Fukushima remains a profound human, economic and environmental tragedy - and Australian uranium exports must shoulder some of that blame, writes Dave Sweeney

Four years ago this week the world held its breath as the nuclear emergency at the stricken Fukushima nuclear complex dominated our screens and headlines. The vision of smoke billowing from reactor 4 as it teetered on the edge of meltdown remains frighteningly vivid today.

On March 11, 2011 the earthquake and tsunami that ripped through much of Japan’s eastern seaboard also ripped through the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation’s (TEPCO) Fukushima-Daichi nuclear complex.

Later that year came confirmation from Canberra that the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima had its beginning in the back of a large yellow truck in Australia.

Giving evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in October Dr Robert Floyd, the head of Australia’s nuclear safeguards office stated: we can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material [uranium] was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors.

So radioactive rocks dug up in northern South Australia and Kakadu are the source of the Fukushima fallout threatening Japan and far beyond.

Fast forward to 2015 and at the end of this week – aptly enough on Friday the 13th - public comment closes on the South Australian state governments new Royal Commission into all things nuclear.

In the shadow of Fukushima – a continuing crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium – it is important that the experiences lived and the lessons learned are not forgotten or ignored.

But it seems that not many in decision making positions in either Australian governments or uranium corporations are in a mood for listening.

Following Fukushima the United Nations Secretary General initiated a system wide study into what happened and what is needed to avoid any future Fukushima’s.

One aspect of this review with particular relevance to Australia was the Secretary General’s call for ‘an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material [uranium] on local communities and ecosystems’.

Hardly too onerous or unreasonable: Australian uranium had just fuelled a category seven nuclear disaster, the highest international crisis level - and all the promises of best practise and highest standards were looking as shabby as the Fukushima containment vessel – surely a review of practises and processes was warranted.

Not according to the Australian Uranium Association, or the two major uranium producers BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, or any state, territory or federal government.

No review or in-depth assessment has ever taken place. There have been numerous politicians prepared to rally in support of the under-performing uranium sector or to talk up future prospects for nuclear power – but not one politician or uranium industry leader has had the courage, capacity or courtesy to fulfil Ban Ki Moons modest request.

I60,000 people were evacuated from areas up to fifty kilometres from the stricken Fukushima complex. Most have not returned home and most never will.

Rehabilitation work at the nuclear complex will take at least forty years and the damage toll is rising with the Japan Centre for Economic Research currently estimating costs ranging from 50 to 170 billion Euros.

On site water management and groundwater intrusion remain continuing and severe problems and massive radiation plumes are routinely released into the Pacific.

The regional economy has been massively and adversely impacted, the social fabric torn and confidence in the assurances of government and industry under-mined.

Worth a review, surely.

But instead of a measured review into how Australia sold uranium to a utility with a self-declared ‘lack of safety culture’ and in so doing fuelled a massive disaster we get a federal government that wants to hand uranium licensing powers over to the states, an accelerated rush to ink increasingly irresponsible uranium deals – including the current India plan – and now a state nuclear Royal Commission in South Australia that seeks to quarantine the uranium sector from criticism or scrutiny.

There are clear lessons from Fukushima for Australia. No system is foolproof and our nuclear safeguards and checks and balances need to be reviewed and re-calibrated, collusion and complacency between regulators and operators – whether at the mine or the reactor – leads to reduced performance and safety, and nuclear accidents are severe, long-lasting and we are all involved as fallout needs no visa and respects no border.

At this fourth anniversary it is time for Australia to stop making excuses and promises and start taking real steps to identify the costs and consequences of our role in fuelling the global nuclear trade.

Fukushima remains a profound human, economic and environmental tragedy and our uranium fuelled the fire. If we fail to act and allow assurances to take the place of evidence then we are both failing those affected by Fukushima and increasing the odds of fuelling a future one.

Only this time, we won’t be able to say we didn’t know – rather that we simply failed to act.

  • Dave Sweeney travelled to Fukushima in 2012 with a group of international experts to assess health impacts of the nuclear disaster
  • This article first published at SBS

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.