The Fukushima Daiichai nuclear disaster, occurring more than two and a half years ago, exposed Japan to the pitfalls of nuclear energy and defined international headlines for weeks. Yet, the site continues to leak radiation into international waters, contaminating marine food webs and threatening human health on a global scale.

For Japan, the experience has not only brought about environmental devastation, but also a two-sided response from its citizenry, as both volunteers as well as forced laborers work to clean the danger zones of the abandoned power plant.

New data challenge initial reports

A plume of radioactive debris continues to circulate around the Pacific Rim, and new reports confirm that fallout from the meltdown has infected coastal fish in California and increased the state’s rate of hypothyroidism in newborns.

In April 2011 Anchorage Daily News reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they would no longer test fish of the Pacific Ocean, affirming that “it was not necessary.”FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey confirmed working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor US waters, but neither organization offered further details about their efforts.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) reaffirmed the FDA’s confidence and defended that no radioactive fish had been detected in U.S. waters, despite the stoppage of testing, and that even low levels of radioactive materials “[did] not indicate any level of public health concern.”

In May 2012, a Stanford University research study led by marine ecologist Daniel Madigan proved that every bluefin tuna they tested contained low levels of radioactive cesium-134 and -137. Madigan was quoted as saying, “The tuna packaged it up (the radiation) and brought it across the world’s largest ocean.” The study proved useful in understanding the origin and timing of migrating tuna and how radioactivity from Fukushima can trace migration patterns of many species.

The results of the Stanford study confound initial reports made by U.S. health agencies, but are not the only source of contention. Most recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that “the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi NNP accident are likely to remain below detectable levels.”

Yet, new data compiled by Joe Mangano and Janette Sherman of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York, and Christopher Busby, guest researcher at Jacobs University, Bremen, show that cases of hypothyroidism increased by 21 per cent in babies born between March and December of 2011 as compared to babies born before the disaster and in 2012.Their complete results are published in the peer-reviewed Open Journal of Pediatrics.

Weeks following the explosion, radiation from Fukushima had carried over the Pacific Ocean, precipitated over California pastures and been detected in cattle milk at levels 181 times above the drinking water standard. In May 2011, the Norwegian Air Laboratory mapped the potential of radioactive Iodine-131 to travel over long distances in the atmosphere. However, US authorities claimed that radioactive elements in small amounts were not harmful to human health.

Speaking on behalf of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch, Patty Lovera said, “The official mantra from a lot of folks in government is, ‘Oh, it’s OK in low levels. But low levels add up.” Researcher Christopher Busby adds that this ‘mantra’ “provides essential cover for the use of uranium weapons… development of nuclear power stations… [and] burying of radioactive waste in landfills…”

With an estimated 300 tons of radioactive water flowing into the ocean every day and more into the atmosphere, many worry that the Pacific Ocean can no longer sustain food supplies safe to human health. On 13 September, 2013, seventeen environmental and energy experts across the world signed a letter to the U.N.’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, urging him to “Prevail upon international organizations and Japan to replace Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) with a worldwide engineering group to take charge of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.”

Two sides of the same coin

On the ground, some 700 retired skilled workers in Tokyo, led by Yastel Yamada, proposed to volunteer their services to begin clean up of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and begin the recovery process. At age 72, retired engineer Yastel Yamada feels obligated to help in place of younger generations and does not worry about disease, saying “By the time we develop cancer, we will be dead anyway.” The Yamada-led Skilled Veterans Corps Fukushima (SVCF) believes that older generations, whom have “consciously or unconsciously, approved the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants and enjoyed the benefits of the vast supply of electricity generated… should be the first to join the Skilled Veteran Corps.”

Currently, the Tokyo Electric Power Company has not permitted anyone to enter the radioactive site, and maintains its own recovery process with the endorsement of the national government. The company expects for a 40 year long recovery process, but Yamada believes that Fukushima will require at least 50 years to clean up and probably much longer than that.

For now, SVCF is working to mount international pressure on Japan to introduce a team of global experts into the recovery process and release TEPCO of all plant and clean up responsibility.

Elsewhere, homeless men have been coerced into working in the clean up, including some threatened by Japan’s powerful yakuza gang, according to Russia Today . This workforce, unaware of the associated health risks, “were given no insurance for health risks, no radiation meters even,” according to one worker.“We were treated like nothing, like disposable people – they promised things and then kicked us out when we received a large radiation doze,” he told RT.

Investigative journalist Tomohiko Suzuki reported that many laborers have been threatened by the yakuza gang to work, and are often unemployed, homeless and mentally disabled. He explained that for construction projects in Japan, private companies will regularly employ gang syndicates to gather workers and force them to work in rough conditions. In this case, “the government calledTEPCO to take urgent action, TEPCO relayed it to their subcontractors and they, eventually, as they had a shortage of available workers, called the yakuza for help.”

Arrests have been made of suspected yakuza members accused of sending workers to the clean up site, including Yoshinori Arai, who reportedly stole up to $60,000 of workers’ salary over the course of two years.

The Green Shadow Cabinet recently created a petition calling for the Japanese government and the U.N. to provide 24-hour media access to information and institute a 15 point plan addressing the crisis at Fukushima.