A Nuclear-Free World and Lives of Northeast Asian Women

 

 

 

Ji, Young-sun

- Co-representative, Joint Action for a Nuclear-Free Society -

 

1. Introduction

 

 

The Fushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 reminded us many issues that we have forgotten.

 

 

Firstly, it is not true that North Korea’s nuclear program and unstable inter-Korean relations are the only threats to peace and security of Northeast Asian people. The disaster reminded us of the fact that we constantly live with the huge threat from nuclear power plants. Northeast Asia is the largest hub of nuclear power plants and is the region where nuclear power generation is expanding at the fastest pace. Particularly, the Korean Peninsula is completely surrounded by nuclear power plants: 23 reactors are located in the country along with those in the east coast of China and those in the west coast of Japan, which all face Korea.

 

 

Secondly, the Fukushima accident vividly showed how prone nuclear power plants are to accidents, contrary to what governments had publicized time and time again that they are completely safe, and how disastrous the aftermath of a nuclear disaster was. It is enough to send the chills down our spines to think about a nuclear accident, which would contaminate the whole environment that surrounds us including the air, water, and land with non-visible and non-touchable radiation. Just think about the fact that people cannot live in the contaminated land, people cannot eat foods grown in this land, and contaminated sea waters would spread throughout the world to accumulate radiation in the bodies of all the fish all along the food chain.

 

 

Thirdly, these scary facts drag us to face the ‘inconvenient truth’ about nuclear power generation, which is the truth we have carelessly ignored but rather intentionally covered up. Nuclear power has been publicized to generate a clean energy that is cheap and safe and does not produce greenhouse gases. However, we now know that this energy will actually pass down the horrific threat and burden to our future generations for the purposes of convenience and satisfying greed of the current generation and that its use is a non-ethical and irresponsible act. When we take account of the cost of cleaning up nuclear accidents, this energy is not cheap but dangerous and dirty. In short, even if there were no nuclear accidents, we have to pass down deadly nuclear waste to our children because we have not discovered a single method of getting rid of this waste with currently available technologies.

 

 

Fourthly, nuclear power generation not only leaves unbearable burden to our children but also is violently non-democratic. The astronomical cost of treating nuclear waste is way beyond what a power company can handle and the Fukushima incident clearly demonstrated this fact. The same goes for treating spent nuclear fuel and shutting down old nuclear reactors. The cost will eventually return as suffering and burden to all people. Since it would be difficult to reach consensus if these truths were open to all, a few politicians, bureaucrats, capitalists, scholars, and journalists who are intertwined as stakeholders monopolize the information and decision making on nuclear energy. Their connections are too tight to the point that they are even called the ‘nuclear mafia’. On the other hand, all countries build their nuclear power plants in most economically challenged regions. Armed with grants and subsidies, governments build what people do not want in their backyards in those remote and poor areas. Although they advocate regional development, local people are only awarded with temporary work entailing the risk of radiation exposure. The electricity generated is transmitted via high-voltage cables and used in large cities and businesses. The electricity generated by sacrificing those economically marginalized people is wasted by those with vested interest and fattens the wallets of the nuclear mafia.

 

 

Fifthly, in the backdrop of nuclear power generation lies this fact: nuclear power generation nicely wrapped in the words, ‘peaceful use’, is never separable from nuclear weapons. It is so because the principle behind nuclear power generation is the same as that of nuclear weapons. Plutonium, one of the fissile materials needed to make nuclear weapons, can be produced only in an operating nuclear reactor. This is also why the United States makes an issue out of the uranium enrichment programs of Iran and North Korea. This is also why South Korea and Japan cannot be free from the suspicion that they are obsessed with nuclear reactors because they are open to the possibility of developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, nuclear plants themselves heighten the threat to peace as they increase the risks of military attacks and terrorism.

