Ex-bosses to go on trial over Fukushima disaster — The Star Online

” Tokyo (AFP) – Three former executives at Fukushima’s operator stand trial this week on the only criminal charges laid in the 2011 disaster, as thousands remain unable to return to homes near the shuttered nuclear plant.

The hearing on Friday comes more than a year after ex-Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 77, and former vice presidents Sakae Muto, 66, and Ichiro Takekuro, 71, were formally charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

The indictments are the first — and only — criminal charges stemming from the tsunami-sparked reactor meltdowns at the plant that set off the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

“We hope the trial will shed light on where the responsibility for this accident…lies,” Ruiko Muto, who heads a group that pushed for the trial, told AFP.

“The accident hasn’t been resolved. There is nuclear waste from the cleanup efforts everywhere in Fukushima and there are still many unresolved problems,” she said.

The trial follows a battle over whether or not to indict the Tepco executives.

Prosecutors had twice refused to press charges against the men, citing insufficient evidence and little chance of conviction.

But a judicial review panel composed of ordinary citizens ruled in 2015 — for the second time since the accident — that the trio should be put on trial.

That decision compelled prosecutors to press on with the criminal case under Japanese law.

“We want a verdict as soon as possible,” Muto said.

“Some victims of this tragedy have died without seeing the start of the trial.”

If convicted, the men face up to five years in prison or a penalty of up to one million yen ($9,000).

Internal report

Tepco declined to comment on the trial, saying the men “have already left the company”.

The three are reportedly expected to plead not guilty, and argue it was impossible to have predicted the size of the massive tsunami that slammed into Japan’s northeast coast following a huge undersea earthquake.

However, a 2011 government panel report said Tepco simulated the impact of a tsunami on the plant in 2008 and concluded that a wave of up to 15.7 metres (52 feet) could hit the plant if a magnitude-8.3 quake occurred off the coast of Fukushima.

Executives at the company — which is facing huge clean-up and liability costs — allegedly ignored the internal study.

Waves as high as 14 metres swamped the reactors’ cooling systems in March 2011.

Although the quake-tsunami disaster left some 18,500 people dead or missing, the Fukushima accident itself is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone.

The charges against the executives are linked to the deaths of more than 40 hospitalised patients who were hastily evacuated from the Fukushima area and later died.

Around a dozen others — including Tepco employees and members of Japan’s Self Defense Forces — were injured during the accident.

The disaster forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes near the plant. Many are still living in other parts of Japan, unable or unwilling to go back home, as fears over radiation persist.

A 2015 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said a misguided faith in the complete safety of atomic power was a key factor in the Fukushima accident.

It pointed to weaknesses in disaster preparedness and in plant design, along with unclear responsibilities among regulators.

A parliamentary report compiled a year after the disaster also said Fukushima was a man-made disaster caused by Japan’s culture of “reflexive obedience”.

An angry public pointed to cosy ties among the government, regulators and nuclear operators for the lack of criminal charges.

Campaigners have called for about three dozen company officials to be held accountable for their failure properly to protect the site against a tsunami.

The accident forced the shutdown of dozens of reactors across Japan, with just a handful online more than six years later.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and utility companies are pushing to get reactors back in operation, but anti-nuclear sentiment remains high and there is widespread opposition to the idea. ”

by The Star Online

source

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Updated: Fire crews finally extinguish Fukushima blaze in no-go zone as officials battle radiation rumors — The Japan Times; Sparking fears of airborne radiation, wildfire burns in Fukushima ‘no-go zone’ — Common Dreams

The Japan Times:

” A wildfire near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has finally been extinguished after a 12-day battle waged by firefighters and Self-Defense Force troops in special protective gear left 75 hectares of tainted forest scorched, and local officials scrambling to quash radiation rumors.

The wildfire, which was started by lightning, broke out in the town of Namie on April 29 and spread to the adjacent town of Futaba, which co-hosts the meltdown-hit power plant. It was declared extinguished on Wednesday.

Since the area has been a no-go zone since the March 2011 nuclear crisis, residents are basically banned from returning to large portions of the two irradiated towns.

A local task force said that no one was injured by the wildfire and that there has been no significant change in radiation readings.

Because a large swath of the area scorched hadn’t been decontaminated yet, firefighters donned protective gear in addition to goggles, masks and water tanks. They took turns battling the blaze in two-hour shifts to avoid heatstroke.

Ground Self-Defense Force troops and fire authorities mobilized close to 5,000 people while nine municipalities, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, provided helicopters.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government denied online rumors saying the fire was releasing radioactive material into the air from trees and other plant life that absorbed fallout from the power plant, which also lies partly in the town of Okuma. It published data on its website showing no significant change in radiation readings.

“We will let people not only in the prefecture, but also in other parts of Japan know about the accurate information,” a prefectural official said.

The Kii Minpo, a newspaper based in Wakayama Prefecture, said in its May 2 edition that once a fire occurs in a highly contaminated forest, “radioactive substances are said to spread the way pollen scatters,” explaining how radiation can get blown into the air.

The publisher said it received around 30 complaints, including one from a farmer in Fukushima, who criticized the evening daily for allegedly spreading an unsubstantiated rumor.

The daily issued an apology a week later in its Tuesday edition.

“We caused trouble by making a large number of people worried,” it said.

Atsushi Kawamoto, head of the news division, said that while story may have caused some people anxiety, the newspaper will continue to report on matters of interest to its readers.

“That there’s public concern about the spread of radiation is true,” Kawamoto said.

On Tuesday, reconstruction minister Masayoshi Yoshino emphasized that unspecified radiation readings have been unchanged since before the fire.

“We will provide accurate and objective information,” he said.

Commenting on the fact that there are no fire crews in the no-go zone, Yoshino said the Reconstruction Agency will consider what kind of support it can offer there the next time a major fire breaks out. ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

source

* * *

Common Dreams:

” A wildfire broke out in the highly radioactive “no-go zone” near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant over the weekend, reviving concerns over potential airborne radiation.

