In March 2011 people all around the world held their breath as the Fukushima nuclear disaster played out on their screens.
Later as the headlines, albeit not the radiation levels faded, it was confirmed that Australian uranium directly fuelled Fukushima.
Rocks dug in Kakadu and northern South Australia were the source of the radioactive fallout threatening Japan and well beyond.
The line of connection was made clearly from a failed reactor complex on Japan’s East coast to the back of a big yellow truck at an Australian mine-site.
This week the man who steered Japan through the critical early days of the continuing crisis is touring Australia with a simple message: there can be no nuclear ‘business as usual’ in the shadow of Fukushima.
Mr Naoto Kan was the Japanese Prime Minister at the time the Fukushima nuclear crisis started in March 2011 after a powerful earthquake and tsunami caused chaos across Japan.
Thousands of people lost their lives, many more were seriously injured and there was widespread property damage.
The disaster led to the high-profile crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that saw around 150,000 people evacuated from the reactor region and large areas affected by elevated levels of radiation.
The costly and complex Fukushima recovery effort remains a significant political issue in Japan where the country’s reactors are still shut down and any attempts to re-start them bitterly contested.
This week environment, Indigenous and public health groups are hosting Fukushima: Facing the Fallout, a national speaking tour with Mr Kan to highlight the risks of Australia’s uranium trade.
Against a context of domestic nuclear promotion with Bob Hawke urging Australia to become the world’s radioactive waste dump and PM Abbott cutting treaty corners and hawking uranium sales to India on a visit there early next month, Mr Kans cautionary tale is timely.
Mr Kan has already spoken in Darwin and visited the embattled Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu where he met with the regions Mirarr Traditional Owners. The Mirarr have the longest lived experience of uranium mining of any Aboriginal people in Australia.
This experience was previously summed up by Mirarr leader Yvonne Margarula with the potent phrase, ‘None of the promises last – but the problems always do.”
Following the Fukushima meltdown the Mirarr leader wrote a powerful note to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stating, “Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad”.
Along with the sadness was a desire for scrutiny, a view shared by Ban Ki Moon when he formally called in September 2011 for Australia to conduct ‘an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material (uranium) on local communities and ecosystems’.
Sadly, and culpably, to date there has been no meaningful response from any Australian government, uranium company, uranium industry body or regulator to the fact that Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima.
Australia is home to around one third of the world’s uranium reserves and uranium has unique and particular properties that demand and require the highest level of scrutiny and rigour.
This is particularly important given that uranium is a dual use fuel – it can fuel nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons and it all, inescapably, becomes nuclear waste.
The sector has been hard hit by a commodity price in freefall post Fukushima and continuing lack of social license and is in urgent need of independent and public scrutiny and review.
Let’s hope that this week Mr Kan’s clear message is heard and heeded: Fukushima is a game changer with Australian fingerprints and our shared energy future must be renewable, not radioactive.