5 Years Later Fukushima Still Spilling Toxic Nuclear Waste Into Sea, Top Execs Face Criminal Charges
Five years after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Telco) were indicted Monday for allegedly failing to prevent the tsunami-sparked crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
A satellite image shows damage at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant In Fukushima Prefecture. The damage was caused by the offshore earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011. Photo credit: Greenpeace
Former Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former vice presidents Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto were charged with contributing to deaths and injuries stemming from the nuclear meltdown triggered by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Their indictment is Japan's first criminal action taken in connection with the nuclear crisis. If convicted, the three men could face up to five years in prison or a penalty up to 1 million yen.
According to The Japan Times, the trio have been blamed for injuries to 13 people, including Self-Defense Forces personnel, hydrogen explosions at the plant and the deaths of 44 patients who were forced to evacuate from a nearby hospital. The indictment seeks to answer in court the question of whether the three bosses should be held criminally responsible for the disaster, the publication stated.
Former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. indicted on charges of negligence in Fukushima nuclear meltdowns https://t.co/Weceh5lVm8— NBC Los Angeles (@NBC Los Angeles)1456770727.0
Tepco had been warned years earlier about the dangers of an earthquake and a tsunami hitting the plant. According to The Japan Times, the inquest committee said the former executives received a report by June 2009 that the plant could be hit by a tsunami as high as 15.7 meters and that they “failed to take pre-emptive measures knowing the risk of a major tsunami.”
The three executives were not taken into custody and are likely to plead not guilty to the charges arguing that it was impossible to predict the size of the tsunami, according to Abc.net.au. The trial is not expected to begin until next year.
Still, many have been encouraged by the indictment.
"I'm full of emotion," Ruiko Muto, head of a campaign group pushing for a trial, told a Tokyo press briefing. "This will be a great encouragement for hundreds of thousands of nuclear accident victims who are still suffering and facing hardship."
Environmental group Greenpeace also called the charges against the Tepco executives a step forward for Fukushima victims.
"The court proceedings that will now follow should reveal the true extent of Tepco's and the Japanese regulatory system's enormous failure to protect the people of Japan," Hisayo Takada, deputy program director at Greenpeace's Japan office, said in a statement. “Tepco and the Japanese regulator continue to ignore demands to disclose key details of what they know about the causes of the accident. The hundred thousand people who still can’t return home deserve to have all the facts.”
In response to the indictment, a Tepco spokesman said, "We will continue to do our utmost to sincerely address the issue of compensation, decontamination and decommissioning of the plant, and at the same time we express our unflagging resolve to ensure strengthening the safety measures at our nuclear power plant."
The nuclear meltdown forced the evacuation of 160,000 locals who lived around the power plant with many who will never return. The devastating fallout continues to this day, as Scientific American wrote in their upcoming issue:
The plant has yet to stop producing dangerous nuclear waste: its operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), currently circulates water through the three melted units to keep them cool—generating a relentless supply of radioactive water. To make matters worse, groundwater flowing from a hill behind the crippled plant now mingles with radioactive materials before heading into the sea.
Tepco collects the contaminated water and stores it all in massive tanks at the rate of up to 400 metric tons a day. Lately the water has been processed to reduce the concentration of radionuclides, but it still retains high concentrations of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Disputes over its final resting place remain unresolved. The same goes for the millions of bags of contaminated topsoil and other solid waste from the disaster, as well as the uranium fuel itself. Health reports, too, are worrisome. Scientists have seen an increase in thyroid cancers among the children who had lived in Fukushima at the time, although it is too early to tell if those cases can be attributed to the accident.
Indeed, as Beyond Nuclear reported in October, a study examining children who were 18 years and younger at the onset of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown found an increase in thyroid cancers, as predicted by World Health Organization initial dose assessments.
Despite the environmental and human health catastrophe—as well as widespread public opposition—Japan restarted its first nuclear reactor in August.
Protests as Japan restarts nuclear reactor for the first time since 2011 Fukushima disaster. http://t.co/u0sQf3DGwT http://t.co/fnGfEZb272— Al Jazeera English (@Al Jazeera English)1439271655.0
“Five years since the Fukushima accident began, Japan’s nuclear regulator is repeating the same kind of mistakes that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Last week, the plutonium-fueled Takahama 4 reactor was restarted, just days after a radioactive leak in the primary coolant system,” Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement Monday.
“Japan’s nuclear regulator continues to look the other way on major safety issues. The government continues to press ahead with nuclear restarts despite unresolved safety problems that put the public at risk. It’s time to break free from nuclear and embrace the only safe and clean technology that can meet Japan’s needs—renewable energy.”
5 years ago the #Fukushima nuclear disaster happened. @gp_warrior was there. Now it’s back https://t.co/LWVpdZxAU8 https://t.co/8Qi4EqzMrO— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace)1456635607.0
Last week, Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior vessel surveyed waters near the Fukushima plant to take samples from the seabed to be analyzed in independent laboratories in Japan and France.
"It's very important (to see) where is more contaminated and where is less or even almost not contaminated," Greenpeace's Jan Vande Putte told AFP, stressing the importance of such findings for the fishing industry.
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.