The lasting legacy of Fukushima disaster

It was not caused by earthquake or tsunami but by complacency and arrogance of nuclear authorities at the reactor.

Three years back, on  March 11, the accident at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor site devastated the lives and dreams of thousands of people. The earthquake and tsunami which preceded the nuclear accident had already created enough destruction. However, in days to come,  people who were lucky to escape the natural wrath were faced with the danger of a different kind -- radioactive contamination. Their luck ran out soon, a day after, as people had to leave everything behind and evacuate, with no assurance that they would ever be able to get back to their old lives.

Last year in October, when I was visited one of the evacuated areas- Tamura City, the feeling was surreal. For a city, Tamura is too quaint and idyllic, lush green and surrounded by hills. However, as one travels around the city, the reality hits. Tamura is 40 kms from the reactor site and hasn’t suffered any damage because of the earthquake. However the radioactive contamination has made it a ghost town. There are hardly any people left in the city. Occasionally a car passes by. The broken vending machines, with canned drinks from before the disaster tell their own story. The abandoned shrine on the hilltop with overgrown grass must have seen better days and as if these subtle signs are easy to ignore, the thousands of big black bags filled with radioactive soil and grass, with radiation dose rates scribbled on them, strewn around the city is hardly something one can ignore.

Since the disaster in 2011, I have been travelling to Japan with Greenpeace radiation monitoring team each year. Every time the magnitude of the disaster and its impacts leave me overwhelmed and very angry. Angry because, in its own Parliamentary report Japanese authorities noted that the accident was ‘manmade’ and hence avoidable. It was a disaster not caused by earthquake or tsunami but because of complacency and arrogance of nuclear authorities at the reactor. 

Patchy and incomplete

The decontamination work which followed the accident can best be described as patchy and incomplete. One recurring observation from our monitoring work since 2011 is that the decontamination work could have been better, systematic and ‘honest’. A year later in 2012, we found that more than 75 per cent of the independently checked monitoring posts showed lower radiation levels than April.

 However, the problem is not only of shoddy work, but also the scale of the work. In Tamura city alone, in about a year’s time 1,300 workers per day (total of120,000 man days) have been carrying out decontamination work in residential area as well a part of forests. In terms of sheer volume of work- they tried decontaminating- 228,249 sq. mtrs of buildings, 95.6 km of roads, 1,274,021 sq. mtrs of farmland and 1,921,546 sq. mtrs of forests and this is just a small fraction of the area which needs to be cleaned.

While trying to understand and assimilate the response to the disaster from various national and international bodies and their approach to it, I was going through International Atomic Energy Agency’s work on this. The statement by the Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano at the Conference on Nuclear Safety in December 2012 held at Koriyama city, Fukushima prefecture stumped me. The fact that he made this statement, in Koriyama, just a day after visiting the stricken site and witnessing all the destruction baffled me. I quote, “The latest IAEA projections show a steady rise in the number of nuclear power plants in the world in the next 20 years.

 The lasting legacy of the Fukushima Daiichi accident will be a much more intense focus on safety”. I am sure Mr Amano has much better access and means to see the lasting legacy of the Fukushima daiichi accident than any Greenpeace activist or anyone else. As Japanese, he can go and talk to the people who are living in the temporary housing without any translator. 

Perhaps, he could have acknowledged the failure and risks associated with nuclear energy. Sadly but not surpsrisingly he chose the role of a spin doctor. From my limited experience and interaction with the people from Fukushima I can say that the lasting legacy of Tepco’s Fukushima accident will be the destruction of lives and dreams of thousands of people. In an interview with Greenpeace, Katsutaka Idogawa, the former mayor of Futuba region, was asked a similar question. His reply was poignant and lingering with sadness, “Trust is what I miss the most. It is destroyed. The government and Tepco are hurting us... the Fukushima disaster is a destruction of history. It simply cannot continue. But this is not just about my family and me. It is about us all. We are all connected.” 

(The writer is with Greenpeace India’s energy campaign)

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