Fukushima: Japan’s Tsunami and the Inside Story of the Nuclear Meltdowns
by Mark Willacy
Published July, 2013
Entering the twenty kilometre radiation exclusion zone one hot September day six months after multiple meltdowns had forced the closure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant was an eerie experience. The silence seemed to be heightened by the sight of the undisturbed plant life that had been slowly reclaiming railways, footpaths, shops and people’s homes. New sprouts were shooting in the gaping, elongated splits left in the middle of roads by the earthquake and countless aftershocks. Standing in the town centre next to undelivered newspapers dated March 12, 2011, an invisible oppressiveness weighed down the Namie town centre. All signs of daily life were missing, even as the traffic lights flashed continuously in a sequence set to caution. The clear blue skies hindered our sense that a variety of invisible, scentless elements – krypton, tritium, strontium and caesium – floated in the air around us and were becoming concentrated in water sources. Driving towards the coast, the green fields were empty of the dwellings that once filled them. We continued on, past mountains of wrecked cars and rows of boats neatly cleared into lines along the inner side of the road, until we reached a makeshift shrine erected on a crossroads in front of a primary school struck by the tsunami. Here the full impact of the triple disaster of the earthquake, the tsunami and the first multiple-reactor meltdown in history is clearly visible, but it remains hidden from the general public inside a no-go zone, as radiation continues to keep local communities from their homes.
In late October 2013, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) extended preparations to remove spent-fuel assemblies from the damaged, debris-filled cooling pool atop the Number Four reactor at its crippled Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on the Pacific coast of Fukushima. The operation, which is the most critical and potentially hazardous phase of the clean up so far, was due to begin in the early weeks of November, but the task has now been pushed back due to requests by the nuclear regulator for further procedural tests and explanations to the international scientific community. This is good news. Nervousness over the complexity of the operation and the serious potential for further disaster have led the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization to request the additional trials.
On another front, the environment ministry has recently delayed completion targets for the decontamination of seven of the eleven most contaminated townships around Fukushima without setting a new timeline. This is not good news, and it comes at a time when evacuation-related deaths of Fukushima residents have almost outnumbered the tsunami death toll within the prefecture. The predicted 40 year decommissioning of the plant appears to be behind schedule, though it is difficult to ascertain the real situation when even Japan’s prime minister makes questionable speeches about the clean up being under control.
Almost three years on from the disaster, TEPCO continues to fumble its way towards a clean up of the reactors, while around 150 000 local residents remain unable to return to their homes. The company responsible for the prefecture’s contamination has been branded a ‘zombie company’ and industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi has likened its clean up efforts to playing a ‘game of whack-a-mole’. Its claims that radioactive groundwater flowing into the Pacific Ocean from beneath the Dai-ichi reactors is contained within 0.3 square kilometres of the shoreline have been labelled ‘silly’. News from the contaminated region continues to make weekly headlines.
Tokyo-based ABC North Asia correspondent Mark Willacy has been reporting on the triple disaster from the outset, and will continue do so until December 2013 when he leaves his posting to return home. His coverage of the catastrophe won him his second Walkley Award, and his eerie, evocative radio piece from the ruins of Rikuzentakata is still available on the award website.
In Fukushima: Japan’s Tsunami and the Inside Story of the Nuclear Meltdowns, Willacy writes about small towns like Rikuzentakata and Namie, where the destruction of the earthquake and the tsunami meet the invisible radiation menace. His book is an important contribution to the understanding of Japan’s ‘nuclear village’. It is in no danger of losing its relevance as TEPCO’s ad hoc clean up continues. The Fukushima disaster has joined Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in occupying that special compartment in the global consciousness reserved for the terror and panic associated with nuclear catastrophe, and Willacy’s account is at times harrowing, but his investigations provide insight into the current situation and how a company that is carrying out such dangerously haphazard work could possibly be allowed to continue cleaning up one of history’s worst nuclear disasters.
Willacy also exposes the powers in Tokyo that are responsible for the Fukushima disaster. He has gained access to the major players, from both the government and TEPCO. He records the confident voices of the secretive, shady executive salarymen lurking in the concrete hallways of the capital, and puts their spin in context. Along the way, he provides information about many facets of nuclear science, the condition of Japan’s reactors, and the lack of safety preparations, indicated by the fact that all 54 reactors are currently offline pending safety checks, negotiations with local governments, and other adjustments. Fukushima makes it apparent that everyone was powerless to halt the nuclear disaster once it had begun, but Willacy’s conversations and his analysis of the aftermath of the disaster highlight the differences between those who care for community, or feel a duty towards it, and those only focused on investor gains while share prices are down.
