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Lessons from Fukushima: What (not) to do after a nuclear accident

If – yes, if – nuclear power has a future, much will depend on how we react after a meltdown. What happened in Fukushima in March 2011 does not bode well. In this 4-part longread, environmental author Marco Visscher takes a deep dive into the nuclear accident in Japan. It appears that the impact on public health is mainly due to anxiety, that journalists have spread scare stories, and that the mass evacuation has done more harm than good.


(Photo: Douglas Sprott/Flickr)


1.

Satoru Yamauchi misses his noodle restaurant. Upon returning after many long years, he acknowledges it meant everything to him. ‘It was my life,’ he says. His voice cracks.

It will be hard to start over again. Growing rice or picking wild plants in this area isn’t allowed. How should he prepare his famous tempura with seasonal vegetables?

And for whom? Yamauchi doesn’t yet see many potential customers in Naraha, the first village in the province of Fukushima to be declared habitable again in 2015, four and a half years after radiation escaped from the nearby nuclear plant and some 160,000 people were forced to evacuate.

Yamauchi will never forget that disastrous Friday in March 2011. In the early afternoon, Yamauchi is working in his noodle restaurant when the ground begins to tremble beneath his feet. It will be one of the worst earthquakes ever measured. Throughout Eastern Japan, buildings shake and collapse. Some people get trapped, others crushed. Gas cookers and power lines break. Fires start.

Then Yamauchi hears a warning: a tsunami is coming. He makes his way out and dashes up the hills. The first waves rushing over the land are ten metres high, much taller than the alarm had announced. The highest is nearly 40 metres. Cars, houses and entire villages wash away.

The force of the natural violence on that cold day is beyond comprehension. The whole of Japan’s main island shifts a few metres. The vibration of the seabed reaches as far as Antarctica, where ice mountains break off. All the way on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Chile, the waves are still two metres high. The death toll from the natural disaster on 11 March 2011 will eventually be determined at almost twenty thousand, plus a few thousand missing.

For Satoru Yamauchi, the damage is not too bad, or so it seems. He himself, his wife and their four children are unharmed. Their house on the hillside has not been swept away. Their dog is doing fine. His family is relieved to find themselves amongst the lucky ones.

Soon enough, they don’t feel so lucky anymore.

The force of the natural violence on that cold day is beyond comprehension. The whole of Japan’s main island shifts a few metres

Something is wrong at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Okuma, 20 kilometres away. Sensors have detected the coming of an earthquake in time and the reactors have shut down automatically. However, cooling the fuel rods in the reactor cores is a problem. The power needed to pump water around has failed and the emergency diesel generators in the basement aren’t working either due to water damage. The temperature inside the reactors is rising…

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is not sharing any of this information when he appears on TV at around 5 PM. In a brief statement, he expresses his condolences to compatriots who have been affected by the tsunami. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, he says: ‘As for our nuclear power facilities, a portion of them stopped their operations automatically. At present we have no reports of any radioactive materials or otherwise affecting the surrounding areas.’

He asks everyone to remain calm.

Behind the scenes, Kan himself is anything but calm. The head of government, already plagued by political affairs, shouts and snarls at his staff. In his 2021 book Meltdown: Inside the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, Yoichi Funabashi notes that Kan, fearing the consequences of an overheated nuclear reactor, kept saying, to no one in particular, sometimes loudly, sometimes muttering: ‘It’s the same thing as Chernobyl! It’ll be just like Chernobyl.’

While some pray for the nuclear reactor to cool down quickly, a close associate writes in his memo: ‘It’s Kan who needs cooling down.’

Later that evening, Kan declares a nuclear emergency.

Evacuation orders follow in quick succession. First a two-kilometre radius around the nuclear plant, then 10 kilometres, then 20. Now the Yamauchis in Naraha have to move as well, right now. Buses show up, some with squealing tyres, and everyone squeezes in. This is how Satoru Yamauchi ends up in a shelter. He makes himself useful in the soup kitchen.

The days are full of dread. Workers at energy company TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), owner of the nuclear plant, are making frantic efforts to bring the situation in Daiichi under control. In the absence of power to keep the cooling system functioning, the water may eventually turn into hydrogen, which can explode. This is what happens. In the following days, there are three hydrogen explosions in the reactor buildings. Everyone sees the footage. Everyone is shocked.

According to Funabashi's account, this time it’s the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary who says: ‘Isn’t that an explosion like the one at Chernobyl? Isn’t the same thing happening that happened at Chernobyl?’

The rising grey cloud is reminiscent of Godzilla, the awakening sea monster.

Fearing the consequences of an overheated nuclear reactor, Prime Minister Kan keeps saying: ‘It’s the same thing as Chernobyl! It’ll be just like Chernobyl’

Rumours start. TEPCO’s staff and Emperor Akihito are said to have fled. Someone said someone saw a mushroom cloud. A mushroom cloud? No one in Japan has forgotten the horror of the atomic bomb. Let’s get out of here!

Roads are jammed with cars. People stuck in traffic have escaped the rushing water, but are now wondering how to elude the mysterious poison in the air. It was said that most of the radiation was blown towards the sea. But what if the wind turns? What if it starts to rain or snow?

Satoru Yamauchi, too, is in doubt. His children beg him: ‘We don’t want to die from radiation. Let’s go to Tokyo.’

And there, in Tokyo, at a safe 200 kilometres from the nuclear plant that would dominate world news for weeks, their problems begin. Feelings of depression and a lack of purpose bubble up and won’t budge. At school, the children are bullied and excluded; they’re said to be radioactive. The family also faces financial problems, despite the monthly allowance for all those who had to flee their homes.

Years later, back in Naraha, Yamauchi says, ‘Psychologically we were wrecked.’ He himself takes pills for high blood pressure.

Like tens of thousands of others, Yamauchi tried to build a life elsewhere, and is now full of doubts upon his return. ‘I want my old life back,’ he says, ‘but I don’t think it’s possible here.’ For him and his family, it feels like they live with a death sentence, marked by the radioactive cloud hovering over them.

The return of the Yamauchis and their fellow villagers to Naraha is possible now that the government has finally lifted the evacuation order. The abandoned areas have now been sufficiently cleaned. The topsoil has been scraped off and put into bags, the earth shovelled over. Houses, offices and streets have been rinsed clean. Leaves have been removed from trees.

The cost for the whole province: about 7 trillion yen (more than 40 billion GBP). And the costs are spiralling.

While the invisible danger is brushed away, something else just as imperceptible takes its place: suspicion

However, while the invisible danger is brushed away, something else just as imperceptible takes its place: suspicion.

Is it really safe?

Is there really no health risk anymore?

What’s up with those Geiger counters that the government distributed to all residents so they can measure the radiation level themselves? Have they been tampered with? After all, looking at those meters, nothing much seems to be going on. Are our leaders hiding something?

Satoru Yamauchi also fails to feel relieved. ‘There is nothing good about going back.’

If – yes, if – nuclear power has a future, much will depend on how we react after a nuclear accident. What happened in Fukushima does not bode well. Naoto Kan got it right: Fukushima became ‘just like Chernobyl’. But not quite as he had in mind...



Marco Visscher is a Netherlands-based journalist and author of several books on energy and environment. He’s involved with RePlanet as its editor-in-chief. This article is an edited excerpt from his 2022 book Waarom we niet bang hoeven te zijn voor kernenergie (Why we need not fear nuclear power).



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