At What Cost? (April 2011)

At What Cost? The Nuclear Power Industry and Discrimination

 

by Tim Boyle

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, along with the nuclear disaster that is a direct result, have plunged Japan into its worst crisis since WWII. The outpouring of concern and solidarity from around the world has been heartening to those of us in Japan, particularly in the affected areas of northeastern Japan. It will take years for Japan as a nation to recover from this triple disaster, but for the almost 30,000 people who lost their lives and the far larger figure of those who have lost loved ones, homes and jobs, much will forever be lost.

Even a nation as well-prepared for natural disasters as Japan was woefully unprepared for the scope of this calamity, as there is really no way to adequately prepare for a monster tsunami up to 16 meters high along 500 km. of coastline. One place that should have been better designed to withstand the onslaught, however, was the nuclear facility in Fukushima. Built to withstand the "expected" height of a large tsunami, the 5.5-meter barrier was no match for the estimated 14-meter tsunami, and the present nuclear crisis was a direct result of both that inadequate design and an inability to manage such an unprecedented situation.

As the world's attention is now focused on this developing disaster, the CWT editorial committee decided to address this issue from the standpoint of the exploited workers in the nuclear industry, some of who are of buraku descent. Prior to the tsunami, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors, which produced about 1/3 of its electric power. Three more multiple reactor plants were under construction with 10 more in advanced planning stages, all with the goal in mind of producing 40% of Japan's increasing electrical demand by 2018.

How much these plans will be changed by the unfolding drama at Fukushima Daiichi remains to be seen, but surely this rude wake-up call will force a great deal of soul searching in Japanese society. As a part of that soul searching, we want to lift up the plight of the workers who are called on to do the dangerous work of maintaining these facilities, and now who are faced with daunting task of cleaning up the mess and preventing a far worse situation from developing. Who are these people? And how are their human rights being addressed?

A good place to begin to understand this issue is a documentary produced by a Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Higuchi. You can view this bilingual documentary at the following site: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4411946789896689299# He begins by saying, "I am Kenji Higuchi. I stumbled on these stories as a young photographer 20 years ago. It changed my life. The scenes I saw, the stories I heard: I found them difficult to believe at first. That workers go near the reactor and get exposed and that many of them get ill with radiation sickness and sometimes die. Or that these people are farmers or fisherman or laborers picked off the streets of the slums of Tokyo and Osaka. But when I started looking, I found so many of these people didn't know what happened to them or, if they did, were too frightened to speak out. The thing that struck me was that all their stories were the same. During these years, I have scratched below the surface and discovered the underside of Japan — a side the world knows nothing about. People don't believe that such a thing like this could happen in a country like Japan, a country where the companies are famous for treating their workers so well."

He continues by interviewing workers who suffer from severe radiation-related health problems and the families of those who have died. The "same story" they tell is one of both skilled and unskilled laborers being sent in to do clean-up and maintenance work where dangerous levels of radiation exist, but often without adequate protection or training. The treatment of such workers is often more like that of a tool to be used and then discarded when it's no longer useable, rather than like valuable human beings created in the image of God. Many testified that they had not been informed of the danger of radiation and often were not even provided with masks. Their radiation exposure is monitored, and they are rotated frequently so that no one individual receives too much — in theory, that is. In actuality, however, such standards are difficult to maintain, sometimes accidentally mismanaged and sometimes overlooked in order to maximize profits. When one worker tried to take his case to court, it was thrown out because he couldn't prove how much radiation he'd been exposed to. There is too much at stake for the state, and so individual human rights are ignored. Higuchi reports that in order to maintain a facade of respectability, the power companies often "buy silence" by giving injured workers a lump sum of 20 or 30 million yen.

What about the present cadre of workers trying to avoid a Chernobyl-type event? As of this writing at the end of March, it is widely reported that even now they are working under hellish conditions with only 2 meals a day of bland rations and one blanket to sleep on. What kind of treatment is that for these brave souls who literally are risking their lives for the rest of us? Some of them are reported to be victims of the tsunami itself, with missing family members and lost homes. The media, both Western and Japanese, express astonishment that things can't be better coordinated than that.

In his 3/16 blog (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CTSOS/message/8828), Higuchi states, "This is an accident that was bound to happen.  TV and radio routinely refer to it as 'beyond expectations.'  But when it comes to Big Science, it is wrong to use such a phrase.  Unquestioning faith in our ability to control and exploit vast resources began in the era of oil, and it has continued into the era of nuclear power.  Japan's big energy industries have put the pursuit of profit ahead of the pursuit of humanity. It is common knowledge that earthquakes bring tsunamis.  Tokyo Electric Power failed to fully incorporate this knowledge into their reactor systems.  So now we have to listen time and again to people calling this catastrophe 'beyond expectations.' ... There is no way the phrase 'beyond expectations' should be tossed around so mindlessly at a time like this."

As one who has "mindlessly" benefited from cheap, dependable energy for so long, there is a sense in which our present situation is "beyond expectations." The question now is, "What do we do about it?" There are no easy solutions to our dilemma, and sacrifices (and some compromises) will no doubt be required. But whatever we do, the human rights of the workers who have to do the dirty work need to have top priority.

Tim Boyle is missionary to Japan, related to the Buraku liberation Center of Kyodan.

 

 

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