The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdowns occurred three years ago on March 11, 2011, following a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, and for several days thereafter. It was the world’s largest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. And after three years, significant discharge of radiation continues to be released into the environment.
Some 150,000 people were evacuated from areas around the Fukushima complex. Many of them feel the government and TEPCO, the private company that operates Fukushima, betrayed them immediately following the accident and in the three years following
A 20-km exclusion zone surrounding Fukushima is the subject of controversy as the government begins to move 30,000 evacuees back in. Those officials say radiation levels are now safe in some parts of the zone. This is all part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to start up Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors by mid 2014, which have been shut down since the Fukushima disaster.
Opposition to Nuclear Reactor Restart
Three former Prime Ministers oppose the reactor restart. Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time of the Fukushima meltdown, is concerned that the reactors might be restarted without Japan having learned the lessons of the meltdown. If radiation had spread just a little further, it would have impacted Tokyo and 50 million people would have had to be evacuated, putting Japan into chaos.
Morihiro Hosokawa, another former prime minister, observed that Fukushima’s damaged reactors and the zones around them cannot be decontaminated to safe levels. He pointed out that compensation for victims has not been sorted out as yet, and causes of the accident have not been investigated properly.
Human Toll of Fukushima
Rising above these concerns is the human toll of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, specifically its refugees. Nuclear Nation: The Fukushima Refugees Story, by Atsushi Funahashi, has just been released on DVD, in Japanese, with English subtitles. The film follows the residents of the town of Futaba, evacuated to a school near Tokyo. There, without jobs or homes, living in overcrowded conditions, they are fed three Bento boxes per day, their lives essentially on hold.
Futaba was the only city to make the decision to evacuate far away from Fukushima, outside of the prefecture. Meanwhile the Japanese government ordered only a 3-km evacuation zone, then 10-km, then 20-km, while an advisory by the American government told Americans in Japan to stay at least 80 km away. The differing directives caused a great deal of confusion amongst those impacted by Fukushima. Many towns evacuated according to the latest directives, moving further away as those directives changed.
Futaba evacuees are allowed to return two hours per day to Futaba, where the tsunami destroyed much of the infrastructure and took 200 lives. Much of the area will be uninhabitable for many years, and evacuees have not received compensation for loss of homes, land, or possessions.
Health Effects as a Result of the Fukushima Meltdown
Loss of family homes and communities, however, is not the only challenge facing Fukushima’s evacuees from Futaba and other impacted areas. Medical authorities in Fukushima prefecture have reported a significant increase in the number of thyroid cancer cases among children and young adults. Because thyroid cancer caused by radiation exposure normally take years to develop post exposure, experts are questioning whether these cancer cases are the product of highly sensitive testing equipment or truly the result of Fukushima radiation exposures. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand Fukushima children and adolescents will continue to be screened regularly throughout their lives. They and their families face a lifetime of worry.
Sadly, the occasion of the third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster brings little good news for those who have been impacted in so many ways. Hopefully, Prim Minister Abe will reconsider the wisdom of restarting Japan’s reactors and instead begin to focus on addressing the needs of those of his citizens who lost so much on March 11, 2011.