Japanese newspaper The Mainichi reports that lightning was likely to blame for sparking the fire Saturday on Mount Juman in Namie, which lies in the Fukushima Prefecture and was one of the areas evacuated following the 2011 meltdown. The area continues to be barred to entry as it is designated a “difficult-to-return zone” due to continually high radiation levels.

Local officials were forced to call in the Japanese military, the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), to help battle the blaze, which continued to burn on Monday. At least 10 hectares of forest have burned so far.

“A total of eight helicopters from Fukushima, Miyagi and Gunma prefectures as well as the SDF discharged water on the site to combat the fire,” The Mainichi reports. “As the fire continued to spread, however, helicopters from the GSDF, Fukushima Prefecture and other parties on May 1 resumed fire extinguishing operations from around 5 am [local time].”

An official with the Ministry of the Environment said Monday that there has been “no major changes to radiation levels” in the region, according to the newspaper, but added that they will “continue to closely watch changes in radiation doses in the surrounding areas.”

In a blog post last year, Anton Beneslavsky, a member of Greenpeace Russia’s firefighting group who has been deployed to fight blazes in nuclear Chernobyl, outlined the specific dangers of wildfires in contaminated areas.

“During a fire, radionuclides like caesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium rise into the air and travel with the wind,” Beneslavsky wrote. “This is a health concern because when these unstable atoms are inhaled, people become internally exposed to radiation.”

Contaminated forests such as those outside fallout sites like Fukushima and Chernobyl “are ticking time bombs,” scientist and former regional government official Ludmila Komogortseva told Beneslavsky. “Woods and peat accumulate radiation,” she explained “and every moment, every grass burning, every dropped cigarette or camp fire can spark a new disaster.” ”

by Lauren McCauley

source with internal links and video of the wildfire in Fukushima

Fukushima: A second Chernobyl? — The Asia-Pacific Journal

” Waiting for the Future in Fukushima

As the sixth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster approaches, the area around the hulking corpse of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant continues to exude a horrible fascination. Arkadiusz Podniesinski is one of thousands of photographers and journalists drawn there since the crisis began in March 2011. In 2015 his first photo report from the area attracted millions of views around the world.

Podniesinski brought to Japan his experience of chronicling the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear accident in Chernobyl, which he first visited in 2008. It was, he noted, people, not technology that was responsible for both disasters. Japanese politicians, he adds, are offended by comparisons with Chernobyl. Still, rarely for a foreign report on Fukushima, his work was picked up by Japanese television (on the liberal channel TBS), suggesting there is a hunger for this comparative perspective.

Podniesinski’s first trip strengthened his belief in the “catastrophic consequences of nuclear disasters.” Apart from the suffering caused by the disruption of so many lives (160,000 people remain homeless or displaced), there is the struggle to return contaminated cities and towns to a state where people can live in them again. Billions of dollars have already been spent on this cleanup and much more is to come: The latest rehabilitation plan by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. puts the total bill for compensation alone at 7.08 trillion yen, or nearly $60 billion.

Thirty years after Chernobyl’s reactor exploded, Ukrainians have long come to terms with the tragedy that befell them, he writes. The dead and injured have been forgotten. A 2-billion-Euro sarcophagus covering the damaged reactor is nearly complete. The media returns to the story only on major anniversaries. What, he wonders, will become of Fukushima? Last year, Naraha became the first town in Fukushima Prefecture to completely lift an evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. But despite rebuilding much of the town’s infrastructure and spending millions of dollars to reduce radiation, the local authorities have persuaded only a small number of people to permanently return there.

Radiation is only part of the problem, of course. “The evacuees worry about the lack of schools, hospitals and shops,” says Podniesinski. “About the public infrastructure, which has not been sufficiently rebuilt. It must be adapted to the needs of older people, who, after the departure of so many young people from the zone, will now be the majority. However, the evacuees are most afraid of loneliness, as few of their family members, friends and neighbors have decided to return.”

The sense of life suspended, of waiting for the future to arrive, resonates in Tomioka, once home to nearly 16,000 people, now a ghost town. Podniesinski arrives just as its famous cheery blossoms bloom, but there is nobody to see them. The irony of fate, he writes, means that this Japanese symbol of new, nascent life blooms in contaminated and lifeless streets. “Will the city and its residents be reborn? Undoubtedly, the last word shall belong to them alone.” DM “

introduction by David McNeill

” Fukushima: A Second Chernobyl?

Exactly a year has passed since my first visit to Fukushima. A visit which strengthened my belief of how catastrophic the consequences of nuclear disasters can be. A visit that also highlighted how great the human and financial efforts to return contaminated and destroyed cities to a state suitable for re-habitation can be.

The report on the Fukushima zone through the eyes of a person who knows and regularly visits Chernobyl received a great deal of interest in the international community. Viewed several million times and soon picked up by traditional media around the world, it became for a moment the most important topic on Fukushima. I was most pleased, however, by the news that the coverage also reached Japan, where it not only caused quite a stir (more on that another time) but also made me realize just how minuscule Japanese knowledge about the current situation in Fukushima is.

As a result, over the last year I started to go to Fukushima more often than to Chernobyl. This is hardly surprising for another reason. 30 years have passed since the Chernobyl disaster, so the majority of Ukrainians have long since come to terms with the tragedy. The dead and injured have been forgotten. The same is true for media interest, which is only revived on the occasion of the round, 30th anniversary of the disaster. In addition, after nearly 10 years and 2 billion euros, work on the new sarcophagus is finally coming to an end, and soon a storage site for radioactive waste and a 227-ha radiological biosphere reserve will be established.

Will the decommissioning of the power plant in Fukushima also take 30 years and end with the construction of a sarcophagus? Will the contaminated and deserted towns located around the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi power plant be called ghost towns and resemble Chernobyl’s Pripyat? Finally, will Fukushima become a popular place for dark tourism like Chernobyl and be visited by thousands of tourists every year?

