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A Personal Account of the Big One (Part 3)

Up close and personal with the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011

Continued from Part 2, here.

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There were more pyrotechnics at the nuclear power plant over the next few days. Although serious and directly causing numerous injuries, those explosions were only outward symptoms of something much more sinister. Even as TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company) were reassuring the public that everything was under control, and that the situation wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Chernobyl had been, a shockingly callous appraisal in itself, the cores of all three of the plant’s active reactors were in meltdown. Of the remaining three, reactor number 4 had been defueled in 2010 and the other two had been shut down for maintenance before the disaster. That was just dumb luck, but not quite enough luck to prevent the incident from eventually being assigned an International Nuclear Event Scale rating of 7: the worst, rivaled only by Chernobyl.

I won’t repeat the full catalog of damning facts, but in brief and with feeling: the tsunami had flooded inappropriately located backup generators that were vital to cooling the reactors, and a cascading, escalating circus of unthinkable errors, exacerbated by unpreparedness, arrogance, and malfunctioning equipment that had been carelessly installed and then not inspected or tested in decades in some cases, had pushed the nation to the brink of an unprecedented nuclear cataclysm. TEPCO immediately attempted to shirk responsibility by claiming that a tsunami of that size could not have been foreseen, despite a 2008 in-house study warning that immediate improvements should be made to prevent just such a scenario. TEPCO had ignored the study and were lying, as they had done many times before. They continue to drag their heels on releasing vital information to the public and providing proper compensation to people whose lives have been destroyed by their negligence. They have been ordered by the government to pay compensation where appropriate, and are receiving government support, but are simply jacking up prices to cover the cost. No arrests have been made, and one way or another the victims will end up paying for the crime.

Most of TEPCO’s 50,000 employees punch in every day and work to support themselves and their families. They are not to blame. But in essence the company is a monopoly, existing on a foundation of connivance that, for a privileged few, means high rewards for perfunctory work. Vital safety procedures have been glossed over, maintenance reports falsified, and warnings of impending disaster ignored. You’d think that a catastrophic blunder of this magnitude would lead to swift and sweeping reforms, but so far we have seen very little real change in attitude. The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and presumably others like it, is a microcosm of corporate ineptitude and self-interest that, although not unique to Japan, casts Japan Inc. in an unflattering light. It was and continues to be an encyclopedia of “thou shalt not” commandments to be heeded by every entrepreneur and politician who lays claim to even a shred of integrity. Negligence, conceit, lack of imagination, poor leadership, heel dragging, diffusion of blame, insularity, revisionism, collusion, cronyism, and profit above all were shrapnel in a grenade of incompetence that came terrifyingly close to making this island nation a wasteland for centuries to come. It could still happen.

The details are dense and tangled, but to the average citizen just trying to get on with life the problem can be summed up in one word: “radiation.” This was a totally new parameter for most of us, and where it was not fully understood, which was just about everywhere, it was accompanied by fear. What was it? Where was it? How much was too much? What could be done? Given accurate, reliable information, a sizeable percentage of the population would have been quite capable of coming up with a reasoned response and assisting those who weren’t as well grounded. But useful information was not forthcoming. Instead, the public was fed fuzzy platitudes couched in perverted language. “There’s nothing to worry about, the radiation is not likely to have any immediate effect on your health.” “Immediate?” The people were not impressed. Sales of radiation detectors soared as moms and dads and grandparents began educating themselves about the realities of radiation and how it could be dealt with in order to protect their families.

Of course there are always those who find it easier to look away than to learn, and the social fallout has been severe. Goods from all around the Tohoku region, a group of six prefectures that includes Fukushima, have been shunned and the people ostracized even though much of Tohoku is further from the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant than the capital in Tokyo. There were, for example, insane claims that people from Tohoku were traveling to Tokyo with contaminated shoes, causing abnormal spikes in the radiation detected at Tokyo station. Wood from the tsunami wreckage in Iwate prefecture was to be burnt in offering at the renowned “Gozan no Okuribi” festival in Kyoto, but was rejected at the last minute due to pressure from the unenlightened who worried that it might contain traces of radiation. It didn’t, but primitive fear prevailed. That slap in the face caused untold heartbreak to victims and bereaved who had hoped to see their prayers, handwritten on the wood, offered at such a revered festival. Examples abound, but efforts to educate the public have been inadequate. Perhaps a clear explanation of the facts would reveal too much, or maybe it is simply that disagreement between vested interests has them locked up in a stalemate.

The story of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant catastrophe is an epic that won’t even approach a conclusion in my lifetime. Based on expert estimates it might be possible to write the closing chapter in 40 to 100 years, but how much damage will be done in the meantime? After learning as much as I could and making independent radiation measurements I have concluded that for my family and circumstances, for now, it is safe to stay where we are. But until that final chapter is complete the situation could change at any time.