We women are appalled and worried about the Nuclear Security Summit 2012 held in Seoul, around one year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster that reminded us of the nuclear-related ‘inconvenient truth’. Just because we maintain nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation and protect them from terrorists does not mean we can guarantee peace and security. We reaffirmed the fact that the sheer presence of nuclear plants is the gigantic threat in itself, not to mention the threat of nuclear weapons. When heads of nuclear states including the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, and China convene in one place, the utmost agenda should be nuclear arms reduction. They need to deliberate on not only the safe regulation of nuclear plants but also the reduction of nuclear power generation. Moreover, it is justifiable to criticize the Korean government that is inclined to use this summit as a steppingstone to expand its export of nuclear power generation, rather than learning lessons from the Fukushima accident.

 

 

People of Northeast Asia, especially those enlightened Japanese and Koreans, are active in pursuing denuclearization based on the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster. More than 70% of the Japanese population is said to oppose to nuclear power plants. The antinuclear conference was held in Yokohama, Japan in January 2012 where people from about 30 countries pledged their solidarity. Various activities are also taking place in Korea where some 70 different civil and religious organizations including Korean Federation for Environmental Movements came together to form ‘Joint Action for a Nuclear-Free Society’.

 

 

Amid those voices calling for the abandonment of nuclear programs, the most dire voice comes from women because we cannot help being sensitive to radiation that has devastating effects on children and fetuses. Instead of the governments of Korea and Japan that mislead the danger of nuclear threat, women in both countries are at the forefront in protecting future generations from nuclear radiation through such activities as measuring the levels of radiation on their own. Women are also leading the movement to save energy and active in demanding the governments to change related policies since we know that we need to reduce the wasteful consumption of energy and seek renewable energy sources.

 

 

Even after the Fukushima accident, it is unfortunate that the governments of Japan, Korea and China, which are the countries directly hit by the incident, are still under the grip of nuclear illusion. On the contrary, European countries such as France, Swiss, and Italy have decided to shut down their nuclear power plants. It is now the unavoidable mission by civil society to replace nuclear threat with the chain of peace and life in Northeast Asia where the vicious cycle of nuclear weapons is still lingering. Japan, Korea, and China are collectively the most dangerous zone when it comes to nuclear power generation. Hence, it is urgent for the people of these three countries to come together to walk away from nuclear power generation and strive toward achieving a safe and sustainable society. The people of Northeast Asia must form solidarity to prevent the next Fukushima incident and reduce passing down horrific nuclear waste to our children. It is particularly important for peace loving women to participate actively and implement actions toward this path.

 

 

2. Northeast Asia, the world’s cradle of nuclear plants

 

 

There are 441 operating reactors after the first commercial reactor was commissioned in 1950. The U.S. and most European countries stopped the construction of new reactors after the Chernobyl disaster, but the number of reactors steadily increased in Korea and other Northeast Asian countries. On top of 21 operating reactors, the Korean government is currently building seven reactors and plans to add six more. China, on the other hand, will build 27 more in addition to 14 currently operating reactors. If we add up 54 reactors in Japan, Northeast Asia is the minefield of nuclear power plants, having the most number of nuclear reactors in the world. This is why the people of Northeast Asia are forced to lead the denuclearization movement.

 

 

The U.S. is the number one nuclear country in the world with its 104 nuclear reactors, followed by France with 58; Japan, 54; Russia, 31; and Korea. 21. There have been three major nuclear accidents in the world: the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in the U.S., the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. All three of these accidents occurred in the ‘advanced nuclear power states’, the countries boasting the best nuclear technologies. In short, the more nuclear power plants means the higher possibility of having nuclear accidents.

 

 

Korea ranks number five in the world when it comes to the number of nuclear reactors; however, the country is the world’s number one when it comes to the number of reactors per unit area. Busan, Ulsan, Pohang and other large, most populated cities and key industrial facilities are located within a 20-30 km radius of 10 currently operating nuclear reactors in Kori (including new Kori) and Wolsung (including new Wolsung). Furthermore, the country is besieged by Japanese and Chinese nuclear power reactors nearby. Korea would irrevocably suffer if a nuclear accident were to occur in the Northeast Asian region.

