The legacy of Fukushima

March 7, 2013

By Chloe Schwabe, CCAO Advocacy Associate

Fukushima book coverIn March 2011, an earthquake followed by a tsunami in Japan led to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Explosions at the Fukushima Nuclear facility led to toxic chemicals and radioactive nuclear waste spreading into the air and sea. Father Sean McDonagh just released a new book entitled Fukushima: A Death Knell for Nuclear Energy?. Father Sean frames the response of the power plant company and Japanese government as incompetent and deceptive. He also describes the long-term health and economic impacts for the people in Fukushima. Fukushima revealed to the Church and the world the fallacy of nuclear energy as a solution to the challenge of energy production in a changing climate.

As Father Sean notes in his book, the effects will continue to reverberate for generations to come. In recognition of the 2nd anniversary of the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear disaster, I read up on a few of the impacts that Father Sean talks about in his book- food security and public health.

One consequence of Fukushima is both short- and long-term food security for consumers, farmers, and fishing communities in Japan. As Father McDonagh notes in his book, nuclear waste was dumped directly into the Pacific Ocean in order to contain waste that was even more toxic. The fumes and leaked liquid waste contaminated the soil. People who once bought vegetables locally could now only buy vegetables from Western Japan, thus increasing the price of vegetables.

Columban Father and U.S. Regional Director for the Society, Father Tim Mulroy, traveled to Japan last year to visit friends and colleagues he used to work with in Japan including the Fukushima region. There he met with some young farmers. The farmers shared how they found it almost impossible to sell their vegetables due to the water and soil contamination from radiation. They wondered if they should join the others who had already migrated, leaving their houses shuttered, fields abandoned, and the streets deserted.

Fishing communities are also suffering. Greenpeace, whom Father Sean cites throughout his book, estimates that 80% of the radioactive contamination ended up in the Pacific Ocean. Radioactive cesium has been found in fish and could then affect the health of consumers, especially pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, and children.

In October, a marine chemist from Woods Hole Institution studied the fish around Fukushima and found that 40% of the fish was contaminated with levels of radioactive cesium above Japanese government limits. Fishermen and fish vendors cannot sell their fish in the market for the public’s great fear of contamination. The nuclear disaster has destroyed the livelihoods of fishing villages and local vendors.

Photo courtesy of

Future generations of children are also burdened with a higher increase of thyroid problems. The thyroid gland regulates how and when hormones are released that can affect when children begin puberty, how they regulate glucose levels linked to weight gain, and their likelihood of developing cancer. The World Health Organization recently found that girls growing up with radioactive contamination from Fukushima have a 70% chance of developing thyroid cancer. The third Fukushima Health Survey found that 36 percent of children near Fukushima had thyroid growths.

Father Sean highlights how the Catholic Church has shifted its views on the safety of nuclear energy after Fukushima. For years the Vatican was a strong proponent of nuclear energy. After Fukushima, the Vatican’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Association raised concern about nuclear plants around the world, especially in earthquake prone regions, specifically citing the disaster in Fukushima.  Pope Benedict lifted up Fukushima in a January 9, 2012 speech: ‘Finally, I would stress that education cannot fail to foster creation. We cannot disregard the grave natural calamities, which in 2011 affected various regions of Southeast Asia, or ecological disasters like that of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Environmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development.” A number of other conferences of Bishops around the world spoke out in solidarity with the Japanese people and against nuclear power following Fukushima. It is clear that tragedies such as this can remind us of the limits of what human kind should be doing with technology and innovation and give us an opportunity for prophetic witness and action.

Father Paul McCartin in Japan

Father Paul McCartin in Japan

Columban Father Paul McCartin is providing an alternative vision in Japan by promoting sustainable rural communities that grow their own food. He too is growing his own food and providing for the needs of families working with him. The challenge is to find ways to sustain the communities whose livelihoods have been destroyed in Fukushima and who will suffer the long-term health impacts from radiation.  Bishop Galvin, co-founder of the Columban Fathers, was quoted as saying, “Calamities are the forerunners of waves of grace.”  For the people of Japan, and indeed the world, Fukushima has proven to be a calamity of devastating proportions.  As the community of Fukushima, Japan rebuilds, we as an international community of people of faith are called to see that such destruction is not repeated.

To order your copy of Fukushima: The Death Knell for Nuclear Energy? click here.