It is one year since the great eastern Japan earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster ravaged Japan. How is the country coping? Shriya Mohan travels to Tokyo and Fukushima to find out
My first impression of Japan, after landing at the Haneda international airport in the wee hours of the morning, was the sight of hundreds of people wearing white masks that stretched from ear to ear, walking briskly past me. It triggered a question: “radiation?”. My Japanese friend laughed and explained that the health ministry encouraged people suffering a flu to wear these masks to avoid infecting others. As far as radiation is concerned, he said matter of factly, no mask can ever reduce one’s exposure to it.
Weeks after the tsunami and the nuclear disaster hit Japan in March 2011, Minamisoma city assembly member Showichi Ogawa said it's less a matter of eliminating radiation than "learning to live with radiation", pointing that residents could be scrubbing rooftops and discarding soil for decades in their attempt to decontaminate their surroundings from cesium-137, a radioactive isotope with a half-life (period of time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half) of 30 years. After spending some time in Japan one comes to observe how people have learnt to cope and live with radiation.
Tokyo gives a sense of a current running through it. With the break of dawn people are swept from the fringes towards the centre and then again, after sundown, deposited back into its numerous pockets. Japan’s intense work culture makes competition tough. An example of this can be seen in the manufacturing of electrical appliances. Manufacturers are obliged to ensure that the efficiency of their products is, at least, as good as the current top-performer in the market. While this keeps electrical engineers on their toes, it ensures progressive lowering of green house gas emissions, making Japan one of the highest energy efficient countries in the world.
Yet, it doesn’t change the fact that Japan is the third largest consumer of electricity in the world, consuming 859.7 billion kWh, according to 2011 estimates. A quick dash to any public toilet will explain. There are buttons to warm your seat, spray water in three different trajectories (each with varying degrees of force and temperature that you can control with sub buttons), blow hot air to dry you, emanate a loud static sound for added privacy (I’ve heard that there are toilets with a sound panel offering a range of different bird calls) and finally, yes, a button that flushes. Just underneath is an automatic dustbin; its lid opens when it senses a hand hovering above it. Not to mention the auto sensory lights, taps, soap dispensers, hand dryers and doors, to lead you out of the techno-toilet universe.
But this summer might be different, as Japan, the world’s leader of atomic energy, gears up for some serious power shortages that will result from its shutting down 52 of its 54 nuclear plants as a response to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The tsunami was the largest one Japan had witnessed in 100 years and the nuclear disaster it resulted in has been ranked the second worst after the Chernobyl in 1986. The government proposes to conduct stress tests before deciding whether to resume operations.
Nearly an hour north from Tokyo by the Shinkansen, 289 km away, lies Fukushima, which ironically, means lucky island in Japanese. From the moment you step into the city it gives you the feeling of being an abandoned place. Except for a few hotels, shops and houses, you find almost no sign of life—no people pacing the streets, children playing outdoors or even a trace of laundry hanging out to dry. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is 112 km south east of the Fukushima station in Futaba district of Fukushima prefecture. After the disaster last year, the government created a 20 km radius evacuation zone to protect citizens from radiation. Till date the border is heavily cordoned, allowing only the plant workers to enter.
After a 2 hour-long bus journey from Fukushima station, driving 60 km east, through the rain and snow, I reached Minamisoma. The city with a population of 5,000, was badly hit: 457 persons were killed and several went missing. Takahashi Nagamasa, an NGO worker who helped distribute relief material recalls, “I made my way up on that far away cliff and watched the sea turn white like the clouds. Many ships capsized and were violently tossed by the sea. The tsunami waves were 25 metre high, sweeping everything along its way. I saw about 30 dead people, hanging from the buildings and trees, with their limbs strewn about. They looked like ghosts... those memories still haunt me.”
Further up north, Rikuzentakata city was even more damaged by the tsunami. The 30 metre high waves claimed 1,200 of Rikuzentakata's total population of 24,000. Two-hundred persons went missing. The entire municipal city council building still looks devastated. Parked cars were carried by the waves, and brought smashing through the top floors of the building. Cars still lie about, crushed and upturned. Swollen books and torn footwear lie on a window sill, tossed about by the wind. An abandoned wheelchair sits under a ceiling in what once used to be the building lobby.
It has been a year since the tsunami tore down the building. Yet it looks as if it happened yesterday. There isn’t a bird in sight, only low hanging clouds over mounds and mounds of debris. The only sounds one can hear is the moaning of the wind and the faraway sounds of cranes lifting rubble. If you stand quietly, you can almost hear the screams that must have drowned in the swallowing waters.
Vice mayor of the city, Takashi Kubota, says that the two problems that local governments are facing in these areas are how to ensure proper reconstruction of housing and employment to the residents. Lack of these two necessities is making citizens migrate elsewhere permanently. The core industries in places like Minamisoma and Rikuzentakata were agriculture, fishing and forestry, all of which are now destroyed due to the tsunami, which severely erodes the fertility of the soil. Environmental regeneration in these parts may take several years.