I Never Want to Return Alone

The Japanese, particularly politicians and officials, do not like and are even offended by comparisons between Fukushima and Chernobyl. It is, however, difficult not to do so when analogies are visible everywhere. While the fact that the direct causes of the disasters are different, the result is almost identical. A tragedy for the hundreds of thousands of evacuated residents, hundreds of thousands of hectares of land contaminated, and decades of time and billions of dollars devoted to eliminating the results of the disaster. And the first cases of thyroid cancer.

The situation in Fukushima resembles a fight against time or a test of strength. The government has devoted billions of dollars to decontaminating the area and restoring residents to their homes. They must hurry before the residents completely lose hope or the desire to return. Before the houses collapse or people are too old to return to. In addition, the authorities soon intend to stop the compensation paid to residents, which according to many of them will be an even more effective “encouragement” for them to return. Deprived of financial support, many residents will have no other choice but to return. Many young families are not waiting for any government assistance. They decided long ago to leave in search of a new life free of radioactive isotopes. They will surely never return.

But radiation is not the only problem that the authorities must worry about. The evacuated residents worry about the lack of schools, hospitals and shops. About the public infrastructure, which has not been sufficiently rebuilt. It must be adapted to the needs of older people, who, after the departure of so many young people from the zone, will now be the majority. However, the evacuees are most afraid of loneliness, as few of their family members, friends and neighbours have decided to return.

Can the authorities manage to convince the residents to return? Has critical mass been exceeded, after which evacuees will learn from others and return? The authorities are doing everything they can to convince residents that the sites are safe for people. They open towns, roads and railway stations one after another. Unfortunately, despite this, residents still do not want to return. A recent survey confirms that there is a huge gap between the government’s current policies and the will of the affected residents. Only 17.8% want to return, 31.5% are unsure and 48% never intend to return.

It Became Chernobyl Here

During my first visit to Fukushima, I met Naoto Matsumura, who defied official bans and returned to the closed zone to take care of the animals abandoned there by farmers fleeing radiation. Matsumura has taken in hundreds of animals, saving them from inevitable death by starvation or at the hands of the merciless officials forcing farmers to agree to kill them. Thanks to his courage and sacrifice, Matsumura soon became known as the Guardian of Fukushima’s Animals.

Matsumura was not able to help all of the animals, however. According to the farmer, a third of them died of thirst, unable to break free of the metal beams in barns, wooden fences or ordinary kennels. Matsumura took me to one such place.

Not all appreciate Matsumura’s sacrifice and courage. Many people believe that helping these animals, which sooner or later would have ended up on a plate, is not worth the risk the farmer is exposing himself to. Matsumura always has the same answer for them – there is a fundamental difference between killing animals for food and killing animals who are no longer needed due to radiation.

Cow Terrorist

I also returned to Masami Yoshizawa, who like Naoto Matsumura decided to illegally return to the closed zone to take care of the abandoned animals. Shortly after the disaster, some of the farmer’s cows began to develop mysterious white spots on their skin. According to Yoshizawa, they are the result of radioactive contamination and the consumption of radioactive feed.

Yoshizawa’s farm is located 14 km from the destroyed power plant. From this distance, the buildings of the plant are not visible, but its chimneys can be seen. And, as Yoshizawa says – one could also see [and hear] explosions in the power plant as well as radioactive clouds that soon pass over his farm. Consequently, nearly half of the nearly 20,000 inhabitants of the town of Namie were evacuated to Tsushima, located high in the nearby mountains. But soon people began to flee from there when it turned out that the wind blowing in that direction contaminated the area even more. As a result of the radioactive contamination in Fukushima, a new generation known as the hibakusha has arisen. Up to now, this name was only given to people who were victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now this concept has also been applied to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As Yoshizawa says – of the 120 surveyed hibakusha, he ranks third in Namie in terms of the amount of radiation doses received.

Defying the completely ignorant authorities, Yoshizawa quickly became a professional activist and his cows got a new mission – they became protestors. And, soon after, he brought one of them in front of the Ministry of Agriculture’s building, demanding that research be undertaken to explain why white spots have appeared on the animals’ skins after the disaster. Yoshizawa says, “I protested [by] bringing a bit of Fukushima to Tokyo. May the cows and I become living proof of the disaster, and the farm a chronicle telling the story of the Fukushima disaster.”

When protesting against the construction and re-starting of subsequent nuclear power plants, Yoshizawa does not bring his cows along anymore. Instead, he has a car festooned with banners that pulls behind it a small trailer with a metal model of a cow. “I have a strong voice and can scream louder than die-hard right wingers!” explains Yoshizawa. “I’m a cowboy, a cow terrorist, a kamikaze!” he adds in a loud voice, presenting an example of his capabilities. “We are not advocating violence, we don’t kill people, we are not aggressive. We are political terrorists,” he concludes calmly. And after a moment, he invites us to a real protest. The occasion of the planned opening of the railway station is to be attended by Prime Minister Sinzo Abe himself.

The protest goes peacefully indeed. Yoshizawa first drives round the city to which the Prime Minister is soon to arrive. Driving his car, he shouts into the microphone, “When a fire broke out in the reactors, TEPCO employees fled. The fire was extinguished by the young men of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. Why were you not able to control the power plant you built?” He continued immediately, “Today the Prime Minister is coming here. Let’s get up and greet Abe. Let’s show Abe not only the beautifully prepared railway station, let him also see the dark side of the city. For 40 years, we supplied electricity to Tokyo. Our region only could support Japan’s economic development. And now we suffer. Tales about the safety of nuclear power plants are a thing of the past,” Yoshizawa concludes. When the moment of the Prime Minister’s arrival approaches and the crowds grow larger, policemen and the Prime Minister’s security detail approach the farmer. They order him to take down his banners and leave the site. Yoshizawa obeys, but carries out their commands without haste. As if deliberately trying to prolong their presence, hoping to have time to meet and “greet” the Prime Minister.

