Satellite image showing damage at Japan's Fukushima 1 Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. 16/03/2011 Source: DigitalGlobe

The unfolding radiation decontamination scandal in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture – the scene of the 2011 nuclear disaster – shows the nuclear industry at its cynical worst.

As a nukes watcher for Greenpeace, I’ve seen a lot in my time – scandals, cover ups and even comedy. But just when I think I’ve seen all the depths to which the nukes industry often sinks, it manages to descend deeper still. Just when I think nothing more could surprise me, along comes Japan’s radiation decontamination scandal to take my breath.

If you haven’t been following the news on our excellent Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Updates, here’s the deal. A few weeks ago Japan’s national newspaper Asahi Shimbun revealed that the companies contracted for a juicy fee to decontaminate areas surrounding the damaged Fukushima reactors had not been doing their jobs properly. Which is putting it mildly.

Radioactive materials, instead of being collected and stored properly, were dumped in rivers and forested areas. Contaminated water from pressure hoses used to spray radioactive mud from boots and equipment was allowed to flow into rivers and ditches.

A site supervisor was photographed kicking debris into a river. Investigations revealed “nearly half of the 242 companies involved in decontamination work in Fukushima Prefecture were found to have violated labor laws in 219 instances.”

What were some of the problems? Strict deadlines that couldn’t be met if the work was to be done properly. Some workers blamed a lack of clear instruction on how to do their jobs. One said some workers hadn’t worn protective footwear in highly radioactive conditions.

“Radiation levels returned even after we completed the work, so there was a sense that what we were doing was worthless,” said another. Workers frustrated and demoralised with their seemingly impossible task saw this as a reason to cut corners. “If we follow the rules [on how to decontaminate], we can never go home,” said one.

The companies involved have admitted a handful of violations but evidence suggests they are much more widespread than anyone is admitting. There are lucrative contracts at stake after all.

And here’s the kicker:

The Environment Ministry, despite receiving thousands of complaints, is powerless. “Since the ministry is not a law enforcement body, there are limitations to the way we look into cases,” said senior vice environment minister Shinji Inoue. “We acknowledge that our investigation, coupled with time constraints, has not been adequate.”

“Has not been adequate.”

I doubt you’ll read a bigger understatement all week. What would it take to make this situation “adequate”? How was this allowed to happen in the first place? Have these people learned nothing in the last two years? Who’s accountable here? Will they be held accountable and if so, how?

My years as a nukes watcher tells me the answers will be “we’ll get back to you”, “don’t know”, “no”, “nobody” and “are you kidding?”

And yet the newly elected government is already talking about restarting reactors. This seems to be very reckless with so much to be done to fix the mess they have now.

The news that the damaged Fukushima reactors are to be replaced with the world’s largest wind farm is welcome indeed. Let’s replace nuclear cynicism with renewable hope.

(Photo: Satellite image showing damage at Fukushima 1 Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant after an earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. Source: DigitalGlobe)