Activists protest at Japan Consulate


Lou Foglia

Balloons held by protesters, from the Chicago-based nuclear energy watchdog group, the Nuclear Energy Information Service, flutter in front of the Chicago Consulate-General of Japan, 737 N. Michigan Ave. The protest marked the four-year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which leaked harmful nuclear isotopes into the ocean after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake cut off power to the facility. 

By Metro Editor

In Japan, they remember 3/11.

To mark the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a small group of activists gathered March 11 outside of the high-rise that houses the Chicago office of the Consulate-General of Japan, 737 N. Michigan Ave., to deliver a letter that calls for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to change Japan’s policy on nuclear energy and close nuclear reactors.

The Nuclear Energy Information Service, an Illinois nuclear energy watchdog group, wrote the letter, which reads: “The primary focus of your government must be on mitigating this catastrophe and preventing further disasters from the Fukushima site—and not on restarting nuclear reactors and exporting nuclear technology, which are a counterproductive diversion of financial, managerial and regulatory resources.”

The 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan in 2011 left more than 18,000 dead. Power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was cut off after the tsunami, causing three reactors to melt down and leak radioactive isotopes into the ocean and atmosphere.

NEIS has protested outside the consulate five times in the last four years, said NEIS Board President Gail Snyder. She said two staffers from Japan’s consulate accepted the letter and she hopes it will be passed along to the Consul-General. The group also gifted the staffers with a cluster of balloons marked with the radioactive waste symbol, which was declined.

The letter also criticizes Japan’s 2013 State Secrets Act, which has barred investigative journalists in Japan from writing about the disaster, as well as an announcement by the owner and operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), admitting nuclear waste had been leaking into the Pacific Ocean for 10 months, unbeknownst to authorities or the public.

Under the State Secrets Act, whistleblowers and journalists in Japan could face jail time for divulging any information the state considers sensitive.

“It shows that they are not being transparent with the public,” Snyder said. “We were concerned before with the Pacific Ocean and the contamination of that whole area in Japan. They’ve picked up fish in California that have tested positive for plutonium after the nuclear 


Nicholas Fisher, distinguished professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York, said although fish found off the coast of California following the Fukushima disaster tested positive for two artificial radioactive isotopes, the levels were nearly undetectable—all fish are radioactive to begin with.

Fisher collected Pacific bluefin tuna off the coast of San Diego in August 2011. The tuna spawn in Western Pacific waters near Japan and some fraction of them, when they are about a year to a year and a half old, migrate across the Pacific to the waters of California and Mexico. They stay for years and eventually migrate back across to the Western Pacific—near Japan. All of the tuna he sampled had been exposed to the Fukushima material. However, they were only 3 percent more radioactive than usual.

“We did calculations of what the dose was to the fish and it’s much lower than that from naturally occurring radionuclides and we did calculations to what the dose would be to seafood consumers in the United States and again, it would essentially be below detection,” Fisher said. “A very, very low dose—much lower than from, say, a dental X-ray.”

Fisher said 99 percent of the radioactivity in the oceans has nothing to do with mankind: Radioactive material present when the earth and oceans were formed is still degrading today. Ocean life has evolved in the presence of radioactive material and adjusted to it. Its presence does not necessarily signal catastrophe.

Fisher added that Fukushima, the largest nuclear accident on any coastline, constitutes a small percentage of human impact on the ocean’s natural radionuclide makeup. The nuclear weapon testing by the U.S. military in the Pacific Ocean during  the 1950s and 1960s made a far greater impact than the 2011 meltdown in Japan, he said.

According to Fisher, the radioactive material leaked in 2011 makes up an extremely small fraction of the radioactive nucleotides in the ocean: Leaked cesium 134 will be 99 percent decayed by 2025, while cesium 137 will not dissipate completely for nearly 200 years.

The only creatures affected in a meaningful way are those still living in the Fukushima harbor, especially bottom-feeders, so fishing in the area has been made illegal.

“The thing about the ocean is it’s huge,” Fisher said. “It’s very deep, and there are a lot of water currents, so the radioactivity doesn’t just stay in one place. It disperses through ocean currents, for example. It doesn’t just stay on the surface, but it goes into deeper water. With that mixing, the concentration of the cesium atoms, for example, declines tremendously. When you look at the concentrations, while detectable, in biota that are say, 100 miles out to sea, they’re much, much lower very near the Fukushima site itself.”

The Fukushima disaster raised new safety questions about the nuclear energy industry, including in Illinois, which has four identical facilities to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Two lie 60 miles southwest of Chicago.

“The problem that presents is not only with the design, but with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s unwillingness to regulate,” said NEIS Director Dave Kraft. 

According to Kraft, the Illinois plants are outdated. In response to the Fukushima disaster, the NRC formed a team of staff scientists to assess possible risks at U.S. facilities. 

The scientists recommended a filtration system be added to clones of the Fukushima reactors in order to prevent radiation from leaking out in the event of a meltdown. The board overruled the proposal in a 4-1 vote. The four Fukushima clones in Illinois could pose a danger, Kraft said.

“We have a situation here, that whatever has already happened must therefore be possible, and yet our regulators in this country are ignoring not just the advice of their own staff, but they’re actually ignoring the actions of the Japanese utilities and the European utilities who believe that it is a significant safety improvement to install these filtering vents on the safety systems that are the older reactors of the same design,” Kraft said.