Friday, March 21, 2014

Fukushima and distrust

Japanamerica contributor, Eve Pearce, on the ongoing complexities of the Fukushima meltdown.

Don’t blame it all on the tsunami

The fallout from the Fukushima disaster is more than a matter of dealing with the results of the devastation caused by the tsunami, the explosion in reactor number 4 and the resulting meltdown and radioactive contamination. Amid the widespread destruction and disruption to life in the affected areas, the need to maintain economic viability has resulted in, among other emergency measures, the support of local food production by the lowering of permitted radioactivity levels, which has helped to create distrust of the government and its policies. This is not allayed by government secrecy over the results of radiation monitoring and decontamination measures, despite demands for greater openness. In these situations, where there are also conflicting reports about how long the cleanup will take and how serious and widespread the contamination will be – just as in wartime, ‘truth is the first casualty’ – in this post-disaster situation, the truth is increasingly difficult to pin down.

In 2011, immediately after the disaster, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was quoted as saying that "Japan was facing the possibility of collapse." This was perhaps one of the more honest assessments at the time, showing how the government really viewed the tsunami and its aftermath. On the evening of that first day, he declared a nuclear emergency and ordered the evacuation of all people within three kilometers of the power station. Then came the denials, with government spokesman Yukio Edano issuing such uncompromisingly positive statements as: "There is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." Contributing to the climate of confusion, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) put a ban on employees speaking on the matter in public. What did they all have to hide? It seems clear that mismanagement, bad practice and cover-ups of a series of problems within the plant made some sort of disaster inevitable. Nature only hastened its arrival. A poll taken in May of that year showed that 80% of the Japanese people did not believe what the government was telling them about the crisis.

A healthy tourism industry

Jump to 2014 and the devastation within the 25 mile exclusion limit around the plant is set to become a new tourist attraction, despite dangerous radiation levels. Plans for a new village to be built on the edge of the exclusion zone include specially constructed hotels that will protect guests from higher than normal radiation that may persist in some outlying areas. The village will create job opportunities for residents of the destroyed town of Fukushima, many of whom are still unable to return to their old homes: it may take up to 30 years to completely decontaminate the area and decommission the nuclear reactors. The hotels, museum and souvenir shops are seen as a vital aid to supporting the local population and restoring the economy. Meanwhile, tourists will wear protective suits and respirators.

The idea for the tourism plan came from similar disaster sites such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, New York’s Ground Zero and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, where the response has been not so much one of ghoulish ‘dark tourism’ as the provision of a place where people can mourn the victims and learn from the disaster. Such a significant event in the country’s history has inevitably ingrained itself into the minds of any tourist traveling to Japan, where the native history and culture is such a powerful draw. The good news is that most of Japan’s popular tourism areas were either unaffected by the disaster or have recovered from it. There is no radiation hazard outside the exclusion zone around Fukushima, and the US government lifted its travel alert back in April, 2012.

The latest tourism statistics for Japan give a healthy picture of increasing numbers arriving from most parts of the world, with the year on year figure for North America showing a rise of 14.8%. This is a country full of beautiful landscapes and a fascinating culture that mixes a reverence for its ancient traditions and long history with a love of modern cutting edge technological innovation. For any visitor, Japan is a constant and vibrant assault on the senses. An ocean cruise is one of the best ways to experience Japan in all its variety, from Hokkaido, the most northerly island – itself an island of contrasts, with its lavender fields and cherry blossom in the spring, and the snow clad volcanic ski slopes of Niseko Mountain in the winter - to the ultra modern cities of Tokyo and Osaka, and the rugged coastline and traditional gardens of Kyushu and Kagoshima on Kumamoto island in the far south of the archipelago.

On the front line

In 2012 the government declared the mass evacuation of Fukushimaa success, and applauded the workers in the plant for averting catastrophe. Recent concerns that Fukushima has not seen the last of the tsunami’s destructive wake - namely the risk of long term effects of radiation on those in the immediate vicinity of the explosion – have been only partially allayed by the authorities’ assurances that so far there have been no deaths. Naturally, the whispers about conspiracy and cover-up have grown louder, fueled by the results of testing more than 130,000 of Fukushima’s children, more than 40% of whom have shown early signs of developing thyroid cancer. Most people were evacuated within a few days of the disaster, but this may have been too late for those living near the nuclear power station, and many living within the area that forms the current exclusion zone were not evacuated until six weeks later.

In December 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, published a report that accused Japan of adopting ‘overly optimistic views of radiation risks’ and that it had conducted only limited heath checks on the population in the contaminated area; also that it ‘hasn’t done enough to protect the health of residents and workers.’ The Japanese government countered this by describing the complications of government guidelines and their application to workers on short-term contracts or employed by sub-contractors. However, Human Rights Watch and Greenpeace have leveled similar charges at the Japanese government, adding that regular and consistently accurate information was not being given to the people. The government has seemed more concerned with erecting a shield against economic damage and legal liability by underplaying the magnitude of the likely long term effects.

The government and TEPCO have also been quick to counter accusations that cooling water still being used on the destroyed reactors is getting into the ocean. A report published in the journal Science in 2012 claimed that 40% of fish caught off the Japanese north east were contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium. Again, the response was inconsistent. The federal fisheries ministry did not deny that cesium had been released into the ocean, but were quick to offer assurances that it was sinking into the seabed and there was no danger of it entering the food chain; however, TEPCO claimed that no contaminated water had ever been leaked.

While it is clear that the government is doing everything it can to recover from the disaster and lessen its continuing effects on the environment, public heath and the economy, with a great deal of success - and it is true that there is no danger to travelers - a reluctance to release negative information, and inconsistencies in the information that is released, only creates distrust among the population.

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