Three Years On

Stories from Fukushima
Published on March 11, 2014

It was the biggest earthquake to shake Japan. With a magnitude of 9.0, the undersea tremor that rumbled to life on March 11, 2011 shifted the country's main island by more than two metres and unleashed a tsunami that triggered meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The disaster killed more than 15,880 people and altered forever the lives of hundreds of thousands of families. It also triggered a nuclear crisis that independent investigators have concluded was man-made.

But three years after the giant Fukushima plant spewed radioactive material throughout the country's northeast in the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, some prominent Japanese citizens worry that the wreckage and shock wasn't grave enough to shake the country.

Japan's government, these critics say, has not dealt with problems raised by an independent investigatory commission. Policies are toothless. The nuclear industry hasn't addressed its role in the disaster.

And while the parliament commissioned the investigation, it has failed to follow up. The report blasts a government culture that is averse to taking risks; a crisis-management system that needs a stronger chain of command; powerful nuclear operators that are still not effectively regulated by the government; and nuclear-energy laws that fail to meet global standards.

"At this time, all the investigations have to be international, independent, and all the processes open and transparent. Otherwise you cannot retain the trust," says Dr Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a physician who was chairman of the nine-member Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. It delivered its report in July 2012.

It was the first independent public investigatory commission in Japan's history, and Kurokawa had hoped it would make a difference in a culture that tends not to reflect on past mistakes. Kurokawa and his colleagues urged parliament to investigate further, but he says that advice wasn't taken, and that Tepco never acknowledged the report's findings.

An adviser to Prime Minster Shinzo Abe during his first term, Kurokawa continues to criticise the government and industry. He delivers speeches around the country to prod the public to demand greater transparency and improved public-safety measures from the nuclear industry.

According to the report, government regulators and Tepco had understood since 2006 the impact catastrophic weather could have on coastal nuclear plants. Japan is vulnerable to powerful earthquakes, and officials knew that if the plant was hit by a giant tsunami, a total electrical outage could occur, potentially damaging the reactor cores. Regulator the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa) knew that Tepco had failed to prepare for these risks, but took no action.

Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organisation that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety
Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission

Advice from foreign bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency could have prevented the disaster, but was ignored by government regulators, the commission says.

On March 11, 2011, the worst-case scenario unspooled. "Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organisation that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety," the report states.

Three years on, Kurokawa says that little has changed in the way the government or nuclear officials work. There is still no system to monitor and check government actions or mistakes. No government or Tepco official has been held accountable.

Only one of the commission's seven recommendations have been heeded. This was a move by the national Diet's lower house to establish a special committee in April to monitor nuclear power. Critics said they doubted that the group could provide effective oversight because most committee members favoured nuclear energy.

"Three years after this major incident, is there any sign of change in Japan's democracy and governance? That's what we need to ask," Kurokawa says.

Kurokawa blames the failures on Japan's "reflexive obedience" and "reluctance to question authority". Journalist and foreign- policy expert Yoichi Funabashi, who led a private independent investigation into the incident, says that a bigger problem lies with Japan's sclerotic political system that breeds an aversion to risk and lacks effective oversight.

In 2011, Funabashi started the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation to offer policy ideas.

According to the foundation's research, the government and Tepco operated under the belief that nuclear plants were completely safe. Before the earthquake, government regulators and Tepco avoided addressing the potential risks because they believed this would cause "unnecessary anxiety and misunderstanding" among the public, Funabashi wrote in a paper published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Resource-poor Japan has sought cheaper energy sources for decades, and made nuclear power a national priority since the 1970s. Despite the country's vulnerability to natural disasters, more than 50 commercial reactors dot Japan's coasts, providing about 30 per cent of its electricity before the 2011 disaster. The nuclear operators, according to Kurokawa, have formed a lobby so powerful that its actions have been largely untouched by the nation's regulations.

Because the power plant and a large portion of land remain contaminated, Kurokawa says the crisis is far from over.

In addition to frustrations over delayed clean-up efforts, many anti-nuclear activists have criticised Tepco's mishandling of the aftermath. More importantly, they say, the government should not have relied on the company to handle the clean-up.