During the first week of the nuclear crisis we were without electricity and had only the radio to rely on for information. No one new exactly how much radiation was being released by the nuclear power plant or where it was headed. We did know that it would be a very bad idea to inhale any radioactive particles that happened to be blowing by, so we wore filter masks when outdoors and carefully brushed off our clothing when entering the house. That was the best we could do. When power was finally restored it was as though the house and the whole neighborhood had suddenly regained consciousness after being in some sort of dark coma. It was a joyous moment. You could hear the whooping up and down the street as people turned on their lights and TVs, celebrating being reconnected with the world. TV programming consisted only of news and endlessly repeating public service announcements for several weeks, but at least we had a choice of information sources. The modems and routers that connected us to the Internet were functioning once again as well, precipitating a surge of communication that, although not yet up to full speed or capacity, was like a huge sigh of relief after being cut off for so long. Mobile phones had allowed a trickle of data communication during the blackout, but it was nothing like the rush that was occurring now.

Another week and we had water. Some of the local stores had resumed limited operation by then too, and life was beginning to look almost normal, but it would be another couple of weeks before supplies like gasoline and kerosene were freely available. Once the basic necessities were taken care of and demanded less of our attention, it became possible to reach out a little, checking on friends and family and taking in the harsh new landscape. Renewed freedom of body and mind brought us to some happy reunions as well as some nasty shocks.

I had let my first driver’s license expire more than 30 years ago. Driving in Tokyo was impractical, expensive, and unnecessary thanks to the excellent public transport system. But up here in Miyagi a car would be a priority, so one of the first things I did after arriving in 2009 was to enroll in the Joban Yamamoto Driving School. Getting the license was smooth and easy, and actually a lot of fun. The staff at the school went out of their way to make the process a real pleasure. I had dropped by occasionally after “graduating” just to hang out and gossip, and would always be welcomed with coffee or tea and cakes. But the school was only about 800 meters from the shoreline, and when the tsunami came it swept over and through the two-storey reinforced concrete building, smashing out widows and walls and washing away everything and everyone that was inside. Those waiting in cars and microbuses outside didn’t have a chance either. The toll at the end of March was 32 confirmed dead, 7 missing and presumed dead. In one staggering instant that news brought the reality and scale of what had happened into sharp focus, releasing emotion that had been subjugated to the demands of survival ever since 2:46 PM on March 11 in an unstoppable torrent of tears.

Closer to home our elderly relative who was last seen being swept away by the opaque tsunami water was found, almost exactly a month later, under the twisted remains of a strawberry greenhouse. He was finally laid to rest in the family grave three months and seven days after the disaster. The sheer number of bodies and a crippled infrastructure meant long delays before the dead could be identified, cremated, and buried. Existing morgue facilities where overwhelmed and the deceased had to be temporarily accommodated in temples, town halls, and any other available facility. Not far from where we live a bowling alley had become sort of a transit lounge for hundreds of the fallen, waiting to be claimed by family and taken to their final resting place.

Our personal experience, to use a somewhat inappropriate analogy, is a mere drop in the ocean. The impact on the entire population of Japan has been enormous, and the after effects are still rippling around the globe. We had been through two prodigious natural disasters, related and unavoidable, immediately followed by a manmade disaster that could and should have been avoided. The latter will be a burden for decades to come.

The earthquake had moved the island eastward by 2.4 meters, and some coastal areas had sunk by as much as 0.6 meters. The quake was so powerful that it shifted the earth’s axis by somewhere between 10 and 25 centimeters (estimates vary). This last effect has actually shortened the length of our days by a small amount. At the time of writing 18,539 people are dead or missing, and several hundred thousand more are homeless. It is important to note that some who lost their homes and livelihoods were not directly affected by the earthquake or tsunami, but were displaced by the manmade nuclear disaster and would already be well on their way to recovery if it had not occurred. Less visible consequences include an alarming rise in mental health issues and alcohol abuse.

The Tohoku region will recover from the natural disasters. That process is already underway. The determination and resolve are palpable. The nuclear cleanup is another matter. TEPCO continue to fudge and bumble while the nation and the world are forced to stare helplessly down the barrel of a loaded but crippled nuclear gun that could go off at any moment. Two and a half years after the triple meltdown TEPCO are finally, reluctantly, admitting that they might need outside help. How humiliating. How they must have choked on their pride.

The alert reader will have noticed by now that the writer is considerably less forgiving of those who are keeping us in the shadow of nuclear devastation than he is of nature. I doubt that anyone who has been victimized by this mess would disagree. But rather than focusing attention where it is needed, on restoring the dignity and hope of human beings who have been cruelly uprooted and cast into non-existence, the lords of the nuclear village are doing all they can to downplay the plight of the victims as well as their own malfeasance and reclaim their thrones of influence and power.

We can and must be prepared for natural disasters. They will occur no matter what. But potential causes of manmade disasters that threaten life and subsistence should simply not exist. We’re told that newer, safer technology is available. But new will eventually become old, and where people are in control there can be no guarantees. We have a fairly good idea of what to expect from nature. It’s ironic that the weaknesses of our own race are what we need to fear the most.