Fukushima 10 years on: Japan remembers loss

2021-03-09 17:00:37 GMT2021-03-10 01:00:37(Beijing Time) Sina English
  An abandoned house is seen inside the “difficult-to-return” zone on Monday in Namie, Japan.(CFP)  An abandoned house is seen inside the “difficult-to-return” zone on Monday in Namie, Japan.(CFP)

When a huge earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, devastating towns and triggering nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, a stunned world watched the chaotic struggle to contain the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

An onslaught of waves sparked by the 9.0-magnitude quake crashed into the northeastern coast, killing nearly 20,000 people and crippling the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. More than 160,000 residents fled as radiation spewed into the air.

At the time, some — including Prime Minister Naoto Kan — feared Tokyo would need to be evacuated, or worse.

“Fukushima is stamped for the rest of the history of nuclear energy,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, head of an investigation that concluded the disaster was “profoundly man-made.”

The government has spent about US$300 billion to rebuild the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region, but areas around the Fukushima plant remain off-limits, worries about radiation levels linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning the crippled plant will take decades and billions of dollars.

Japan is again debating the role of nuclear power in its energy mix as the resource-poor country aims to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to fight global warming. But an NHK public TV survey showed 85 percent of the public worries about nuclear accidents.

Energy policy was left in limbo after Shinzo Abe led his pro-nuclear energy Liberal Democratic Party back to power the year after the disaster, ousting the novice Democratic Party of Japan, whose image was tainted by its handling of Fukushima.

“They sort of left things adrift,” said Tobias Harris, senior vice president at consultancy Teneo and author of a book about Abe.

Kurokawa’s commission, appointed by parliament, concluded in 2012 that the Fukushima accident was “the result of collusion between the government, regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Co” and a lack of governance.

Abe resigned last year, citing poor health, and his successor, Yoshihide Suga, has announced a goal of net carbon neutrality by 2050.

Proponents say nuclear power is vital to de-carbonization. Critics say cost, safety and the challenge of storing nuclear waste are all reasons to avoid it.

“Those talking about atomic power are people in the ‘nuclear village,’ who want to protect their vested interests,” former Prime Minister Kan told a news conference last week.

The mass demonstrations against nuclear power seen in the wake of 3/11 have faded, but distrust lingers.

A February Asahi newspaper survey found that nationwide, 53 percent opposed restarting reactors, compared with 32 percent in favor. In Fukushima, only 16 percent backed restarting units.

“Ten years have passed and some people have forgotten. The zeal is gone,” said Yu Uchiyama, a University of Tokyo political science professor. “Restarts are not happening, so people think if they just wait, nuclear power will disappear.”

UN: Higher cancer rates unlikely

A UN scientific panel yesterday confirmed a previous finding that radiation from the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan was unlikely to raise cancer rates discernibly, and said a jump in thyroid cancer in children was due to “ultrasensitive” screening methods.

Two days before the 10th anniversary of the disaster, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which comprises 52 scientists from 27 countries, published an update to a 2014 report, based on data up to the end of 2019.

“The updated (radiation) dose estimates to members of the public have either decreased or are comparable with the Scientific Committee’s previous estimates,” UNSCEAR said in a statement.

“The Committee therefore continues to consider that future health effects directly related to radiation exposure are unlikely to be discernible.”

There has, however, been an increase in thyroid cancers in children.

The thyroid is the most exposed organ as radioactive iodine concentrates there. Children are especially vulnerable.