While people were still in shock from the massive destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami it was announced in the international media that there was a problem at a nuclear power plant. Little did anyone know what would transpire over the next few days.
TEPCO made brief announcements that there really wasn’t a problem, they had everything under control at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. What was going on even before the tsunami hit was far worse than was being told. Workers saw critical cooling pipes rupture and heard explosions.
The plant director asked fearful workers to stay on, those that were not directly needed evacuated. The workers that stayed on struggled in darkness, scavenged car batteries and risked already rising radiation levels to try to bring the reactors under control. The back up generators were housed in the basements, the tsunami destroyed them. Offsite power was gone.
TEPCO executives decided they were going to abandon the plant. Had they actually done this and the reactors allowed to free fall, the scope of the disaster would have been considerably worse. As former Prime Minister Kan admitted in interviews after he stepped down, Tokyo would have been abandoned, “nobody in Tokyo”. It would have not just left units 1-4 out of control but units 5 and 6 and also Daini where problems were also going on even though they were far less than at Daiichi.
TEPCO was still claming to the public that everything was under control. The next day unit 1 exploded. The day after that (March 13th) unit 3 exploded in a massive blast that injured 11 people at the plant. On March 15th unit 2 exploded, though that is being disputed now by various parties as not being an explosion. There is speculation is was a massive water hammer into the torus that did significant damage to the lower portion of the building and containment. Also on March 15th unit 4 exploded in a blast that caused major structural damage and risked the failure of the spent fuel pool housing fresh fuel out of the reactor.
Billions of terabecquerels of radiation spewed into the air, even more leaked into the sea and continues to today. The radiation contamination dumped into the sea is now the largest radiation contamination of the seas in history. Radiation contamination was found by April in Russian seas and has been detected further west. Pacific tuna are being found in Japan with considerable contamination raising concerns about high on the food chain fish and those that migrate long distances across the Pacific like tuna.
Through all of this the residents of Fukushima were alerted and evacuated in an inconsistent pattern and all were told they could “go home very soon”. This was told to residents for months causing them to hold out hope and not begin the process of rebuilding their lives. It also caused residents to leave pets behind per government instructions leading to a massive problem of starving pets and farm animals in the evacuation zones. Many people today, 9 months later still remain un-evacuated in areas of high radiation. Students in Minamisoma can’t be outside for an extended period of time and wear dosimeters. Children all over the region are made to stay inside and otherwise try to avoid radiation rather than moving them somewhere safe. Initial testing showed many children in the region have significant internal radiation contamination.
Fukushima City showed shocking levels of radiation soon after the disaster started. The city still is not evacuated, Greenpeace recently did testing and found high levels in the city. Those with the means have left for somewhere safer. Those without the resources who did not get official evacuation assistance from the government are stuck. No new job, not enough resources to fund a move and no help from their government. Local officials have been far from compassionate. The mayor of Date City accused people who didn’t want to volunteer to clean up radioactive contamination as “acting like victims”. The mayor of Fukushima City has been more worried about his tax base and economic implications than for the safety of the cities nearly 300,000 residents.
The elderly have been hit extremely hard by the disaster. Many died soon after the evacuations started as they were already weak and in hospitals or nursing homes. Some were abandoned and later rescued by others. The evacuations alone were too much for some to survive. Many elderly found the loss of homes that were in their families for generations and the loss of community too much and took their own lives. A number of farmers too found the loss of everything including their herds too painful and committed suicide after leaving heartbreaking notes.
The food problems have impacted people all over Japan. Initially the government downplayed the risk to the food supply and did nothing. Then slowly but surely cesium was found in beef in markets causing a major uproar all over Japan and huge concerns about the food supply. The government reluctantly added some testing programs while at the same time promoting food products from the impacted region. Citizens groups have stepped up and helped provide some food testing and confirmation of government testing to assure it is honest. Building a system from nothing has proven to be a monumental task. Meanwhile parents struggle daily about the normally simple task of what to feed their children. The government further failed the people by prematurely declaring all Fukushima rice “safe” after testing a few farms far from the areas known to be much more contaminated. As expected this backfired as rice from the region was found to indeed be contaminated. Parents have been fighting with school districts to assure students are fed safe foods for lunch. Bringing lunch from home is not permitted or is frowned upon in many schools making the safe lunch issue a major concern. Some districts have now adopted programs to test and prove lunch ingredients are safe.