No-go Zones

As always, a major part of my trip to Fukushima is devoted to visits to no-go zones. Obtaining permission to enter and photograph the interior is still difficult and very time-consuming. However, it is nothing compared to the search for owners of the abandoned properties, persuade them to come, show their houses and discuss the tragic past.

Sometimes, however, it’s different. Such as in the case of Tatsuo and Kazue Kogure, who with the help of Japanese television agreed to take me to Tomioka, where they ran a small but popular bar. It was not only a place to eat and drink sake, but also to sing karaoke with the bar’s owners.

Unfortunately the city, and with it the bar, stood in the way of the radioactive cloud and had to be closed. Earlier, I saw many similar bars and restaurants. Overgrown, smelly, full of mould, debris and scattered items. This place, however, is different. It is distinguished by its owners, who despite age and the tragedy they experienced, did not give up and opened a new bar outside the radioactive zone. Mr and Mrs Kogure not only showed me the abandoned bar, but also invited me to their new one.

What is unusual and extremely gratifying is the fact that the couple’s efforts to continue the family business are also supported by regular customers from the previous bar. “It’s thanks to their help that we could start all over again,” Kazue Kogure acknowledges. She immediately adds, “By opening the bar again we also wanted to be an example to other evacuated residents. To show that it’s possible.”

The Scale of the Disaster Shocked Us

I also visit the former fire station located in the closed zone in Tomioka. Due to the nuclear power plant neighbouring the city, the firefighters working here were regularly trained in case of a variety of emergencies. I am accompanied by Naoto Suzuki, a firefighter who served here before the disaster. In the middle of the firehouse, my attention is drawn to a large blackboard. “That’s the task scheduler for March 2011,” the firefighter explains. “On 11 March, the day of the disaster, we had nothing planned, but,” he adds with an ironic smile, “the day before we had a training session on responding to radioactive contamination. We practiced how to save irradiated people and how to use dosimeters and conduct decontamination.”

Unfortunately, the reality shocked even the firefighters, who had to cope with tasks they had never practiced. For example, with cooling the reactors. Even the repeatedly practiced evacuation procedures for the residents were often ineffective and resulted in the opposite of the desired effect. It turned out that the data from SPEEDI (System for Predicting Environmental Emergency Dose Information), whose tasks included forecasting the spread of radioactive substances, was useless and did not reach the local authorities. As a result, many residents were evacuated for more contaminated sites and unnecessarily endangered by the additional dose of radiation.

The monthly work schedule at the fire station in Tomioka (no-go zone). Firefighter Naoto Suzuki shows the training session on how to help people exposed to radiation planned for the day before the disaster. A committee meeting to provide information in the event of a fire in the nuclear reactors was planned for 14 March.

In the spring of this year, thanks to the help and support of many people, particularly the local authorities, evacuated residents and even a monk, I was also able to see many interesting places mostly located in the closed zones in Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and Namie. Although five years have passed since the disaster, most of them still remain closed and many valuable objects can still be found there. Due to this, I have decided not to publish information that could aid in locating them.

Hope

Ending my series of travels around Fukushima, I return to Tomioka to see the thing for which the city is most famous and its residents most proud – one of the longest and oldest cherry blossom tunnels in Japan. For the residents of Tomioka, cherry trees have always been something more than just a well-known tourist attraction or the historic symbol of the town. Not only did they admire the aesthetic attributes of the flowers, but they were also part of their lives, organized festivals, meetings and the topic of family conversations.

The natural beauty and powerful symbolism as well as their constant presence in Japanese arts have made cherry trees become an icon of Japanese cultural identity. They signal the arrival of spring, the time for renewal and the emergence of new life. In the spiritual sense, they remind us of how beautiful, yet tragically short and fragile, life is – just like the blooming cherry blossoms that fall from the tree after just a few days.

The nuclear irony of fate meant that this Japanese symbol of new, nascent life today blooms in the contaminated and lifeless streets of Tomioka. Will the city and its residents be reborn, along with the cherry trees blossoming in solitude and silence? Undoubtedly, the last word shall belong to them alone. ”

by Arkadiusz Podniesiński

source with a lot of photography

Nearly 40% of Fukushima evacuation personnel exposed to over 1 millisievert — The Japan Times

” Nearly 40 percent of all Self-Defense Forces personnel, police and firefighters who helped evacuate residents during the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011 were exposed to more than a millisievert of radiation — the annual limit for the general public, according to a Cabinet Office study.

Four years after the triple core meltdown, the Cabinet Office surveyed for the first time 2,967 personnel who carried out evacuations within 20 km of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, as well as decontamination and other related activities from March 12 to 31 that year.

The data were reportedly tallied from dosimeter readings.

The study found that around 62 percent of the personnel were exposed to less than a millisievert and that 38 percent were exposed to a millisievert or more.

Of the latter group, 19 percent received 1 to 2 millisieverts and 5 percent received 5 to 10 millisieverts.

Daily radiation doses remained high until around March 15 — when the third reactor building was hit by a hydrogen explosion — and dropped below 0.1 millisievert from March 18.

The Cabinet Office disclosed the data during a meeting on ways to mitigate radiation exposure for civilians engaged in evacuation procedures during a nuclear accident.

The government is pushing to reactivate the nation’s idled reactors if they clear safety requirements imposed in the wake of the man-made crisis triggered by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. But public concern persists about whether smooth evacuations are even feasible for nuclear accidents.

The government plans to set a 1-millisievert limit for civilians used in evacuations, such as bus drivers. But some drivers are reluctant to accept the proposal.

While the maximum dose for ordinary people is 1 millisievert per year, the limits for nuclear workers — 100 millisieverts over five years and 50 millisieverts per year in normal times — can be raised in emergencies. ”

source

*Japan’s natural perils, and promises, in the wake of Fukushima — Nassrine Azimi via The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

” The first paragraph in the first volume of A History of Japan, by the scholarly British diplomat Sir George Sansom, is a detailed description of the islands’ geology.