Everyone in Japan remembers where they were at 2.46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, but the details of what happened immediately after are a blur. We now know that at this moment one of the largest megaquakes in recorded history tore open the Pacific Ocean floor about 130 kilometres northeast of Sendai with such force that it shifted the Earth’s axis, redistributed the planet’s density and changed its gravitational pull to a degree that disturbed the orbit of satellites. The ensuing tsunami pounded the Sulzberger Shelf some 13 000 kilometres away in Antarctica, causing icebergs the size of Manhattan Island to break off.
While it took months to grasp the global impact of the earthquake and tsunami, the local impact was immediate. The magnitude-nine earthquake sent the ocean racing towards Japan’s Tohoku coastline at the speed of an intercontinental jetliner. The waves slowed to around 100 kilometres per hour as they approached the coastal shallows, swelling to heights of up to 40 metres in some places. The enormous mass of water easily crashed over the largest concrete tsunami barriers, pulling everyone and almost everything it touched into the deadly crush beneath its inky surface.
Japan’s National Police Association figures for the earthquake and tsunami list 15 883 dead and 2654 missing. These figures are often collapsed into a single total, but the second figure is an important reminder of the huge number of stories left unresolved. Estimates for the number of deceased in the early days of the disaster were thought to be two or three times more than the final figure. Willacy leaves the death count until the end of his book, but stories of survival and loss take centre stage in his account, together with the lowdown on TEPCO, and the cozy relationship between Japan’s nuclear industry and its political rulers over the years.
‘Ittekimasu’ is the first word of Fukushima’s opening chapter. This simple expression, which almost everyone in Japan says out of habit when leaving home, means ‘I will go and come back’, or more casually ‘see you later’. Willacy’s book is peppered with moving scenes, which shift from uneventful to emotive when we wade more deeply into the story. He places the focus squarely on the people who have lost the most. The book opens and closes with personal narratives, while analysis of the technical and policy issues – what happened, why it happened, and who is to blame – is sandwiched between stories of the lives of those still living through the recovery and rebuilding of their world.
The absent are a weighty presence in Fukushima. They haunt the limbo-like grief of parents, children, siblings, friends and family, as they wait in hope for some kind of resolution. The unknown status of the missing has driven many people to act and to demand answers about what happened to their loved ones. Norio Kimura and Naomi Hiratsuka, are cases in point. So too are the parents of the 74 children – Hiratsuka being one of them – who were caught by the violent waters of the Pacific that day due to inaction and lack of leadership from the teachers at Okawa primary school, located next to a hill that could have saved them all.
The missing should not be passed over and consigned to the death list until they are found. They continue to be longed for and their fates puzzled over. Unperformed farewell rituals make it almost impossible for those left behind to move toward acceptance. Norio Kimura lost his father, his wife and one of his two daughters. His missing child is the only one in his family remaining unrecovered. Almost three years on, he still has not submitted his young daughter’s death documentation. In Willacy’s recent, and final, Fukushima report for ABC’s Foreign Correspondent, Norio Kimura revealed why the missing remain important and are set apart from the deceased. ‘Even though I can’t find her now, if I never find her I’ll always be sad,’ says the widowed father. Kimura continues his search, carrying out a father’s duty.
Surviving is not simple. Some remain wracked by guilt. Willacy describes one 40-year-old man who held his elderly mother in one hand and his father in the other as he tried to withstand the pressure of the tsunami, but could not hold on. When Willacy returns to interview the man months after their initial meeting, a family member tells him that guilt has led to depression and alcohol problems, which in turn led to the man being committed to an institution. There is no mention in Fukushima of the psychiatric support available in Japan, but it is a scarce service in great demand, as are many other services.