 

 

3. A horrific reality of nuclear accidents

 

 

The Fukushima accident clearly showed how horrendous the aftermath of a nuclear disaster was. It also demonstrated how a government could be such helpless and deceiving in protecting its people during post-disaster events. The Japanese government declared a 20 km radius of the Fukushima plant to be the recommended ‘no-go’ evacuation zone and 30 km, the voluntary evacuation zone. However, in reality, it is reported that radiation spreads as far as 270 km, which meant that it hit Tokyo-To and eight Prefectures including Fukushima, Miyagu, and Gunma and affected 45.3 million people, which was some 1/3 of the Japanese population.

 

 

Aside from those people living in evacuation camps who had left their homes in Fukushima, many Japanese, especially those with children, are said to have evacuated on their own to safer regions such as the Kansai region. Idea historian Abu Saro (矢部史郞) elucidated this situation as having to choose between ‘daily living’ and ‘life’. In other words, they were forced to choose between the two options. One is continue to live in a radiation contaminated region while ignoring the threat to their lives and health just to maintain their work, home and other assets, and existing human relations. The other is to leave after abandoning all of these to protect their lives and health.

 

 

There is a good example of how irresponsibility the Japanese government handled the suffering of its people. Because the Japanese government did not let public know about accurate contamination levels, civil organizations measured the levels of radiation and discovered that they were more than 30~50 times higher than the acceptable levels. When the public demanded the government to take action, it announced that the levels of radiations in local schools were 75% higher than the safe levels. When the parents demanded the government to collectively evacuate just the children, the government’s solution was jerking up the acceptable levels from 1 msV to 20 msV per year.

 

 

4. Nuclear power generation, a luxury apartment with no bathroom

 

 

Through the Fukushima accident, we reconfirmed that nuclear power plants are not safe. Even if there were to be no accidents, they pose potentially fatal problems because they manufacture spent fuel or nuclear waste, which is not safe, to say the least. This radiation-fuming waste needs tens of thousands of years to stabilize. Nevertheless, we humans have not yet to come up with a permanent waste site to store and treat highly radioactive nuclear waste. This is why anti-nuclear activist Takaki Jinjabro called nuclear power generation as a ‘luxury apartment with no bathroom’. Korea is also temporarily storing 11,370 tons of spent uranium fuel rods used during the course of power generation in the 21st century in the spent fuel pools in each nuclear power plant. It is said that these temporary storage sites will reach their maximum capacities by 2016. The Fukushima disaster was resulted because one of its reactors, ie., the reactor number four exploded, where hydrogen exploded when temperatures rose in the cooling pool storing spent fuel when the cooling water level dropped.

 

 

Nuclear power generation is the one that passes down this problematic nuclear waste to the next generations. Shutting down decommissioned nuclear reactors also pose complex problems. It was said that dismantling and treating a unit of reactor cost about KRW 700 billion and require more than 10 years. However, the European Court of Auditors in its special report stated that the cost could be twice as much. Nuclear energy is not only dangerous but also not clean nor cheap, if we take account all the cost of uranium mining and milling, more than 10 years needed to construct a nuclear power plant, the threat of nuclear accidents, and processing of nuclear waste and spent fuel.

 

 

5. Nuclear power, a non-democratic energy

 

 

If all of these facts are revealed to the public, it would be difficult to build nuclear power plants. It is true that new plants have not been built in the Western world since the Chernobyl disaster because they are not economically viable when taking account the cost of nuclear accidents and waste treatment. Despite this trend of walking away from building nuclear power plants in the West, Korea, China, and Japan have continued to pursue nuclear power generation at the national level by building more nuclear plants. A few nuclear mafia including capitalists, politicians, bureaucrats, scholars, and journalists brainwashed people through truth-concealing publicity and making decisions exclusively on their own. Nuclear energy is basically a non-democratic energy. This is why the democratic ways of Germany and Italy stand out. Germany has decided to close down all nuclear power plants by 2022 based on the decision reached by the 'ethics committee', composed of nuclear experts and non-experts who were people representing all sectors of the German society. The decision was reached after the committee deliberated tens of hours through televised discussions. Italy, on the other hand, decided to do away with nuclear energy through a national referendum. In Japan, the campaign is being carried out to secure 10 million signatures to hold a national referendum to decide whether to completely abandon nuclear power plants.