Writing in 1958 of the country he so loved, with its “mighty volcanic convulsions”, Sir George depicts the physical drama of peaks soaring two miles above and plunging five miles below sea level, and wisely cautions that “so immense a range of elevation within short lateral distances develops such stresses that this part of the earth’s crust is a highly unstable area….”

The Japan Landslide Society simply calls this archipelago the “Scar-Laden Islands.”

In August this year we witnessed at close range just how scar-laden: massive rains and landslides brought down entire mountaintops in many suburbs of Hiroshima, killing scores. The tragedy could well happen in other parts of the country.

Then on September 27th the sacred, unpredictable Mount Ontake erupted suddenly, trapping hundreds of climbers out to admire its famed autumn foliage. The eruption prompted a massive and dangerous rescue operation by thousands of firefighters, police and Self-Defense Forces members. Still, at least 60 people are reported dead.

In the aftermath of the eruption, the government promptly called for renewed efforts at monitoring volcanic activity. Yet Mount Ontake, listed as one of the country’s 110 active volcanos, was already under close scrutiny by the Meteorological Agency; intensifying tremors–85 on September 11 alone–had been registered but not deemed threatening.

In technology-overloaded Japan, monitoring hardly seems the problem.

Rather, volcanic eruptions–and other natural disasters–in a land perched on the edge of the Ring of Fire and straddling four tectonic plates should be considered the norm. And some scientists now worry that the magnitude 9 earthquake of March 11, 2011 may well intensify risks–this July a French geophysicist and his team released a study suggesting pressure is building on Mount Fuji, also an active volcano.

Last week the three prefectures at the foot of Mount Fuji conducted eruption drills, sobered by the experience of how ash from the Mount Ontake eruption had completely disrupted rescue operations. Similarly, earlier this month, the respected volcanologist Fujii Toshitsugu, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and head of a government-commissioned panel, challenged assumptions that the Sendai reactors in Kyushu, first in-line in the government’s schedule to reactivate dormant nuclear plants, were immune to volcanic eruptions. He suggested that heavy ash from the eruption of Mount Sakurajima — only 40 kilometers from the plant — could make reaching the plant and basic evacuation protocols quite impossible.

If natural disasters are simply unavoidable, then for a country smaller than the state of California and with more than three times the population, the presence of nuclear power plants seems, to say the least, a little akin to playing Russian roulette.

During recent Diet debates, Obuchi Yuko, then minister of economy, trade and industry and till two weeks ago an upcoming star of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, insisted that in its push to restart nuclear plants the government was adamant about ensuring the strictest safety measures, stating that such standards were similar to those of France and other advanced nations.

The comparison to France, often made, is hardly apt: France is not perennially threatened by massive earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanic eruptions, nor is it on the path of mega typhoons (like the two which battered us just this month). In the past year, alone, Japan has had hundreds of small earthquakes, while France has had five. Japan is also two-thirds smaller than France, with almost double the population. The risk factors, when it comes to nuclear power plants, are fundamentally different.

In late September, a group of us from Hiroshima returned to Fukushima, to see for ourselves how rebuilding was progressing. Of the three prefectures which took the brunt of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 Fukushima, with the decommissioned yet still precarious No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, is the one still gripped by deep uncertainty, even if both Miyagi and Iwate suffered greater human losses from the tsunami (by a factor of five in Miyagi): they have mourned, grieved, collected huge piles of tsunamis debris and are now pressing ahead with reconstruction plans.

Not Fukushima. Large swaths of the prefecture remain unsettled. Within the nuclear plant’s 20-kilometer exclusion zone most towns are empty. As we drove through the eerily silent streets of those closest to the battered plant, Tashiro Akira, a veteran investigative reporter who has written extensively on nuclear accidents, gave us rough estimates of their pre-disaster populations–and of their current status: Namie (22,000, now semi-restricted), Futaba (7,400, still abandoned), Okuma (11,515, still abandoned), Tomioka (15,800, still abandoned), Naraha (8200, now semi-restricted).

The quick money that had been flowing from TEPCO to these communities in the past decades does not seem to have left much in terms of quality buildings or a decent urban environment. But an abandoned city is nonetheless a mournful sight: curtains still in place, kitchen-ware glimpsed through a window, children’s bicycles parked outside empty homes.

In Minami Soma we visited the Farm Sanctuary, 14 kilometers from the beleaguered power plant, where an irreverent cattle farmer by the name of Yoshizawa Masami has chosen to defy authorities and remain with his animals. Called Kibo no Bokujyo (Ranch of Hope) in Japanese, it also offers a place for other farmers who have had to abandon their lands but do not know what to do with their contaminated animals. The Farm Sanctuary has become a sort of unofficial test site, to monitor the effects of radiation on animals.

But even more distant towns, like Iitate, remain in limbo. Some 45 kilometers from the plant, Iitate was initially designated a safe haven before it, too, was found to be a radioactive hotspot. Its 6000 inhabitants have now either left or can only come in during day-time hours. A superbly-built nursing home for the elderly now caters to the few remaining residents – average age 87 – who were simply too old to move. Room after room is empty – it is impossible to find staff willing or able to live and work in Iitate.

A farming and ranching community before the nuclear disaster, the only people we did see at work in Iitate were some of 3000 contract workers, whose job is to remove contaminated topsoil — part of the government’s complex and questionable decontamination policy. The topsoil, alongside leaves and other plant material, is then stuffed into thousands of black plastic containers, now scattered across the landscape. Naturally no region is willing to accept the dreaded material, despite pressures and monetary cajoling by the central government. The cleanup, which was meant to be completed this March, has just been extended by another two years.