There is a lack of data about the health impacts of the disaster: few details about who has been affected, how they have been affected, and what services and provisions have been put in place. The opening scenes of a documentary currently doing the rounds at international film festivals show a group of Fukushima mothers with young children saying that an insurance salesperson told them they could not buy health insurance with cancer coverage. The film, A2-B-C, directed by long-term Japan resident Ian Ash Thomas, presents the daily situation facing children who live in and around areas highly contaminated by the nuclear power plant. It focuses on the high risk of children in parts of Fukushima developing thyroid cysts and on the cover-up by local and national governments. Hearing the voices of mothers and children talking about the issues they face is sobering at a time when personal narratives are slipping into the background, obscured by the focus on TEPCO’s clean up effort. Willacy also strikes this personalised note in his reports of the experiences of individuals and their responses to the catastrophe, including the case of a mother initially pressured to take on the passive role required of her in a traditional Japanese family, who nevertheless trained for and gained a license to operate digging machinery, in order to play a more active role in the search for her missing daughter.
During the early stages of the meltdown, while the international scientific community was being kept at bay, Japan was creating its own heroes. Yet the heroics did not conceal the questionable logic behind much of what happened at Dai-ichi before, during and after the reactor explosions. Helicopter pilots flew into the invisible clouds of radiation to drop water into reactor buildings as the entire nation watched on, hoping that it might help. The mission was dangerous, but many say that it was useless, that it was merely for the sake of appearances: a case of putting a brave face on a desperate situation. This was perhaps the first example of what government minister Toshimitsu Motegi would later refer to in his ‘whack-a-mole’ comments.
The mission of the Tokyo Hyper Rescue Squad firefighters, who drove into the thick of the invisible menace to douse the reactor buildings, was a different story. They set up equipment that would stay in place to continually immerse fuel rods and spent fuel rods, preventing their exposure to air during the early stages of the meltdowns. Only one thing was certain at the time, for both firefighters and pilots: what they doing was dangerous. The story of the brave TEPCO employees known as the Fukushima 50, who stayed to man the unpowered plant as it went into meltdown, is horrifying and fascinating. It was later revealed that their fierce leader, Masao Yoshida, had not acted to improve safety during his long spell in charge of nuclear plants. Yet he was the one who defied orders from TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo during the disaster and is credited with preventing the release of radiation on a much larger scale, which could have led to an even wider evacuation zone that may have included Tokyo.
The insidious toying with language by the authorities and TEPCO in the wake of the disaster has been unedifying but predictable. The ‘cold shutdown’ at Dai-ichi is not actually a cold shutdown. National safety radiation levels are not the same as before the disaster: they have been doubled. Authorities have manipulated regulation definitions to avoid compulsory evacuation across a larger area. They simply changed the scale – a case of cost concerns overriding health concerns. Willacy’s conversation with Kyoto University nuclear engineer Hiroaki Koide highlights the differences between the security that is associated with the use of the scientifically accepted definition of cold shutdown and the reality of the TEPCO Dai-ichi plant:
Cold shutdown – reion teishi in Japanese – is a technical term … It means that the reactor pressure vessel, which is made from steel, has no defect and can store water and that the reactor core is underwater. The water should also be under 100 degrees celsius … But, in this case, the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel came out and water can’t be stored in it. The reactor core has melted and is no longer in the vessel. This is not cold shut down. So they made a new word – reion teishi jotai – quasi-cold shutdown.
The language games are outdone by the logical acrobatics used to defend the company’s lack of action over the tsunami threat – a threat only it truly understood through its tsunami simulation results. ‘Yes, taking extra measures would have been taken as TEPCO being worried about a tsunami,’ said TEPCO’s Nuclear Reform Special Taskforce employee, Junichi Matsumoto. The company’s admission that it did nothing, despite knowing the tsunami risks, effectively creating the possibility and the reality of an avoidable nuclear catastrophe, makes the the utility appear morally and legally culpable at every level. Devotion to the yen and the concerns of Wall Street analysts seem to have been the primary concern, trumping the need to have adequate safety precautions in place, and the hydra-headed TEPCO has since used every kind of spin to justify its coffer-filling policies. This kind of nefarious behaviour has been acknowledged as a problem by the utility, which has agreed to try and change its corporate culture as part of its nationalisation agreement with the government.
