Human Impact Of Fukushima Nearly A Year Later

Nearly a year since the massive  disaster in Japan, people struggle to get life back to something resembling normalcy. Misunderstanding, stress and fighting a system that doesn’t work well add to the challenges people face.

A 60 year old worker that died suddenly was declared a case of “overwork” by the labor authority in Japan. Nobukatsu Osumi had a heart attack on his first day of work at the plant. He was tasked with working on pipes at the waste disposal facility. The press report does not state what his radiation levels were. This is the first case of a Fukushima worker’s death being investigated by the labor ministry.  The article also does not state if the family will receive compensation now that his death is officially attributed to his work at the plant. More worker accounts of the first hours of the disaster have come out. The private sector investigation directly interviewed many workers and a new BBC documentary also did many interviews, some anonymously to protect the workers. One worker tells of hearing a loud roar as unit 1 was manually vented. Some spoke of the fear they felt as they realized the plant was completely out of control. At one point the radiation outside the command building was so high many assumed they would die, luckily the level receded enough to leave the building after a few hours.  A volunteer psychologist providing care to the workers explained the extreme stress and trauma many of the workers are still under. On top of the stress of the first weeks of the nuclear disaster, many of the workers have lost their homes. Their families have moved away and many lost loved ones in the tsunami. Some have financial problems due to pay cuts, loss of homes and the other financial stresses the other evacuees deal with. Adding to this large amount of problems, some of the public blame the workers at the plant for the disaster. One worker trying to rent an apartment was rejected by the landlord for being a TEPCO worker. When he did find an apartment the neighbors tried to chase him off for being a TEPCO worker.  Adding to the senselessness is the reality that the workers didn’t make the decisions how to build, design and site the plant. They also had little or no say when safety issues were found. There are numerous instances of workers trying to point out safety problems only to be shut down or threatened with retaliation by management.

Residents from the impacted area have suffered insults, indifference and a lack of understanding from some outside the region. Comments like no one will be able to return or misguided claims that Fukushima residents were dependent on power from the plant and should suffer the consequences. Fukushima Daiichi sent its power to Tokyo. These kinds of cruel comments may be feeble attempts to rationalize the guilt and fear others may feel watching their fellow citizens suffer. Buddhist priest Token Yoshioka is trying to bring some understanding of what people are really going through in Fukushima through a paper bulletin he began distributing a few months ago.

 “We used to be proud of how clean the air we breathed and water we drank was, and how delicious the vegetables and fruits in our hometown were–all of which were irreplaceably precious.”

Yoshioka explains how people’s lives have been turned upside down. Children sent away to live somewhere far away, local businesses outside the evacuation zone suffering losses and farmers unable to sell produce even if it tests safe. Some schools in Minamisoma have reopened. Students must wear masks outside and parents must drive students to and from school to avoid areas of high radiation. Hospitals in the region were short of staff before the disasters, now those issues are even worse. Some remain closed, others have limited services, stopped taking inpatients or suspended night time emergency services.

Parts of the evacuation zone may be uninhabitable for an indefinite period of time. Parts of Futuba had radiation levels of 470 mSv. New radiation readings show high levels along the north and east corridor of fallout and many areas that are still well above the .5 uSv/h level used to evacuate Chernobyl. The Japanese government is now admitting some areas will be uninhabitable forever. The national government has been pushing for many towns in the evacuation zone to allow nuclear waste storage in their communities. Three mayors from Futaba, Namie and Hirono refused to meet with the officials. TEPCO has already had their eye on Namie for a facility.  If the high levels of radiation are not enough of a challenge for these cities, the prospect of having a nuclear waste dump certainly adds to that.  Adding to the stress of those impacted by the triple disaster is that many still owe mortgages on homes that were damaged by the tsunami or are unlivable now due to the nuclear disaster.

A government oversight committee looked at the issue of how long people live in shelter situations vs. those who stay in shelters a short time in relation to receiving compensation. They mention staying in a shelter for five years or more. Even if this means temporary housing that is a tough ordeal to forsee for someone. TEPCO has finally released a chart of who qualifies for compensation including those who voluntarily left. TEPCO may also now pay evacuees for the cost of their home and lot if people will not be able to return in the forseeable future. TEPCO is also  holding back, claiming that decontamination methods or ability to return has not been determined yet. Compensation is between 80,000 and 400,000 yen per month per person but many face large financial challenges like continuing to pay mortgages, travel expenses and other costs involved in trying to start over. One couple has taken TEPCO to arbitration citing loss of their home and that they should be compensated for the cost to rent something equal to their home until a final resolution is completed. Today 47 people from Futuba filed a claim to arbitration against TEPCO asking for 5.5 million dollars for lost homes and suffering.

Mayors of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto have pushed Kansai Electric to present a plan to shift to renewables and offer incentives to cut power consumption. Kansai is the most nuclear dependent utility in Japan. The mayors also expressed concern over focusing heavily on one type of power generation source. The public has continued momentum to change both policy and society. Groups have been collecting signatures for various referendums at the local level while one has collected 4 million signatures towards a national policy to shut down all nuclear reactors. Public sentiment is towards more renewables and a feed in tariff put in place before Kan left office is helping spur investing in renewable energy.

The international news media, nuclear power industry and nuclear regulators are declaring the disaster “over’. For many the disaster is far from over. For some it will never be over.

 Fujio Sato lost his wife, grandson and granddaughter in the tsunami. He sleeps with their pictures every night in his temporary housing unit in Ishinomaki.

 

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