 

 

Building nuclear power plants in remote and underdeveloped regions by coaxing local people with grants and subsidies is non-democratic. Driving those local people, who are the economic weak of the society, into subcontract jobs of having to perform dangerous tasks while bearing the risk of being directly exposed to radiation is another non-democratic aspect of nuclear power generation.

 

 

6. Nuclear generation and nuclear bombs, two-sides to the coin

 

 

In 1953 American president Dwight D. Eisenhower declared ‘atoms for peace’. By doing so, the evil image of atomic energy that had taken the lives of tens of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki took the form of a peaceful image by assuming the new name, nuclear energy. However, atomic energy and nuclear energy are not different: they are just two sides of the coin.

 

 

The atomic nucleus is the central core of an atom, which is the basic unit of matter. Nuclear fission or the splitting of a nucleus is not something that occurs naturally and by no means, cannot happen easily. A huge amount of energy is released when the nucleus is forced to break down when tremendous external force is applied. A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one nuclear reaction causes other nuclei to split or go through fission, which in turn, results in huge explosions seen with the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Nuclear power generation is the outcome when electricity is produced by turing the turbines using these explosions that are controlled with control rods and cooling systems. As we have encountered through the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, a nuclear reactor would turn to a nuclear bomb in case the control or cooling system fails.

 

 

A fission nuclear reactor was initially designed to breed plutonium-239 from uranium-239. The ‘reprocessing’ process was invented to extract the resulting plutonium. Plutonium produced from the nuclear reactors at Hanford Site in Washington state of the U.S. was used to make the first nuclear bombs detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. In other words, these bombs were produced at the very nuclear reactors that were supposed to be for ‘peaceful use’. India detonated its first nuclear explosive in 1974 using plutonium produced from the research nuclear reactor exported/donated by Canada.

 

 

It has been reported that Japan has operated 54 nuclear reactors, has its own reprocessing facilities, and secured 45 tons of plutonium extracted by sending plutonium produced in their facilities to reprocessing facilities in the U.K and France. The country has spent more than JPY 1 trillion to develop fast breeder reactors (FBR), which produce more fissile material than they consume. Japan is ready to make a nuclear bomb whenever they wish. Many people agree that Japan has been obsessed with the nuclear-related industry and poured much energy and resource into the sector because they are open to the possibility of developing nuclear weapons.

 

 

Korea has been pursuing the same path as Japan through such efforts as the ‘nuclear cluster’ project to develop spent fuel reprocessing and FBR technologies. Can Korea be free from the same suspicion?

 

 

7. A nuclear-free world, not ‘nuclear security’

 

 

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit opens in Seoul, Korea from the 26th to the 27th of March with such such participants as heads of some 50 countries and four international organizations including the U.N. We women cannot stop our worries and disappointments as the world shows heightened interest in nuclear-related subjects, especially when the summit is being held close to one-year anniversary of the Fukushima incident. It is the second conference after the first summit in Washington D.C. in 2010, which was held after President Obama showed his intention to rid of nuclear weapons in the world during his first overseas trip to Eastern European countries in April 2009 after his inauguration.

 

 

The summit’s agenda includes ① international cooperation to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, ② prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, and ③ protection of nuclear materials and related materials. Is it not more logical to adopt how to reduce nuclear reactors in Northeast Asia as part of the agenda during this summit that is being held in Northeast Asia that suffered the irreversible nuclear disaster just a year ago? Talking about nuclear security standards or protecting nuclear plants will not be enough. As I have mentioned before, nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons are inseparable. Nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation will continue as long as we do not reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in and of themselves. As long as the nuclear states led by the U.S. do not abandon nuclear weapons and their vested interest, nuclear proliferation will not be stoppable.

