nuclear.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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