Tokyo took over the decontamination process just last year, after admitting, following months of denial, that radioactive water leaking from the plant's storage tanks and underground tunnels had reached the Pacific Ocean. Two weeks ago, the company announced another 100 tonnes of highly contaminated water had leaked from a tank after a valve was left open by mistake.

The policy agencies do not want to see any sizable new enforcement body to emerge at the expense of their vested interests.
Journalist and foreign policy expert Yoichi Funabashi

"The government is keenly aware of the nuclear security problems, but there is no leadership to do something about that," Funabashi says. "The policy agencies do not want to see any sizable new enforcement body emerge at the expense of their vested interests."

Funabashi blames the lack of government accountability on a "revolving door" culture that lets government employees move to different departments every two or three years, creating a "structure of irresponsibility".

"In you rotate so often, there is no accountability and people are usually not willing to take risks," he says. "Your first instinct is just to procrastinate on making decision on tough issues."

The public hasn't shouldered its role well, either, Kurokawa says. Despite a vocal anti-nuclear movement, voters since the disaster have backed pro-nuclear politicians. Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party were returned to office in 2012.

Abe immediately reversed the previous government's decision to phase out nuclear power by 2040. While the country's 48 other commercial reactors are currently offline for safety checks, the government last month announced its plan to fast-track the restarting of some reactors.

Why are the Japanese not angry at the restarting of those things?
Investigator Kiyoshi Kurosawa

In another blow to nuclear opponents, Yoichi Masuzoe, backed by Abe's party, beat two candidates who promised to end nuclear power in the February election for governor of Tokyo.

"In a nutshell, we have not solved anything in the past three years," Funabashi says. "If we don't learn the lessons, we are simply saying that Japan is not entitled to operate nuclear power plants."

Kurokawa says the media has failed to question the government and Tepco's responsibility. "Why are the Japanese not angry at the restarting of those things [nuclear reactors]? The media is partly to be blamed."

He points to a video made by a group of young volunteers that explains the key points of the commissions' findings in six short clips. The group - with the unlikely name in English of Simplest Explanation of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report - hopes to make more citizens aware of the commission's findings. Volunteers also organise talks and exhibitions to engage high school pupils and adults.

"These young people, they are the future," Kurokawa says.

Temporary Housing: Lives in Limbo

For Tokyoki Matsuno, a lifetime as a fisherman in Minamisoma was turned upside down when a monstrous tsunami swamped his home and boat on March 11, 2011. Like many who have committed their whole lives to this devastated town, 72-year-old Matsuno refuses to leave, although he risks harm from nuclear radiation.

On March 11, Japan marks the third anniversary of the triple disaster that began with one of the world's most powerful earthquakes. The below-sea rumble unleashed a 14-metre tsunami that swept away tens of thousands of buildings and triggered a massive release of radioactive materials from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Now Matsuno and his community face a quandary: the youth have fled the stricken city for safer environs and better opportunities, leaving Minamisoma - about 30 kilometres north of the power station - struggling to recruit workers to rebuild for the older residents left behind.

Those are just the start of the mounting labour problems faced by Japan. Layers of complex bureaucracy, ineffective co-ordination between Tokyo and local governments, and the added fear that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will divert further resources heighten the frustration voiced by residents and local officials.

Matsuno had no patience for the convoluted government scheme that offered permanent homes for displaced residents. While living in a temporary shelter with his wife, he bought a piece of land - at double the price of his previous home - last year. But the plan to live there has been stalled by the severe labour shortage. It took him months to find a construction company that would build a house for them. The firm has held off from signing a contract until this month to avoid being held responsible for any delays.

The construction companies here just don't have enough manpower, and most of the construction materials are being sent to big cities like Sendai.
Tokyoki Matsuno, Minamisoma fisherman

"The construction companies here just don't have enough manpower, and most of the construction materials are being sent to big cities like Sendai," Matsuno says, referring to the biggest city in the northeastern Tohoku region that was hardest hit by the disaster.

Previously known as a quiet agricultural area dotted with sleepy fishing villages, the Tohoku region has long struggled with the challenges of ageing populations. And the disaster has exacerbated the problem.