As we viewed the landscape, the idea that Iitate and other cities affected by the nuclear accident could soon return to business as usual — through diligent scrubbing of roofs and removal of topsoil — seemed far-fetched indeed: like the rest of Fukushima Iitate is covered with mountains and forests, exposed to natural elements. In her thoughtful and meticulously researched article entitled ‘Touching the Grass: Science, Uncertainty and Everyday life from Chernobyl to Fukushima’[1] Tessa Morris-Suzuki points to research on the topsoil removal, which can temporarily lower radiation levels, but the effects of which are dubious as ‘radiation accumulated in leaf litter in the mountain forests is constantly washed down into farm fields by the flow of water, raising the levels of radioactivity again.’

Years (and billions of yen) could well be spent shifting topsoil, but would any young family be willing to raise kids there?

Dr. Kurokawa Kiyoshi, chairman of the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigative Committee has famously, and succinctly, quipped of the government’s cleanup effort: “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.”[2]

Yet admitting the complexities raises fundamental problems for authorities, from the practical –i.e. compensation and relocation issues — to the deeply ethical: if one single nuclear accident is proving so debilitating, how then, in the face of deep popular opposition, to justify bringing the country’s dormant plants on-line, as the Abe government wishes to do? And if even Japan, a technology giant, is to put the nail to the coffin of its own towns in the aftermath of a nuclear accident, how to justify its planned exports to other nations?

So Fukushima’s residents linger in uncertainty. The elderly, with less to fear of radiation’s long-term effects, are resigned to return home; not those with young children. Many men, for the sake of jobs, would return but women, more concerned about their family’s health, would not. The pressure on every family is huge. The new term genpatsu rikon (atomic divorce) captures the personal tragedies.

Morris-Suzuki highlights the difficulty, heightened in the Internet age, for ordinary people to live with the kind of insidious uncertainty that has become the hallmark of environmental, and especially nuclear, pollution. As night fell, we had to leave Iitate in time for the curfew that bans people from entering the area beyond certain hours. Driving down the mountain and past one dark, abandoned house after another, I better understood how tired the citizens of Fukushima were of the flow of visiting and pontificating delegates — scientists and central authorities, singers, actors, upcoming politicians, idealistic students, well-intentioned foreigners… At the end of the day, however, we all left.

Hence a certain listlessness in Fukushima, that seems to afflict everyone and, contrary to most places, the young in particular. The welcoming and valiant senior staff at the fisheries association we visited near Iwaki City seemed reassured by their brand new machines sent to test radiation levels of incoming fish every week; the younger staff admitted readily that manning the complicated machinery was at times quite beyond their competence. In Koriyama, one of Fukushima Prefecture’s three largest cities, the senior architect I interviewed expressed hope that large-scale building plans would restart soon. His younger colleague, father of young children, sat stone-faced, looking more doubtful.

There are those who point at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the ‘reassuring’ story, of the possibility of revival after nuclear catastrophe. This is to forget the price paid and the discriminations faced by the survivors and at least two generations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens. It is also to forget the differences between 1945 and 2011: there were no hand-held Geiger counters in every household then, no Internet to spread news of contaminated soil, fish, water or hotspots. Fukushima Prefecture was a prime food producer in Japan before the accident: when or even whether it shall retrieve that label again, in a globalized world where reputations are so easily made or broken, is an open question.

Still, by now Prime Minister Abe may have little political capital to lose on account of the physically close yet psychologically distant Fukushima. But as Andrew DeWit of Tokyo’s Rikkyo University and an astute observer of Japanese energy policies has written in the Asia-Pacific Journal (http://japanfocus.org/-Andrew-DeWit/4174), the government’s reluctance to declare a stark and clear commitment to renewables (and to the eventual closure of nuclear plants), is a significant opportunity loss.

Japan, DeWit writes, is hardly the “resource-poor” country pro-nuclear politicians so love to invoke. In terms of renewables, it sits among top contenders, with abundant thermal energy sources — the bright side of being so disaster-prone. It is “blessed” with powerful winds and typhoons, waves, volcanoes, vast forests (68 percent of the land), torrential rivers and summers of scorching, ever-present sun.

Naysayers point to the challenges facing Germany, which after decades of an intense national debate, took the message of the Fukushima nuclear accident to heart and did what everyone had expected Japan to do: bring its reliance on nuclear energy to an end. Yes, Germany now struggles with its carbon emissions, but these will decline with time while the advantages — including job creation – of Germany’s shift to green energy are already starting to outweigh the minuses.[3] The question to ask is rather what advantages could Japan have reaped, had its political leaders, even in the last few years, been half as ‘green‘ as their German counterparts? It is enough to note how absent is anything close to a Green Party in mainstream Japanese politics to understand the obstacles to a fullscale commitment to green energy strategies in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

There are nevertheless bright spots to be found in a number of localities. The architect Ito Toyo — winner of last year’s Pritzker prize and an intelligent and compelling voice for the reconstruction of the Tohoku region after the March 2011 disasters — has led experimental reconstruction projects in the affected areas. Ito has written of the need to question, as architects but even more as human beings what to do henceforth, of the need to ‘go back to square one and reexamine the essential meaning of architecture.’[4] The same shift in thinking must apply to all of us, in particular the ‘experts’.

Poll after poll have shown a steady majority of the Japanese far more willing than their politicians to embrace renewables and the “fifth fuel”, conservation, rather than return to nuclear power. Given Japan’s technological strengths, with the right leadership, policies and technologies, a shift is ultimately possible. However well-packaged, nuclear accident cleanup just remains too difficult — devouring massive time, money and energy, and none can ascertain that it works.

