Tragedy, Hope, and the Fukushima Nuclear Meme

The tragedy of the 2011 Tohuko earthquake should never be forgotten for the people who lost their lives, for the people who were displaced, and for the long-lived consequences at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The communities on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture have experienced unbelievable hardships from tsunami destruction, nuclear contamination, and afterwards, from devastation to their communities. Some people are returning to towns in the area such as Namie and Odaka – where radiation levels have dropped to background levels. But social challenges persist due to the low population and lack of infrastructure. Despair could be a first reaction to arriving in Odaka for noticing the vacant lots of destroyed buildings. But the Real Fukushima experience leads to hope from hearing people’s stories as well as seeing the massive decontamination effort and measuring its effectiveness. If you travel to the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, people may ask you, “Why would you go there?” It’s a place of truly global significance where we can learn something about people and our values.

Any global observer might be shocked, like I was, that people would want to return to their homes in Fukushima. This is the first teaching moment I encountered on my Real Fukushima journey – people love their homes and will go to great lengths to protect and cherish them. Walking through a main street in Odaka, or seeing a massive flood plain occupied by one single relic of a building, I felt a simmering terror and sorrow from imagining what it would be like to run from the tsunami and be unable to return for 5 years because of nuclear contamination. Numerous homes were lost to nature because people could not be allowed to return to clean up the tsunami damage. They were left to be ruined by mold and rot and were even occupied by local forest animals. In one town, we saw the home of our guide’s father. His father lives a ways away from his home in a temporary shelter. Even though the radiation level is relatively safe at 0.39 microsieverts per hour, he cannot stay there for lack of electricity and water services. Still, he makes it a priority at age 93 to return to his home in the quiet and sparse village to spend time and care for the premise. Seeing homes covered in tarps, frames rebuilt from the ground up, and almost as many destroyed plots as developed ones, any traveler can experience the commonality of our human condition through the love of our homes and our families. Due to our natural “fellow feeling” – as Adam Smith called it in the 1700s – we imagine the hardships of other people happening to us and build fellowships based on that.

The nuclear decontamination work stands out in the countryside against former neighborhoods, crop fields, and toppled cemeteries. The work has been organized according to the Ministry of Environment’s scientific findings in the region. Measurements were taken on the extent of contamination in both the soil and the groundwater, finding no groundwater contamination but significant contamination of the soil. Because of these findings, the Japanese government is implementing a process to remove incredible amounts of soil, organic matter, and tsunami debris to restore the Fukushima coastal region to background radiation levels within only a few decades. The process started with many demolitions of the old towns and neighborhoods, for which the government sought the permission of the owners. In one area, a single house still stands for the inability to find the owners. After the demolitions, contaminated forest debris were removed and a massive excavation and construction campaign began.

The soil contamination – primarily composed of the radioisotope Caesium-137 – is asymmetrically distributed around the Daiichi power plant, tracing the prevailing wind patterns for approximately 35 kilometers northwest. The Japanese government will remove nearly all Caesium from the towns, villages, and farmland in the nuclear disaster zone by excavating the top 5 centimeters of soil, storing it for a long “short term” of up to 5 years, and then disposing of it using facilities constructed on-site. Since Caesium-137 has a half-life of 30.17 years, the contamination will decay to only 10% of its initial quantity by the year 2111. All of the Caesium-contaminated debris and soil is being gathered into massive multi-layered bags and kept on fields or in freshly constructed warehouses while the excavation and construction continues for years more. There is no way of knowing how many bags of contaminated debris have been collected, but one government estimate is 16 million.  Seeing the magnitude of the bag storage throughout the region, the endless warehouse from the movie Indiana Jones comes to mind. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the Fukushima cleanup even while seeing it up close. It is clearly an industrial scale. For comparison, if each of the 16 million bags weighed 1 short ton (i.e. 2000 lbs), then it would be on par with weekly coal production in the United States (15 million tons, as of December 1, 2018).

In the eight years since the Tohuko earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, public interest has naturally reduced but the region continues to serve a role as the ultimate meme of nuclear power globally. For example, because of this nuclear disaster, Japan and Germany shut down all of their nuclear plants immediately and almost every other country made cuts to their nuclear energy plans. Some of Japan’s nuclear plants have been restarted with the approval of the local governments. But this represents only 16% of Japan’s original reactor fleet – 9 reactors out of Japan’s total fleet of 57. Nonetheless, anybody who brings up nuclear power in a conversation is sure to experience people asking, “What about Fukushima?” Significant fear was generated and continues around the world. The famous map of radiation filling the Pacific Ocean, seen by millions online, has a lot to do with the sustained fear of Fukushima. Everyone living near the Pacific was scared even though the image was never a radiation map at all, but a map of tsunami energy traveling. Still, many people consider the ‘spread of radiation’ from this map to be the final word on Fukushima and nuclear power. The narrative that has emerged makes traveling to the coast of Japan for Real Fukushima unlike any other experience. During and after the disaster, it was easy to focus on our own fears from ‘global radiation.’ But this has distracted from the impact on Japan – especially the deaths of 18,500 people and the horrible, non-nuclear earthquake and tsunami damage to the human environment. Real Fukushima is about more than 3 nuclear meltdowns; it’s also about a devastated community, its recovery, and thousands of people who never came home to their families on March 11th, 2011. Because of my experience, I am not afraid of Fukushima. Fukushima should be mourned, hoped for, and assisted – not feared.

Sean Hernandez