March 6, 2012

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Japanese discuss Fukushima one year later

Kitajima, left, (with translator): "People are still living in fear"

PURCHASE – As the world approaches the one-year anniversary of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facilities, communities across the globe are undoubtedly examining their own vulnerabilities to radioactive catastrophe.  But perhaps nowhere are these concerns more pronounced than in the Hudson Valley, home to Indian Point, which sits on the on the banks of the Hudson River in Northern Westchester County.

It was within that context that four visiting Japanese citizens involved in the Fukushima disaster spoke at a conference on emergency preparedness at Manhattanville College in Purchase on Monday.

Kazuhiko Amano, a researcher at the Fukushima University Institute for Disaster Relief, said that a nuclear disaster has a profound and unique effect on the impacted community.  Amano said that in the event of a radiological leak, the affected people will lose their “ancestral home.”

“You are going to lose the place that you grew up in.  That home is going to disappear from you.  That’s going to make your life where you don’t have a past,” Amano said.

The disastrous release of radiation, caused by an offshore earthquake and the devastating tsunami waves that resulted from it, led to an evacuation of the entire area within a 12 mile radius of the plant. 

Noriyuki Kitajima volunteered beginning in September to help clean the site, and is now employed full-time as a subcontractor, working in the trenches to help repair the damage and remove radioactive contaminants.  

While the wages are poor, Kitajima sees the work as his duty not only to his country, but to the entire planet.  “If I did not work there, the radiological disaster might affect the whole world,” he said.   “It was necessary for somebody to go in and work.  I’m doing this to help humanity.”

Kitajima says conditions are slowly improving, but many are still struggling to come to terms with what the disaster will mean in the future.  “People are still living in fear, but they try not to show the fear. They fear inside, but don’t show it to friends, family and outsiders,” he said.  

Up to this point, Kitajima and the other workers at the plant have experienced little, if any effects from the massive doses of radiation to which they have been exposed, but they have been told that it is only a matter of time before their health will be severely impacted.  “We don’t have any symptoms showing right now, but the people working there know that within 3-5 years we will see some signs of sickness,” he said.  

Amano called the radioactive poisoning “invisible, frightening and deadly,” and said it has led to tremendous psychological, cultural, social and interpersonal problems.  Residents in the evacuation zone have been forced to leave and told they will never be able to return.  There have been a large number of suicides, especially among farmers who depend on the land for their livelihood--land that will never again in their lifetimes be available for agricultural cultivation.  

“Right now there are no physical symptoms to the radiation itself.  It’s more of a spiritual and psychological damage that’s occurred.  They have to leave their house, there’s families that are living apart.  There’s a lot of depression going on.  There’s a lot of psychological problems that are happening.  That’s more apparent right now than any physical damage that is happening to people,” said Amano.

Richard Thomas, Director of NY AREA, an advocacy group for energy companies, responded to the event by saying that it’s important to remember that out of the nearly 20,000 that have been killed or are missing, not one of them has died as a result of radiation poisoning.

“None of the lives lost have been directly related to radiological releases,” he said.

While New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has championed the renewal of both of Indian Point’s reactor’s licenses, which expire in 2013 and 2015, many other local and statewide officials have been increasingly vocal in calling for new projects to replace Indian Point’s power output.

Recently, the most prominent opponent of relicensure has become Governor Andrew Cuomo, a resident of New Castle.  Many attendees at the conference hoped that Cuomo’s high popularity can be turned into an agent of change, and finally lead to the closing of the two reactors.   

Thomas believes Cuomo is well intentioned, but is wrong to claim that the energy from Indian Point can be replaced.  “We understand where the governor is coming from, his position is well documented, but we have a different perspective and we look forward to continuing to contribute to the dialogue.”

For Kitajima, the dialogue is a welcome break from his long shifts cleaning up nuclear waste, but that will soon be over and he will return to work in a region that he sadly said, “no women and children can live.”


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