From time immemorial, Japan’s greatest perils and privileges have come from Nature. This remains unchanged – or rather has become even more compelling – in the early 21st century. Ancient rites and rituals, seemingly arcane or irrelevant to challenges of our modern age, are but reminders of this immutable reality. Last year the Grand Shrine of Ise, the country’s most sacred sanctuary, held its Sengu — renewal — ceremony, conducted since 690 AD at 20-year intervals. The rite has immensely practical value: the intricate architecture and carpentry of the structures, for example, demands intense and regular transmission of elaborate building techniques from generation to generation; the massive timbers require upkeep of designated forests and watersheds, and the special food offerings impose careful cultivation of nearby rice paddies, nurturing of fruit groves, care of fishing and gaming areas, the consistent sharing of knowledge about the land’s ecology. They also bring, century after century, not just spiritual well-being but enormous revenues to Mie Prefecture.

Location. Location. Location. George Sansom was right, to start his history of Japan with geology. Or as my late father would constantly remind us: ‘Never, ever, forget your geography’. ”

source to Nassrine Azimi’s article with internal references and photographs

Updated 10/1/14: Continuing to piece together March 2011 — The Japan Times

The Japan Times continues to piece together the March 2011 nuclear catastrophe based on recently released transcripts, including the accounts of Tepco management and workers at the Fukushima site during the early stages of the disaster. For more articles based on the transcripts, view an earlier blog post HERE.

Updated Oct. 1, 2014:

1) As radiation levels soared at Fukushima No. 1, plant chief Yoshida rescinded evacuation order

2) Tears, hopeful promises of reunion as Tepco workers evacuated Fukushima No. 1

3) Four days later: ‘Fukushima 50′ recount start of nuclear crisis

Posted Sept. 26, 2014:

Helplessness as reactor 2 lost cooling

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” While reactors 1 and 3 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex suffered core meltdowns, the cooling system for reactor 2 continued to work for three days despite the loss of power following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

The fact that the reactor 2 core isolation cooling system lasted much longer than expected was a “blessed relief,” Fukushima No. 1 chief Masao Yoshida would later say. If it hadn’t been for that, all three units could have spun out of control simultaneously.

Reactor 2′s cooling system finally stopped functioning at 1:25 p.m. on March 14. With no electricity to reactivate it, workers had to depressurize the reactor pressure vessel housing the nuclear fuel so that firetrucks could pump in seawater.

Using car batteries to manipulate valves and release steam from the vessel, the depressurization process finally started at 6:02 p.m. About 20 minutes later, however, the central control room for reactors 1 and 2 reported that the water level had drained to 3.7 meters below the top of the nuclear fuel in reactor 2, leaving it fully exposed. There was also no sign the seawater was entering the reactor.

Just then, a member of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s firefighting unit returned to the emergency response office and said the firetrucks that were supposed to be injecting water into the reactor had run out of fuel. Yoshida, 56, had already issued instructions that the trucks be kept refueled on a continuous basis.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Yoshida asked, looking up helplessly from his desk at the center of the emergency response office.

Yoshida would later recall that this felt like a “turning point,” beyond which “we had run out of all options and I thought I might really die.”

With no time to lose, the firefighting team immediately rushed back to the firetrucks, having to carry the fuel containers themselves because the tanker had a flat tire after driving over rubble scattered by the hydrogen explosion that had ripped through the reactor 3 building earlier that day.

In the emergency response office, Toshiko Kogusuri, 55, of Tepco’s management team, had been secretly ordered by the head of the team to secure as many buses at the plant as possible. Kogusuri felt Yoshida was starting to consider an evacuation. She asked officials of partner companies in the office building to lend their buses, saying she needed them for on-site transportation of workers.

That was a lie, but the companies did not ask questions and agreed to cooperate.

Just before 8 p.m., about 700 Tepco employees and 150 other workers from other companies, including plant manufacturers and Tepco-affiliated firms, were inside the building. More than 90 minutes had passed since the firetrucks had stopped injecting water into the reactor.

Yoshida felt he should no longer keep contract workers, who had worked day and night from the beginning of the crisis on March 11, on-site.

Many workers were sitting in a corridor on the second floor and on the stairs of the office building. Yoshida went up to them and said: “Thank you for dealing with the situation until now. It is OK to go home. Please evacuate carefully as roads on the way may have caved in.”

He spoke in such a calm tone that the workers did not realize the gravity of the situation.

The contract workers all departed, some in their cars, by roughly 8:30 p.m., leaving only Tepco employees at the plant. By that time, Kogusuri had managed to secure six buses. Yoshida then asked the head of Tepco’s management team whether there was any place people could evacuate to.

Tepco’s local thermal power station and the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant were nominated. The team head told Yoshida that the No. 2 plant was ready, having prepared a facility for the injured and a gymnasium to house the others.

At about 8 p.m., the injection of seawater into reactor 2 started after the firetrucks had been refueled, to the relief of the emergency response office. Even so, the situation remained tense because radioactive steam still had to be vented from the reactor to prevent the containment vessel from rupturing, which would expose the nuclear fuel to the external environment.

With workers unable to operate the venting valves, the pressure continued to build, to the point that the water injection had to be halted again.

Shiro Hikita, at 56 an experienced leader of one of the equipment restoration teams, felt that the reactor’s containment vessel could break at any time. “If there was a switch somewhere to end this situation, I would go out there to push it. I wouldn’t even mind dying in order to do it,” he thought to himself.

Early on March 15, silence engulfed the emergency response office as the point of no return neared. Yoshida stood up and started staggering around, mumbling to himself, “It’s all over.”

As he returned to his seat, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and closed his eyes.

He was later quoted by aides as saying that he was thinking about what might happen if the reactor 2 containment vessel failed, discharging a catastrophic amount of radioactive materials: Tepco would have to abandon any pretense of controlling the situation inside the No. 1 plant and might even have to abandon the No. 2 facility. People from Fukushima to Tokyo, about 220 km away, might have to evacuate.

He could not think of a way to avoid such a scenario.

Hikita, the equipment team leader, saw Yoshida’s body slide from the chair onto the floor. At first he thought Yoshida had collapsed but then realized he was sitting cross-legged as if meditating. With his eyes closed, Yoshida did not move for several minutes.

