The effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident will be felt for decades into the future, say local and international activists on the 10th anniversary of Japan’s triple disaster of March 2011, contradicting the Japanese government’s official narrative that the crisis has largely been overcome.
Memories of that March day 10 years ago remain fresh for those who experienced it.
A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan’s northeastern coast – the strongest ever recorded – was followed first by an enormous tsunami and then by the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that was built on the coast and destroyed by the power of the wave. Nearly 20,000 people in the country’s northeast lost their lives.
A decade later, most Japanese in the Tohoku region have been able to move on with their lives, but in the areas near Fukushima Daiichi, where radioactive particles contaminated the land, recovery has not been so swift.
“Buildings could be repaired after the earthquake and tsunami,” said NGO worker Ayumi Iida. “Only the nuclear disaster hasn’t ended. We don’t know when it will end.”
In the wake of the nuclear accident, the government ordered people in nearby cities to leave, and established radiation exclusion zones around the plant. Nearly 165,000 residents were evacuated at its peak in 2012.
Decontamination efforts have meant most areas have been reopened and people allowed to return to their homes. But there are still nearly 37,000 people listed as Fukushima evacuees and many of them say they have no intention of going back.
Iida is a spokesperson for a group called NPO Mothers’ Radiation Lab Fukushima Tarachine, a grassroots organisation established by residents after the disaster to protect the health and livelihoods of children living in the area who had been exposed to radiation and other potential sources of harm.
Iida, a young mother who lives in the coastal city of Iwaki, about 40 kilometres (24 miles) from the destroyed plant, told Al Jazeera English that she tries to protect her children by sourcing foods from faraway regions of Japan, by finding playgrounds with the lowest levels of radioactivity and by having her children screened each year for signs of thyroid cancer.
“Our children have to be the main focus for the future of everything here,” she said.
While the past 10 years has not seen a significant spike of cancers among Fukushima’s population or other obvious signs of radiation-linked diseases – in contrast to Chernobyl which released 10 times more radiation – experts caution that there remains ample ground for concern as exposure accumulates over time.
Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace Germany, says that even now radiation levels in many parts of the former exclusion zones remain uncomfortably high.
“The level of contamination is such that if these radiation levels were found in a laboratory inside a controlled nuclear facility, it would require intervention from at least the plant management, and it would have to be closed off and decontaminated,” he said.
Like many other observers, Burnie dismisses claims that the Fukushima crisis is “under control” (as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared as long ago as 2013).
“As long as you have that level of contamination in an uncontrolled environment – the forests, the hills, the riverbanks, the farmland – you cannot say the situation is under control from a radiological perspective,” he said.
Mary Olson, the founder of the US-based Gender + Radiation Impact Project, points out that the concerns of a young mother like Iida are not misplaced. While she notes that scientific research on the issue remains underfunded and incomplete, there is evidence suggesting that women may also be more susceptible to cancers caused by radiation than men.
“Males get cancer. It’s not that radiation is safe for them,” she said, referring to a long-term study done on survivors of Hiroshima. “But the females in the youngest age group got twice as much.”
She also notes – as do most nuclear scientists – that while more exposure to radiation carries a larger risk to human health, there is no absolutely “safe” minimum level.
“A fatal cancer can originate from a single radioactive emission,” she said.
On the other hand, in the same way that climate scientists admit that an individual typhoon or hurricane cannot be attributed to the effects of climate change, there is no means to determine whether individual cases of cancer in Fukushima or elsewhere are directly caused by radiation exposure.
The effect can only be measured statistically by, for example, comparing the number of cancer cases per 100,000 people in a place like Fukushima with a different part of Japan.
Many activists claim that the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) really have no interest in funding and conducting such health impact studies in Fukushima because the answers that they receive could be politically inconvenient for an energy policy that continues to favour nuclear power.
“Their behaviour is not trustworthy,” said Ayumi Fukakusa, a climate justice and energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth Japan, of her government.
As to the radiation health risks, she contends that “the problem is that the government doesn’t really do research about it. Cases of cancer have increased among children … but they never admit the correlation or causation”.
Fukakusa also gives voice to a complaint that is common even among those who are more sympathetic to the government’s position – the sense that the officials have done an extremely poor job when it comes to transparency, as well as in providing local people credible information about the health risks from radiation that might allow them to make more informed decisions about their future lives.
“The important thing is that the government and TEPCO fully disclose the risks and the information about the situation,” Fukakusa said. “They must be honest with the local people, who must be fully consulted when it comes to relocation and returning [to the former radiation exclusion zones].”
Ten years after the disaster, life has returned pretty much to normal in many parts of Fukushima Prefecture. In some of the inland cities such as Fukushima city or Koriyama, there are few if any visible signs that the nuclear accident ever occurred.
Emiko Fujioka, the secretary-general of the Fukushima Beacon for Global Citizens Network, says that these days it is mainly only the evacuees from the former radiation exclusion zones who still think about it frequently.
“There is a big gap between the people in Fukushima [city] and the evacuees now,” she said.
In the absence of scientific guidance from the government authorities, communities long ago divided between those who fear the radiation contamination and those who dismiss the risk – sometimes seeing their own neighbours or family members as unduly alarmist.
In a somewhat similar fashion to the current COVID-19 pandemic, local opinion tends to diverge between those who are horrified by the potential health risks and those who are angry at the possible economic damage that could be done to the community by those who continue to highlight the dangers.
For Ayumi Iida, the young mother who worries about the health of her children and those of her neighbours, there is also a broader concern for a world that still looks to nuclear power as a more “environmentally friendly” source of energy.
“This time we had an nuclear accident in Fukushima, but we don’t know where the next nuclear accident will be,” she concludes.
“This must not be seen as an energy and environmental issue just for Japanese, but it must be considered by people all over the world.”