FUKUSHIMA, Japan – The road leading to Fukushima City is filled with scenic views of rice fields in varying shades of green and gold, and villages surrounded by mountains with lush forests of cypress and pine trees – a postcard-perfect landscape.
But amid this, piles of black and blue garbage bags occupy roadsides and empty lots. These bags are filled with contaminated soil, a reminder of a nuclear disaster that unfolded more than 3 years ago.
On March 11, 2011, at around 2:46 pm local time, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook large parts of eastern Japan, which was followed by a huge tsunami, reaching heights of up to 15 meters – as high as a 6-storey building. More than 18,000 people were killed, most due to drowning.
The tsunami then caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, releasing radioactive materials. The air, water, and soil around the nuclear power plant remain contaminated up to now because of this nuclear disaster.
In parts of the Fukushima Prefecture where the damage is greater, fear of radiation’s ill effects are still lingering, and residents have lost trust in the government and health workers.
Low public acceptance of nuclear power
Four years prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a survey by private company Shin Joho Center Incorporated showed that less than 3 out of every 10 Japanese thought that nuclear power, oil, and gas will make “substantial [contributions] to energy security.”
In July 2011, 4 months after the disaster, a nationwide survey done by the Central Research Services Inc and Wouter Poortinga and Midori Aoyagi of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom showed even fewer people believe nuclear, wind, hydroelectric, and biomass are significant energy sources.
Poortinga and Aoyagi said in their report, “The results regarding nuclear power are perhaps not surprising in the light of the Fukushima accident and the consequent shutdown of most nuclear power stations in Japan.”
Despite this, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority approved the restart of a nuclear power plant in southwestern Japan on September 10. If the local government agrees, and if the plant passes a series of security checks, the two-reactor plant may reopen in 2015.
Japan has 48 nuclear reactors all over its archipelago which used to supply more than 30% of its electric power.
After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the public had been continuously calling for the decommissioning of all remaining reactors. As of now, not a single reactor is operational.
“Following the tsunami which killed 19,000 people and which triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident (which killed no one), public sentiment shifted markedly so that there were wide public protests calling for nuclear power to be abandoned. The balance between this populist sentiment and the continuation of reliable and affordable electricity supplies is being worked out politically,” the World Nuclear Association said in its website.
View from within the region
Journalists reporting within Fukushima have noticed the change in views of people before and after the disaster.
“I have interviewed about 100 people in Fukushima. At first people do not know about the effects of radiation in their bodies because they were not taught about basic facts,” Katsuhiko Hayashi of NHK said in an interview.
After some time, the views shifted, said Makoto Ohmori, Chief Producer at TV-U Fukushima: “I think we can say that the views of Fukushima residents have changed. The Fukushima prefecture assembly has made a resolution that all the nuclear reactors be decommissioned. But people have no ideas before that happened.”
All of the 59 local assemblies of the prefecture unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the decommissioning of all the nuclear reactors within the prefecture a few months after the disaster.
“There is a need to separate the issue whether it is safe or not to live in Fukushima and whether or not you are in favor of nuclear energy,” Ohmori said.
Effects of contamination is still a safety issue, especially to those who were gravely affected by the disaster.
In Minamisoma City, about 20 kilometers away from the power plant, the doctors are struggling to keep the residents’ trust.
“Unfortunately the residents here did not learn much about radiation. Many people do not know about radioactive materials. Many parents do not trust the government so that the children of that parent will say the same thing,” said Dr Masaharu Tsubokura of the Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital.
Right after the disaster, Tsubokura started to go around the city to teach students in public schools about radiation and its effects. “For 3 years, their questions remain the same,” he said.
Varying views on the effects of contaminated food and water remain, while other people believe that their bodies are still contaminated with radioactive materials.
As of January 30, 2014, there are areas within the prefecture with radiation levels as high as 2.880μSv/h (microSieverts per hour). Minamisoma Municipal Office had a record high of 0.130μSv/h. (1 μSv/h = 0.001 mSv [milliSieverts]).
In a year, the allowable limit a person could receive is 1mSv. Consumption of contaminated food such as meat and vegetables could increase the risk of cancer.
Radioactive scanning as communication
More than 3 years after the accident, there are still no report of any death caused by acute radiation effects.
The World Health Organization, among other international institutions, has already said that the Fukushima nuclear disaster will have no discernible long-term health effects. Even the risk of cancer in some areas of the Fukushima Prefecture remains low, depending on radiation dose, age at the time of exposure, and sex.
To help assuage residents’ fears, Professor Ryugo Hayano of the University of Tokyo, together with other researchers, came up with a scanning equipment called “Baby Scan” to detect the radiation exposure level among infants.
“I made the Baby Scan because it is a very important tool to communicate to mothers,” Hayano said, stressing that the Baby Scan equipment is “unnecessary but necessary.”
As of now, 3 units are installed in different parts of the prefecture. They have scanned at least a thousand infants from the region, and not one of the babies tested had exceeded the safe radiation level.
Meanwhile, thousands of adult residents within the area were also measured for radioactive contamination through whole body counters (WBC). Within a year, they were able to make at least 10,000 measurements.
“Fukushima people have no detectable radioactive contamination in the body,” Hayano said.
Proper education is key
The Fukushima local government has established its own environmental safety center, under the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), in 2011, following the disaster. By 2012, it opened its Sasakino Analytical Laboratories, where they test samples of water, soil and other materials with suspected contamination.
The agency was also requested by the local government to screen Fukushima residents for internal exposure. From June 2011 until March 2014, the JAEA has already screened more than 61,000 individuals and recorded very low incidence of radioactive contamination.
Dr Jun Saegusa, principal research engineer at JAEA, said that their agency also holds dialogues and briefing sessions for residents, including students in the prefecture.
However, Saegusa suggested that the parents and parents’ associations should also be educated on the facts about radiation, citing that what children believe comes from what their parents think.
Tsubokura also said that while the doctors conduct dialogues and talks in schools, it is still important to develop a proper education program on nuclear energy and radiation.
“We only spend two hours every year for this subject. It’s not enough. Maybe it would take 10-15 years to develop a proper education program,” he said. – Rappler.com