Fukushima disaster: The World’s most dangerous room — TIME

Here is a TIME piece by Hannah Beech with some excellent photography by Dominic Nahr. I included a few paragraphs that stood out to me in importance, but I urge you to read the entire story. This piece also includes a video that addresses rising suicides rates in Fukushima prefecture and the “mental and psychological fallout of the accident,” both topics that have lacked in discussions in mass media. I was unable to embed the video in this post, by I recommend watching that as well.

” … It’s a truism, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Japan is perhaps the world’s most collectivist society. But what happens when that collective trust is so fundamentally breached? Fukushima was not just an epic natural disaster in a nation long conditioned to frequent betrayals by land and sea. It was also a man-made crisis, born of political hubris, corporate dereliction and an instinct to obscure Japan’s ugliest elements that remains unchanged to this day. The Japanese, as a people, may bow before the temple of precision, fetishizing detail and safety. But Fukushima proved that no matter how many cool innovations Japanese companies churn out, a lack of oversight and emergency initiative can be deadly.

You’d think, for example, that a nation ranking as one of the world’s most seismically active would take heed when building a nuclear plant on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Yet TEPCO’s disaster plan and post­accident ­coordination were woeful. It had ignored a joint government and utility-­company study on potential inundation by a tsunami. TEPCO’s advisory ranks were weighed down with too many retired officials. But the fault went well beyond one power company. The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, authorized by Japan’s parliament, was damning in its 2012 report on the nuclear meltdown: “What must be ­admitted—­very ­painfully—is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” The panel, composed of Japanese scientists, doctors and engineers, among others, continued with a candor exceptional for Japan: “The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mind-set that supported it can be found across Japan.” … ”

… About 125,000 Fukushima residents, most of whom used to reside within an 18-mile (30 km) radius of the nuclear station, still exist as evacuees because their homes are within a government-mandated exclusion zone. Some now subsist in prefab units more evocative of a third-world disaster zone than the world’s third largest economy. In June the Ministry of Environment admitted that decontamination efforts in some towns near the stricken plant had failed; residents cannot return, even if they want to. Fear has infected other neighborhoods as parents wonder whether the radiation clouds that spewed out of the ruined reactors in the days following the tsunami harmed their children. At the disabled plant itself, many experienced employees have reached the official limit on maximum dosages of ­radiation—­leaving critical work in less skilled hands. …

… Atomic power is entrenched in the Japanese government. In 2009 more than 70% of individual donations to the now ruling Liberal Democratic Party came from current or former electric-­company executives. The LDP supports restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants, which were idled by a previous government. Toshikazu Okuya, director of the energy supply and demand office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, frames the need to restart the reactors as both environmental and economic in a land starved of domestic energy resources. Japan’s greenhouse-­gas emissions increased by 7% from 2010 to 2012 as imported fossil fuels replaced carbon-­free nuclear. The ­government has ­estimated the direct impact of the nuclear shutdown to be $35.4 billion a year—this at a time when Abe is trying to revive the national economy. “We cannot say there is no risk,” Okuya admits of nuclear power. But “we need to try to take back public confidence.”

In Fukushima, that starts with mothers, an unlikely demographic that has become politically active and increasingly anti­nuclear. For months after the meltdown, Kayoko Hashimoto’s daughter wore a dosimeter to school, just as authorities urged. The radiation cloud had passed over the region, but locals were told the area was safe. So why was her daughter’s dosimeter recording high levels of radiation? Hashimoto bought a top-of-the-line dosimeter and began testing the route her daughter took to school. To her shock, she discovered tiny hot spots of radiation throughout the community: one by a bakery, another by a dog kennel, still another in the school parking lot. These levels were even higher than in some towns that had limited outdoor playtime because of fears over radiation exposure. The health effects of such small hot spots aren’t clear, but Hashimoto is worried. “People are scared of radioactivity,” she says, “but they don’t want to make a fuss or draw attention to themselves.”

Hashimoto has also campaigned against the storage of decontamination waste on school grounds. Piles of black plastic bags—filled with radiation-­tainted topsoil and ­vegetation—are scattered across Fukushima. But no one wants a formal dumping ground near them. Even designating temporary storage sites for the bags is difficult, which is why schools have been used. The bags have a life span of a few years, and already some have grass and debris poking through. “It’s wrong to call this decontamination,” says nuclear analyst Kurasawa. “It’s just moving around contaminated waste.”

Some of the laborers in charge of that decontamination are poorly paid and trained; recruiters have even been known to target the homeless. At Fukushima ­Daiichi itself, three-quarters of the white-­suited workers are subcontracted laborers. In March a contract worker died in an accident after it took an hour to get him to a hospital. “Before I was proud because I thought I was helping to save Japan,” says Sunny, who uses a nickname because he still works at the plant and isn’t supposed to speak out. “But it’s long hours and bad pay. The new foot soldiers don’t get any training, and the media say we’re constantly screwing up. I’ve lost my pride.” … ”



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