 

 

Particularly, it would simply be a mirage to ask North Korea to abandon its nuclear program when the possibility of a nuclear attack on North Korea is open while the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea is maintained. Solving the nuclear program issue of North Korea is closely tied to establishing a peaceful regime on the Korean Peninsula and normalizing the U.S.-North Korea relationship. This is why six-party nations including the U.S. need to talk and deliberate actively.

 

 

However, the Korean government is trying to utilize this summit as the ‘embers of light’ to reignite the period of ‘nuclear renaissance’ and as a steppingstone to transform Korea into one of the ‘nuclear-power’ states. The country is trying to achieve this very goal at the 2012 Nuclear Industry Summit, held as one of the pre-summit events, where the movers and shakers of the global nuclear industry will convene. This is very comical indeed.

 

 

8. A nuclear-free world and lives of women in Northeast Asia

 

 

After the Fukushima disaster, Korean and Japanese civil societies are actively pursuing the movement to rid of nuclear power generation, contrary to their governments that still linger on the subject. The 2012 Yokohama Nuclear Free Conference (January 14-15, 2012) in Japan attracted some 15,000 participants from 30 different countries who participated in various events, including the experts conference, assemblymen’s forum, activists’ workshops, parent-child meetings, movie showing, performances, and exhibitions.

 

 

At the closing ceremony, the ‘Yokohama Declaration for a Nuclear Free World’ was proclaimed, defining ① the rights of Fukushima victims, ② obligations of the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, ③ minimization of radiation exposures on people, ④ preparation of a global denuclearization progress report, ⑤ prevention of the reopening shut down nuclear reactors in Japan, and ⑥banning of nuclear exports to developing nations.

 

 

During the past year in Korea, various organizations were formed for a nuclear-free world. They include the expert groups such as the ‘Denuclearization Conference by Academics and Professors’, ‘Anti-Nuclear Doctors’ Association’, and ‘Lawyers for Denuclearization’. Moreover, some 70 different civil and religious organizations came together to form ‘Joint Action for a Nuclear-Free Society’. In addition to the mayor of Seoul who announced to drop one nuclear reactor by 2014 through decreasing electricity waste and generating renewable energy, heads of 45 local governments adopted the ‘Denuclearization Statement’. People and these organizations have the following goals in mind in pursuing their activities. The first is to shut down old nuclear reactors including the Kori number one (operating under extension after its 30 year life cycle) and Wolsong number one (due to extension this year). The second is to oppose the designation of new nuclear plant sites in the Yongduk and Samchuck regions on top of seven reactors under construction and six planned. And the third is to convince the Korean government to adopt the ‘denuclearization scenario’ fostering wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy, while reducing dependency on nuclear energy.

 

 

In the foundation for the denuclearization movement in Korea and Japan, there lie different activities of women who want to protect the lives of people. Japan’s ‘National Network for the Protection of Children from Radiation’is the solidarity forged by many parents’ organizations. The ‘Parent-Child Support Network’ extends support to protect mothers-to-be and children from nuclear radiation harms through such activities as surveying the levels of radiation exposure. Its representative Uno Sayeko (우노 사에코) emphasized that eventually, we cannot expect any government to be willing to protect the lives of its people so let civil society transcend borders and come together to protect ourselves.

 

 

Even in Korea, when the government and media did not show continued interest in nuclear radiation exposure. mothers got on the Internet and collected and shared trends and information from Japan, bought radiation gauges to measure the levels of radiation in foods and from their surroundings, and demanded the government to find radiation solutions. These women were the ones who discovered radiation-soaked asphalt last year and let the local government remove it in Wolgye-dong, Seoul.

 

 

It is urgent for people of Japan, Korea, and China come together to walk the road toward a nuclear free world by reducing the number of nuclear reactors in Northeast Asia, the biggest nuclear threat zone in the world. We need to walk the same path because the nuclear energy policies of the three countries are bound to affect one another. We need to sever the chain of the vicious nuclear cycle that connects the three countries. Women have to take a pivotal role in those life-protecting activities. I hope for active participation and warm solidarity among Northeast Asian women in the path toward a safe, peaceful and nuclear-free world.

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