Minamisoma city was transformed into a ghost town soon after water from the tsunami engulfed its coastal edge. Nuclear alerts sounded and some 50,000 residents, out of a total 75,000, fled in two weeks. The disaster claimed 1,026 lives and destroyed 1,165 houses in Minamisoma. Around 30 per cent of the former population has not returned.

Today, the southern tip of the city, closest to the power plant and once home to 4,000 families, is fenced off. It's an exclusion zone, bristling with severe nuclear contamination, and residents are allowed only limited access.

In another city section, radiation levels have dropped and residents can visit, but not stay overnight. The government says that some of the evacuated residents may wait five years before they can live in their former homes; some will wait 10 years, and some may never be allowed to return. Most of these evacuees now live in temporary homes elsewhere in the country.

Outside the exclusion zone, some residents have trickled back. Shattered buildings have mostly been cleared. But scars of the town's struggle in a nuclear limbo are still visible.

Minamisoma's mayor, Katsunobu Sakurai, says he worries about the shrinking number of young people following the exodus sparked by fears of nuclear contamination.

According to figures provided by the Minamisoma government, its workforce - people aged 15 to 64 - dropped by 33 per cent, from about 43,000 before the earthquake to nearly 29,000 today. But the number of people aged 65 and older has remained fairly level: 18,500 before the disaster and 16,500 today.

We need to do everything to make [young people] feel like coming back
Katsunobu Sakurai, Minamisoma mayor

"If we could have the previous population, our reconstruction would proceed at double the current speed," Sakurai says.

The 58-year old mayor won international acclaim two weeks after the calamity when he made a desperate plea for help in an 11-minute video posted on YouTube. "We are left isolated," he says in the video. "I beg you, as the mayor of Minamisoma, to help us." Donations and offers to help poured in.

Today, he is making another appeal. "There is no single silver bullet [to resolve the reconstruction problems], but we especially lack young people. We need to do everything to make them feel like coming back," he says.

But Sakurai is stuck in a paradox: to clean the nuclear contamination, he needs young workers to replace those driven out by the contamination. But attempts to woo more workers have been sapped by problems.

Last year, members of yakuza criminal groups were arrested, accused of infiltrating construction giant Obayashi Corp's subcontractor network and illegally sending workers to the government-sponsored project to clean up the Fukushima plant.

Up to 4,000 workers each day work in Fukushima cleaning contamination, says Yoshimi Hitosugi, a spokesman for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. Just 1,000 are Tepco employees, with the rest recruited through subcontactors. Hitosugi acknowledged that criminal groups had infiltrated labour suppliers. "But without their [workers recruited by the yakuza] co-operation, nothing gets done," he says.

“I am worried”

Inside the exclusion zone, getting rid of radioactive waste progresses slowly, although volunteers have pitched in.

In 2012, elderly residents started donning protective gear donated by several companies and individuals, toiling in the exclusion zone for about three hours every day. They dig up contaminated soil and cart it away in plastic bags.

Morio Saito, who founded the volunteer group, says only 15 to 20 per cent of Minamisoma's exclusion zone had been decontaminated. "We wanted to clean up our homes on our own," Saito says. "We don't want to wait for the government and Tepco to handle this. We don't trust them anymore."

The group now has 28 members, aged 50 to 92. Its size has shrunk in the past two years as members move away.

The residents worry that they have little time to get more help, because soon they'll face competition from a sexier, and well-funded project - the 2020 Olympic Games.

In the next eight years, Tokyo plans to build 22 of the 37 venues from scratch and will spend US$1 billion refurbishing the Olympic stadium erected for the 1964 Games. The work will require 25,000 labourers, according to government estimates.

"I am worried," says Osamu Onado, head of Minamisoma's Odaka district that rests within the exclusion zone. "Since the Olympic dates are already set and cannot be changed, it's inevitable the project will be prioritised."

Onado, 64, now lives in a temporary shelter in Minamisoma. On clear days, he spends the morning in his former office in the zone where residents can return during the day. He says he is usually the only person in the office building. Outside he mows the grass, tidies, and chats with residents who visit their homes.

Some people are really worried about radiation but for old people like us, we may die before it starts to affect our health.
Head of Minamisoma's Odaka district Osamu Onado

"As long as I am the district head, I walk around and talk to the residents, since I believe that's part of my job," he says.