It is estimated that the tsunami resulted in one million tonnes of debris in Rikuzentakata alone. In one year, only 50,000 tonnes has been cleared. That leaves 95 per cent of the work unfinished. So where and how is Japan clearing one million tonnes of debris? The answer is a painstaking process of recycling, that is possible in these areas because radiation levels of the debris are very low compared to debris in closer proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A local recycling worker explains the debris is separated into combustible and non-combustible material, which is further separated into stone, metal and cloth. Large magnetic conveyor belts are used to pull out the metal objects. After this separation, half this material is sent by ship to neighbouring cement factories which incorporate different forms of waste into its cement production. Here is an example of the different types of waste absorbed by one of the cement companies in Japan:
Japan’s energy dilemma
After the March 2011 nuclear disaster, Japan has had to rethink its energy policy. Japan imports 96 per cent of its primary energy requirement (coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fuel). Oil accounts for nearly 50 per cent of Japan’s energy consumption. Electricity is primarily generated from fossil fuel sources (65 per cent) with nuclear contributing a large share of 26 per cent.
In July 2011, encouraged by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government issued a “Confirmation of the Safety of Nuclear Power Stations in Japan”, laying out a plan to comprehensively assess safety references for stress tests. Since early 2012, nearly all nuclear reactors have been shut down to undergo an elaborate process of stress tests. As part of these tests, assessments will be made of what structures, systems and components were damaged due to the earthquake and tsunami; an analysis on the occurrence and progression of the accident and scenarios to prevent core damage; and finally on the basis of which, identify earthquake and tsunami level above which there is no reliable measure to prevent core damage.
The Fukushima disaster is said to have cost Japan between US $125-200 billion in reconstruction alone. If no nuclear plants operate in 2012, the increase in energy bill could be as high as $75 billion.
Given the tight situation, it is hard for Japan not to look to other countries that have made nuclear energy work successfully for them, such as France and Slovak which meet 76 percent and 58 percent of their energy needs respectively from nuclear energy. More realistically, Japan aims for a power structure similar to that of EU. EU’s energy mix as of 2010 was 25 per cent nuclear, 26 per cent coal, 24 per cent gas and 3 per cent oil while Japan’s has been 24 per cent nuclear, 27 per cent coal, 26 per cent gas and the rest oil and hydro.
Government v people
A popular Japanese proverb deru kugi wa utareru (the nail that sticks out gets hammered) is often used to depict civil society discourse in Japan. A Cambridge University Press report, The State of Civil Society in Japan, published in 2003, details the evolution of civil society in the country and how Japan’s state and business have been inextricably joined since the beginning of the Meji era. Both have shaped and moulded public discourse in such a way that it has been extremely difficult to justify the need for a civil society sphere at all.
However, the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, considered the largest calamity in the country after World War II, changed the face of civil society. The post Fukushima Japan saw the uprising of a citizen activism that for the first time openly voiced its dissent. Daniel P Aldrich, a professor of political science at Purdue University in the US writes: “Following Fukushima, many citizens have been unwilling to accept statements from government and industry at face value.” A Youtube video posted soon after the disaster garnered a quarter million views when it showed angry citizens challenging grim-faced bureaucrats with statements such as, “We don’t know who we can trust. Can we actually go back home? And if not, can you guarantee our livelihoods?”.
An official at the office for International Nuclear Energy Cooperation in the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) at Tokyo admits that post Fukushima public confidence has been at an all-time low. “Public emotions are running high at the moment. These stress tests and the shutting down of nuclear power plants is what the public needs to regain its trust in the government,” he says on condition of anonymity. He also mentions that the government hopes that during this cooling off period the public would realise that the nuclear disaster did not occur due to a breach in nuclear safety measures. When asked about Japan taking to renewable energy, he says that it simply wouldn’t work for the scale of energy Japan needs. “Our biggest fear is not being able to support industry and manufacturing,” he says while adding any move to reduce energy consumption would send the already fragile economy spiralling downward.
While Japan struggles to remain enticing to the Toyotas, Kawasakis and Hitachis, it is being forced to priotise its interests. Whether it will be the safety of its public, energy dependency or economic growth will be known in the coming months. Before the session ends, the official gives a clear hint without mincing words. “Nuclear power is essential for this country and we have to restart nuclear power plants as soon as possible, otherwise Japan will face electricity shortages this summer,” he says.
Outside the METI office, there is an ad hoc camp put up by a group of old people with guitars and a few books, pamphlets and banners with slogans on clean energy written in Japanese. But passers hardly stop to take a look and find out what they’re saying. To those living in faraway Tokyo, the traumatic experience of those who suffered the disaster is less direct. The Japanese are known for their immense resilience. Cultural anthropologist and professor at Temple University's Japan campus, John Mock says, “Japan’s resilience really comes from a lack of choice. In a country that is this prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, people realise that there is nowhere to run. They have simply got to stay where they are and make it work.” In simple words, if your house crumbles due to an earthquake, build it back and move on.
This leads us to an important question: Will this resilience transcend into a sense of fatalism and eventual acceptance of government policy and decisions, or will it propel a stronger, more persistent engagement with the government until its policy decisions reflect public concerns? The result of the stress tests this summer will tell.