Yoshida later said he was calling to mind the faces of his longest-serving colleagues: “There were about 10 or so. I thought those guys might be willing to die with me.”

At that point, the building housing the emergency response office was still the safest place at the plant, but there was the risk of contamination if the reactor 2 containment vessel ruptured.

Yoshida was searching for the right time to allow Tepco employees to leave the plant, except for a skeleton crew to keep watch over the reactors’ condition and to continue the water injection process. But even if all of his crew stayed on-site, there was only so much they could do, Yoshida thought to himself. ”

* * *

Tepco plea to evacuate enraged Kan

source

” FUKUSHIMA — A senior Tokyo Electric Power Co. official broke down and wept in the prime minister’s office when the utility felt it had exhausted all options to prevent an utter catastrophe at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

“I’m sorry. We’ve tried many things, but we are in a situation beyond our control,” Susumu Kawamata, 54, head of Tepco’s Nuclear Quality and Safety Management Department, told Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda in March 2011 before bursting into tears.

A member of the government’s nuclear safety panel who witnessed the scene thought it spelled the end for one of Japan’s biggest companies.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 15, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was sitting face to face with Tepco President Masataka Shimizu, telling him that withdrawing workers from the No. 1 plant was not an option. By that stage, the ravaged complex had experienced hydrogen explosions in the buildings housing reactors 1 and 3 and was facing a potential rupture of the reactor 2 containment vessel.

About 8½ hours prior to that meeting, Tepco’s top-level officials had started to consider evacuating employees from the plant. At around 7:30 p.m. on March 14, Tepco Managing Director Akio Komori, who was at an emergency response center set up 5 km from the plant, suggested the idea during a teleconference with officials at the utility’s Tokyo head office.

“If we don’t make a decision at some point, things could get crazy. Please start setting the criteria for evacuation,” Komori, 58, requested.

Tepco Executive Vice President Sakae Muto, 60, ordered his subordinates at the head office to craft an evacuation plan, while Fukushima No. 1 chief Masao Yoshida started to secure enough buses. Procedures to send employees to Tepco’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant were also being decided.

Shimizu, Tepco’s 66-year-old president, phoned Kaieda, who had been placed in charge of dealing with the unfolding disaster, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, 46, repeatedly to seek approval for the “evacuation” of workers.

But Shimizu did not communicate clearly that Tepco would maintain a minimum core of employees to monitor the situation and continue to oversee water injection into the three reactors that had suffered core meltdowns.

Kaieda, 62, said he thought Tepco was seeking approval for a “complete withdrawal” from the plant and turned down Shimizu’s request. But at 3 a.m. on March 15, as the condition of reactor 2 worsened, Kaieda decided to ask Kan, 64, to make a decision. He woke up Kan and briefed him on the situation.

“If people withdraw, the eastern part of Japan will be destroyed,” Kan replied, and immediately summoned Shimizu to his office. As soon as Shimizu set foot inside the reception room, Kan lashed into him, saying, “I heard that you are thinking about a withdrawal, but that’s impossible.”

The Tepco president’s response — “we do not have in mind such a thing as withdrawal” — was stunning to Haruki Madarame, 62, the head of the government’s nuclear safety panel who was present for the talks. Madarame later recalled wondering, “What happened to all those talks” about getting the Tepco workers out?

While officials in the prime minister’s office had misunderstood Tepco’s intentions, Shimizu was also at fault for a lack of clarity in his statements.

Kan then told Shimizu he would launch a joint accident response task force. Based in Tepco’s head office, the unprecedented task force saw the government and Tepco jointly deal with the escalating crisis.

Kan announced he was leaving for Tepco’s head office right away, but Shimizu pleaded for two hours to make the necessary preparations. Kan turned and ordered Shimizu to have everything ready within an hour.

The prime minister was still in a white-hot rage when he arrived at Tepco headquarters, unable to hide his distrust and fury toward the company.

“Tepco will go 100 percent bust if it withdraws. You won’t be able to escape even if you try!” he screamed at Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 70, Shimizu and other senior executives before 200 other Tepco employees present. “It doesn’t matter if senior (Tepco) officials in their 60s go to the site and die! I will also go. President, chairman — make up your minds!”

Kan’s diatribe, which continued more than 10 minutes, was relayed live to employees in the emergency response office at the Fukushima No. 1 plant via a teleconference system.

Kan later said he was totally unaware that he had been “yelling at everyone,” explaining, “I might have used strong words to tell them to somehow hang on until the last minute, but I didn’t mean to scold them.”

Kan was one of many senior politicians who, up until that point, were unaware Tepco had set up a teleconference system connecting its head office with Fukushima No. 1.

“I was really surprised,” said Kan, who had learned of the March 12 hydrogen explosion in the reactor 1 building from the TV news rather than Tepco. “There was this huge screen connected to the No. 1 plant. I wondered why information was coming so slowly to the prime minister’s office given the existence of this system.”

Although the joint task force was meant to improve communications, Kan soon realized it was too late to rein in the crisis.

Up at Fukushima No. 1, Takeyuki Inagaki, 47, head of one of the plant’s equipment restoration teams, was among the hundreds of employees in the emergency response office who witnessed Kan’s tirade via the teleconference system. “Even though we were doing our best, we felt like we had been shot in the back with a machine gun,” he later recalled.

Yoshida, 56, the plant chief, was about to answer a call from the Tokyo office when a chilling sound swept through the response office at 6:14 a.m, albeit duller than that of the two previous hydrogens blasts.

Those present felt their blood freeze as they were told by reactor operators that the pressure inside the reactor 2 suppression chamber, connected to the containment vessel, had dropped to zero.

If the chamber did not remain airtight, radioactive steam could pour out into the external environment, leaving no safe place inside the plant or in the surrounding area.

“The suppression chamber might have a gapping hole. A hell of a lot of radioactive substances could come out,” Inagaki informed Yoshida, who instantly decided it was time to evacuate the site. “