Activist and farmer Tomoyo Tamayama was already an expert in the ways radiation exposure can disrupt communities when earthquakes shook Japan’s Pacific coast in 2011.
The quakes and associated tsunami irreversibly damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, causing a series of explosions and the largest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the Soviet Union. Radiation from Fukushima was later detected as far away as California, and more than 150,000 people were evacuated.
“The Fukushima disaster changed my life,” Tamayama, who attended Utah State University in the early 2000s and currently runs a small organic farm in the Hyogo Prefecture in southern Japan, said. Prior to the tsunami, she had spent several years working on a PhD dissertation in anthropology that focused on the legacy of uranium mining on the eastern Navajo Nation. When she brought the Geiger counter she had used for her academic research to the outskirts of the Fukushima area, the readings were sobering.
“It was 10 times higher than anywhere else I’d ever been,” she said. “We can’t feel [radiation]. We can’t smell it. We can’t know anything about it physically, but the Geiger counter was saying I shouldn’t be here.”
Tamayama’s dissertation work was delayed as she became more involved with activism, including with the anti-nuclear power Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo.
Having participated in nuclear-related organizing and research for over a decade, her latest campaign is surprising to some: Tamayama and other activists are opposing plans to remove radioactive material from two government sites in Japan and ship it to a uranium mill in Utah.
In May, Energy Fuels, a Colorado-based company that owns several uranium mines and a uranium mill in San Juan County, submitted plans to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to import 136 tons of natural uranium-bearing ores and other materials from Japan.
The material, which was used to test uranium extraction and mine reclamation techniques by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), includes natural uranium ore as well as uranium-loaded sands, resins and carbon. The state is allowing Energy Fuels to import the material under its current operating permits.
In the early 2000s, the Japanese government faced pressure from local residents to remove the radioactive soils in Tottori Prefecture, one of the two sites linked to the current proposal. Japan’s Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the soil had to be cleaned up or authorities would face fines. The following year, White Mesa Mill, which was then owned by the Canadian company Denison Mines, was paid over $6 million by JAEA to import 500 tons of contaminated soil from the site for processing.
Energy Fuels wants to repeat the process with the current, smaller proposal, which it says will amount to recycling the uranium in the material into yellowcake that can be used in nuclear power plants and to place the remainder of the material in designated holding cells.
Tamayama also wants to see a permanent solution for the material, most of which is temporarily stored in metal drums at government-run sites. “Local people have fought against JAEA for many, many years to remove the pollution,” she said. “We have no facilities [in Japan] to process this ore and equivalent feed materials that have uranium.”
She recently visited the Ningyotoge center, a JAEA site located about 125 miles from her home, with a small group of local activists, and she expressed concerns about unlined tailing ponds that could fail in the event of an earthquake in the seismically active country. Cleanup isn’t expected to be completed for another 30 to 50 years.
But the project has become a major driver of the area’s economy, providing 300 good-paying, rural jobs, Tamayama said. Many locals want to see the material, which is regulated as low-level radioactive waste if it remains in Japan, be stored as safely as possible on-site.
“Some think they can live with the wastes as long as JAEA pays for [their storage],” she said.
Additionally, Tamayama fears exporting the material to southeast Utah on the edge of Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo Nation lands will shift the burden onto a population that has already suffered from exposure to under-regulated uranium production during the 20th century. Around a quarter of Navajo women and some infants who participated in a recent federally funded study were found to have alarmingly high levels of uranium in their bodies.
“These are Japanese wastes,” Tamayama said. “We have to clean them up, [but we] have to do [so] within the country of Japan. We don’t want these wastes to harm other environmental justice communities like Ute Mountain Ute people.”
Energy Fuels’ president and CEO Mark Chalmers said that comparing the legacy of decades-old radioactive contamination in the Four Corners to current, highly regulated activities at the mill is a false equivalency.
“The White Mesa Mill can receive and process this material safely under our existing license and permits in the same manner as other uranium-bearing ores received at the mill on a routine basis,” Chalmers said. “We are proud of the fact that the mill is able to safely recycle valuable resources from these materials, which would otherwise have been lost to direct disposal, and to be able to provide green jobs to residents of San Juan County.”
JAEA’s offices are closed for the New Year, and they did not return a request for comment. But Tamayama translated a recent letter she received from the agency regarding the material.
“It should be noted that as long as we think these uranium[-bearing materials] etc. can be reused efficiently,” JAEA wrote, “they are not recognized as radioactive wastes. Therefore, they do not have to be buried 50 to 100 meters ... underground.
Chalmers added that yellowcake produced for nuclear power plants helps the effort to combat global warming.
“Every bit of uranium we can recycle means the world needs to burn less carbon-emitting fuel sources,” he said.
Tamayama said the safety of nuclear power is still a fierce debate in Japan, however. She wrote an article about White Mesa Mill for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, and activists are lobbying Japanese lawmakers to oppose the exports.
In the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in March, the activists plan to hold a rally at JAEA headquarters and to deliver petitions from citizens opposing the shipment.
“So far, we have not been able to do anything about it,” she said. “Still, we are making noise, trying to stop as much as we can.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.