The district is expected to be permanently reopened to residents in 2018, but Onado is not confident this deadline will be met. Still, Onado says he's ready to rebuild his home in Odaka.

"Some people are really worried about radiation," he says. "But for old people like us, we may die before it starts to affect our health," he says.

Safecast: Measuring the Disaster

The largest citizen science project to date

How high are radiation levels in parts of Japan?

With some areas still uninhabitable, and many wary of government data, an increasing number of residents are relying on tech-savvy volunteers to get them the radiation statistics they demand.

Safecast, a nonprofit global network that collects and shares radiation measurements, has built Geiger counters and distributed them to volunteers in Japan to measure the radiation levels.

Established one week after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the organisation says it has collected 15 million data points with the portable counters and about 320 fixed censors installed across the country.

Why do the people need our help? Maybe they trust us more than the government.
Azby Brown, a Safecast researcher who lives in Japan

About two-thirds of the data comes from Fukushima. It has been published on the group's website - - and also converted into maps.

"Why do the people need our help? Maybe they trust us more than the government," says Azby Brown, a Safecast researcher who lives in Japan. "We are independent, and we guard our independence very rigidly."

The organisation has more than 100 regular volunteers, including engineers, radiation experts and hardware designers across the country.

Advisers include tech entrepreneurs and Jun Murai, a computer scientist and dean at Keio University who was recently recognised for the early design and development of the internet.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a physician who led the Japanese parliament's independent investigatory commission into the Fukushima nuclear crisis, says the work of Safecast's volunteers is credible. "They are well-educated and careful and very scientific in their work," he says.

The disaster, followed by a string of mishaps and withheld information, has dampened public trust in the national government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the Fukushima plant. Both have been criticised for delays and poor oversight, worsening the nuclear disaster.

Many residents near the power plant have complained that they weren't evacuated until after hours of delay.

The government now discloses radiation levels on its website. But many people have said that they usually disregard the official data.

Brown, from Safecast, says the government hasn't established enough measurement data points to give people a comprehensive picture of the contamination levels. In one neighbourhood in Fukushima's Koriyama City, the government's main radiation information web page shows data from just seven monitoring posts, while Safecast's map of the same area shows about 800 data points.

"It's not bad information. It's not misinformation. It's just omitting enough to maybe give a misleading impression," Brown says.

His organisation has teamed up with local governments in three Fukushima cities to launch a programme called "Street-by-street". Each town has been loaned about 10 Geiger counters from Safecast. These devices are attached to the local post office's motorcycles to collect data around the towns.

"Our condition is that the data has to be open," Brown says. "Everybody must be able to use it."

The programme allows local officials to circumvent restrictions imposed by the national government on data collection.

"Local governments are happy to have an alternative source of information to share with their community," Brown says.

“I never want to see anything like this happening anywhere in the world”

Japan's most radioactive man and his animals

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant went into meltdown just 13 kilometres away from Naoto Matsumura's home. After being turned away from an overcrowded temporary shelter, he decided to take his chances back home in Tomioka city, Fukushima prefecture, and take care of his animals.

"I have two cats, one dog, one ostrich, one horse, 31 cows and four wild boars," Matsumura said proudly. Initially, he says he took animals that were left behind in his hometown, whose owners were told the evacuation of the city would be short-term.

At first it was just dogs and cats, but then the government announced a law to dispose of cattle, rather than letting them starve inside the evacuation zone.

"I asked, 'What are you doing?' and they replied, 'We are now going to kill all the cows.' I told them, 'Stop, I will take care of them.' And that's how I started collecting cows from all over," Matsumura said.

The radiation levels are dangerously high in his area, about 17 times higher than the normal level of background radiation. After being tested at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency he was told that he had the highest level of radiation exposure out of anyone in Japan, but wouldn't fall ill for another 30 or 40 years.

Matsumura was one of 15,000 people that stayed in Tomioka.

"I don't have any plans, but as of now all I can say is that the nuclear power plant is bad," he said. "If the disaster was only about the earthquake and tsunami, everyone could come back and reconstruction would be done by now.

"After the nuclear disaster, nobody wants to come back, especially the younger generation."

Matsumura now runs a charity with supporters taking care of animals left behind in the evacuation zone.