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5 Years After Fukushima, 'No End in Sight' to Ecological Fallout

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5 Years After Fukushima, 'No End in Sight' to Ecological Fallout

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami, which in turn produced equipment failures and the release of radioactive material at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The disaster is the single largest release of radioactivity into the ocean and one of only two Level 7 nuclear disasters in world history—the other being Chernobyl.

The environmental impacts of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster are already becoming apparent, according to a new analysis from Greenpeace Japan, and for humans and other living things in the region, there is "no end in sight" to the ecological fallout.

The report warns that these impacts—which include mutations in trees, DNA-damaged worms, and radiation-contaminated mountain watersheds—will last "decades to centuries." The conclusion is culled from a large body of independent scientific research on impacted areas in the Fukushima region, as well as investigations by Greenpeace radiation specialists over the past five years.

"The government's massive decontamination program will have almost no impact on reducing the ecological threat from the enormous amount of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster," Kendra Ulrich, senior nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said. "Already, more than 9 million cubic meters of nuclear waste are scattered over at least 113,000 locations across Fukushima prefecture."

According to Radiation Reloaded: Ecological Impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident 5 Years Later, studies have shown:

  • High radiation concentrations in new leaves, and at least in the case of cedar, in pollen;

  • apparent increases in growth mutations of fir trees with rising radiation levels;

  • heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations and DNA-damaged worms in highly contaminated areas, as well as apparent reduced fertility in barn swallows;

  • decreases in the abundance of 57 bird species with higher radiation levels over a four year study; and

  • high levels of caesium contamination in commercially important freshwater fish; and radiological contamination of one of the most important ecosystems—coastal estuaries.

The report comes amid a push by the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to resettle contaminated areas and also restart nuclear reactors in Japan that were shut down in the aftermath of the crisis.

However, Ulrich said, "the Abe government is perpetuating a myth that five years after the start of the nuclear accident the situation is returning to normal. The evidence exposes this as political rhetoric, not scientific fact. And unfortunately for the victims, this means they are being told it is safe to return to environments where radiation levels are often still too high and are surrounded by heavy contamination."

According to Greenpeace, it's not only the Abe government that holds "deeply flawed assumptions" about both decontamination and ecosystem risks, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), too. Indeed, the failures in the methods used by the IAEA to come to the "baseless conclusion" that there would be no expected ecological impacts from the Fukushima disaster are "readily apparent," the report claims.

In September, Greenpeace Japan blasted the IAEA for "downplaying" the continuing environmental and health effects of the nuclear meltdown in order to support the Japanese government's agenda of normalizing the ongoing disaster.

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) charged on Thursday that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has also failed to learn lessons from the Fukushima meltdown. In its report, Preventing an American Fukushima, the group states that five years after the nuclear accident, the NRC "has made insufficient progress in improving U.S. nuclear power safety" while implementing "half-baked" reforms.

"[A]ll too often," UCS said, "the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nation's nuclear watchdog by allowing the industry to rely on voluntary guidelines, which are, by their very nature, unenforceable."

"The NRC and the nuclear industry have taken steps to address some of the safety vulnerabilities revealed by the Fukushima disaster," acknowledged report author Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist and co-author of the 2014 book, Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. "But so far, the agency has failed to fully learn the lessons of Fukushima. It needs to go back to the drawing board and reconsider critical safety recommendations that it dismissed without good justification. The health and safety of the more than 100 million Americans living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant hang in the balance."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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