TEPCO’s Dai-ichi nuclear catastrophe prompted the first government-appointed independent inquiry in Japan’s history. The English version of the committee’s report claimed that TEPCO’s nuclear disaster was a situation unique to Japan, explaining that it was the result of a culture that does not question authority. But the culture responsible for investor-oriented cost-cutting and profit-hunting at the expense of safety precautions would not appear to be unique to Japan. Rather, the problem seems to lie with a culture in which government and big business collude, and dissent is stifled. Willacy provides examples of people hounded from jobs and positions in local government for speaking out. It seems unfair and inaccurate to attribute the result of a manipulative disinformation campaign and corporate bullying to a cultural stereotype, not to mention disrespectful to those who did speak up and paid the price.
The media provides further examples of both complicity and outspoken Japanese agency. Japan’s infamous journalist clubs are bastions of government and corporate control. They house and manage mainstream journalists into favorable self-regulation for the benefit of big business. They are leftovers from a war propaganda system that was deemed useful and retained by the US during its post-war occupation, which used them to serve its own purposes. Freelance journalist Takashi Uesugi is well aware of this. He tells Willacy that freelance writers, who are not allowed into the club system, were shouted down by members of the mainstream media when they were indecent enough to ask difficult questions in the press club rooms, which had been thrown open because of the scale of the disaster. These freelancers and the international media were, initially, the only ones to visit Fukushima to investigate for themselves. The international media broke the big stories around the radioactive contamination and the cover-up. Uesugi is quoted as saying that Japan’s nuclear utilities paid ‘AUS$1.07 billion dollars a year in advertising to the press-club system four years ago’.
Numerous books have been released on the triple disaster, among them academic collections and reflections on Japan’s economy and people. There are also new books being written about the tsunami by well-known Tokyo-based journalists and, no doubt, by others too. A standout volume is Strong in the Rain (2012), an account of the catastrophe and the events that followed written by two Japan-based journalists, David McNeill and Lucy Birmingham. Their book speaks through the voices of six survivors, and is notable for its inclusion of the stories of international residents caught up in the disaster. Strong in the Rain was released before Willacy’s book and he references the work. It differs from Fukushima in its detailed cultural and historical explanations; it has more of a slow, long-form style, where Willacy’s account moves at a rapid pace. But both books remind us that it is important not to forget the survivors of the tsunami, who continue to struggle and rebuild.
There are a few things Willacy does not mention that might have made interesting additions to his book. The inclusion of even the briefest of references to anti-nuclear protests and the residential re-zoning in some of the tsunami struck areas could have helped to provide a more holistic picture of what has been and is now happening in Japan. For many months, up to 30 000 people gathered weekly outside Japan’s national government assembly building, the Diet, on Friday evenings to protest against nuclear power. On one occasion, a separate anti-nuclear protest of nearly 100 000 people marched to Japan’s national broadcaster and still didn’t make the news. The larger protests have been led by the Nobel laureate for literature and anti-nuclear campaigner, Kenuburō Ōe.
On the arts and public space front, a huge mural in Tokyo’s Shibuya station by the late master painter Tarō Okamoto, depicting the aftermath of a nuclear disaster and called the ‘Myth of Tomorrow’, includes a small painting of the Fukushima nuclear rectors with demon-like faces appearing within the black smoke billowing from the ruins. The cracks in what is generally, but not always accurately, considered a heavily regulated society also include the street art of 281_Anti Nuke, who keeps his identity secret, which has appeared in the laneways of Shibuya and features an array of designs placing unequivocal blame for the disaster on TEPCO. Other designs depict the innocence of children, one scene showing a child in a raincoat with the caption, ‘I hate [radiation symbol] rain’.
Willacy opens and closes his book with stories of the marker stones left behind by survivors of previous tsunamis to warn local communities not to build below certain levels and points to the folly of communities that ignored previous warnings. This commentary could have been accompanied by contextualising information about townships, such as Ofunato, which have re-zoned residential areas to ensure that housing cannot be built in dangerous areas along the ocean front of that tsunami-prone stretch of coastline.
The Fukushima catastrophe has been classified by the World Bank as the most costly natural disaster in history. Almost three years later, the situation remains unpredictable and a major concern. It can only be hoped that the nuclear industry as a whole has learnt from TEPCO’s mistakes, that the company will not continue hampering its own recovery efforts with short-sighted measures driven by prioritising investor returns and company survival over any regard for the population of Fukushima and the environment, and that Willacy’s chronicling of the natural disaster and the way in which corporate misdemeanors exacerbated the nuclear disaster will prompt authorities to put the kinds of measures in place that will prevent similar disasters in the future.