Adding to the confusion and frustration around food is the government safety levels. The government declares anything under 500 bq/kg to be safe but few people see it that way and want to know the exact contamination level in their food. Citizen testing labs are helping as are programs such as Aeon foods testing of their products. The food retailer is doing their own testing, declaring exact contamination levels and not selling anything testing as contaminated even at low levels. These direct citizen and consumer actions are proving more effective than the government efforts that many times worry more about corporate profits and national image than the safety of the people.
All of this has caused anger, frustration and a growing dissatisfaction with both the government in Japan and the corrupt corporate structure of the power company monopolies. Decades of complacency, fraud, hiding accidents and ignoring safety has finally caught up with Japan’s power companies. While the government has not done much to address the problems, the truth has been laid bare and the people are well aware. Huge protests have taken place in Japan in recent months. One large demonstration in Tokyo had over 60,000 people. Today marking the 9 month anniversary has demonstrations going on in cities all over Japan. Parents groups and anti-nuclear groups have steadily grown and are demanding change. Osaka recently bucked both main political parties and elected a mayor and governor who ran on a platform of public safety and ending nuclear power. Signatures are being collected in Tokyo and Osaka for two voter referendums that could end nuclear power in those prefectures.
The national government still has not quite realized what is going on. The focus has been on decontamination. A process that has been mostly using power sprayers to wash buildings, trees and roads with water in the hopes of removing radiation. This simply moves it into the soil, creeks, rivers and the sea. The decontamination process so far as been a failure, only lowering radiation levels by about 10%. 70% of Fukushima is forest that will be impossible to effectively decontaminate without some significantly new technology. The forest contamination can then recontaminate other areas through run off, pollen and other methods. The government has pinned all their hopes on decontamination. Speculation about why frequently goes back to evacuee compensation and loss of tax payers in the impacted regions if people do not return. It boils down to money. If the government were to effectively address all the aspects of the disaster, from relocating all of the impacted to properly testing the food supply it could potentially bankrupt the entire country.
Evacuees worry about going home. Some worry they will be forced to return to somewhere unsafe, others worry they will never get to go home. Some worry that younger people will never return to the region leaving it to die as older populations dwindle. So many have had their lives torn apart and have lost everything. Many lost family members in the tsunami.
The workers have had their own struggles. Lack of proper safety gear, dishonest working conditions, lack of basic benefits and pay being skimmed by dishonest sub contractors have been just some of the problems at the plant. Many of the workers who were at the plant during the early days of the disaster received very high radiation doses. In the chaos of the early hours and days many on site didn’t have proper safety gear including respirators. There have been a number of very suspicious worker deaths related to the plant that have all gone without investigation. One widow has received legal help from a lawyers association after her husband collapsed at the plant and didn’t receive proper medical care for hours leading to his death. Workers have told stories of frightful events at the plant. One worker talked of going in to unit 3 to attempt to manually vent the unit. The torus unit was so hot it melted his rubber boots.
Fire department workers from all over Japan are being considered for ongoing medical care and screening. There was also talk of extending this to SDF soldiers. The ongoing health care, screening and potential disability coverage for the workers from both TEPCO and contractors is unknown. These brave men have been risking their lives and their health, a number of them have died or been injured. No program exists to assure they are paid back for their sacrifices.
For the last 9 months people from all over the world have been watching. They have been writing, researching, discussing and making sure this massive disaster that is still ongoing is not forgotten. Even just reading what is going on and being a person who possesses the knowledge of what is really going on in Japan plays a role in making sure this is all known. Sometimes just sharing the news is a powerful thing. Knowledge is power. Information wants to be free.
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