Thursday, March 14, 2013

'We Want Our Lives Back'

Weeds poke up through the main street of Iitate village in Fukushima prefecture, a once thriving dairy farming community. The local agricultural cooperative office is padlocked; traffic lights are darkened, as there is very little traffic aside from the occasional truck traversing Highway 389.

The post office is closed, and there are no deliveries for the simple reason that there are no customers left to deliver mail to. All of the villages 6,800 residents were evacuated in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that precipitated multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Iitate was too far inland to suffer the effects of the disastrous tsunami that wiped out whole villages along the coastline, but it was perfectly positioned, 25 miles north west of the power plant, to absorb the full impact of the radioactive fallout.

Immediately after the nuclear accident, Tokyo established a mandatory evacuation zone 20 km surrounding the stricken plant. But radiation is no respecter of circles that men draw on maps, and the radiation plume was blown by prevailing winds and channeled by natural valleys to fall on Iitate and on surrounding towns or parts of them.
Yet it wasn’t until late April, fully five weeks after the accident, that the central government ordered the evacuation of virtually all residents.  The villagers dispersed to neighboring towns and cities even farther away. The 3,000 dairy cows for which the village was famous were taken to the slaughter house shortly thereafter.

Despite the forced evacuation, Iitate is not entirely a ghost town. About 500 people commute from their evacuation homes into Iitate to work at several companies with offices there. They leave the village at the end of the day. The idea is that as they work indoors except when commuting, they are exposed to less radiation than they would have experienced spending the full day there.
The local nursing home, with 80 residents, was never evacuated, as it was felt that the trauma for the elderly residents of moving elsewhere was worse than exposure to the radiation. It was probably wise as more than 500 residents of hospitals and nursing homes in the 20- exclusion zone are said to have died after their removal, becoming, in a sense,  the only fatalities from the nuclear accident.

Mayor Norio Kanno keeps tabs on the evacuees, most of whom live in temporary housing within an hour’s commute of the village and says that they are increasingly  discouraged , anxious and depressed there being no prospects of returning anytime soon. The village once had about 1,500 households, with several generations living under one roof. Now that number has doubled as families have been broken and family members dispersed in different directions.
The ambient radiation in Iitate when it evacuated two years ago was about 22 millisieverts, accumulated over one year period. The average under normal conditions is about one millisievert from natural radiation. Although decontamination efforts are moving slowly, Kanno says that the levels have fallen to about 10-12 millisieverts over a year.

Decontamination moves in fits and starts. Workmen wipe down buildings with damp cloths and hose drainage systems with high-pressure water. They clear the top soil of school yards farms  and other businesses, although no decision has been made as yet where to safely store the growing mounds of bags filled with contaminated dirt.
It is an endless task as contaminates are blown back into the town and residences from the lush green forests that surround them. Yet the mayor says he can’t give up. “We have a duty to clean up and decontaminate this land.” It is hard for people to accept the idea that they might never be able to return to their ancestral homes.

What level does it need to fall before residents feel it is safe to come back? Kanno doesn’t know. Is it 5 millisieverts or one millisievert? “I tell people that if they hold out for one [millisievert] they may have to wait for years.” One of his surveys showed about 60 percent want to return home; another 30 percent will probably never return.
By necessity, Kanno has become something of an expert on living with radiation and the real impact of nuclear power accidents on civilian lives. Natural disasters, such as tornedoes, typhoons or even earthquakes tend to bring people together, he says; nuclear accidents tend to drive people apart.

“Every individual looks on radiation differently, so people have different anxieties and fears and reactions, often depending on age and gender. “A middle-aged man looks on radiation differently than a young mother,” he noted. Everyone tends to be skeptical of official assurances that certain dose levels are safe.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, people emerge from their shelters, look around at the devastation then start to begin to repair the damage, even if they have to start from ground zero. “In our case, we’re just trying to get back to zero,” the mayor said.

At least the Iitate villagers have some hope that they can eventually return, even if it takes a few more years. Areas inside the 20 km mandatory evacuation zone may not be safe to inhabit for decades. Police man roadblocks coming into the exclusion zones, with residents allowed back in on very short visit s to retrieve personal items.
Efforts to obtain compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the Fukushima reactors are still in the initial stages with very little money flowing into their pockets despite a national disaster relief fund has been established by the national government to meet these claims.
“Many of the refugees say they don’t want the money. ‘We just want to get our lives back’.”  Unfortunately says Kanno, “that is impossible”.


Sunday, March 03, 2013

They Felt the Pain

Anyone who was in Japan on March 11, 2011, when the 9 pt. Richter Scale Earthquake struck, has a story to tell. As for myself, I was in a downtown travel agency, ironically making arrangements to leave Japan on a short trip, Making my way to the railroad station to find a way home, I saw one of those big screens repeating the word “Sendai” a large city 200 miles to the north.

I thought to myself: “If it is this bad here, Sendai must be devastated!”

In fact, Sendai, survived the earthquake and tsunami with relatively little damage. The same could not be said of the numerous  much smaller cities and villages hugging the Pacific Coast that were demolished by the quake, and more importantly the 13 meter-high wall of water that came crashing through shortly after.
Nearly two years after what the Japanese call the “triple disaster” of earthquake tsunami and the multiple nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, some of the stories are now being told in books, of which perhaps the best in English is Strong in the Rain (Palgrave, Macmillan, 205 pages) by two veteran Japan correspondents, Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill.

No definitive count has yet been made, or perhaps can ever be made, of the number of people who died on that day, many presumably swept away in the deluge. The general figure of about 20,000 is used. The tsunami was particularly hard on the elderly, who formed a large part of the population in this rather depressed part of Japan.
One intriguing figure in the book amidst that large number is 575, which is the number of elderly, infirm and ill people whose condition was too delicate to withstand the trauma of evacuation from hospitals or nursing homes that were located within the 20 km mandatory evacuation zone surrounding the nuclear plant. It is a useful figure to keep in mind when one hears that no deaths resulted from meltdowns.

The authors’ approach is anecdotal. They tell the story through individuals, such as Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of the town of Minomisoma, or David Chumreonlert, a Thai-American who was teaching English or Kai Watanabe an ordinary worker at the Fukushima nuclear plant, even Corp. Kevin Miller, a U.S. Marine who was among the many American servicemen mobilized to help.
The confused and chaotic response in the early days of the disaster is surprising considering how vulnerable Japan is to earthquakes and other natural disasters. The country has an extensive earthquake monitoring and prediction system, but nothing similar to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The nuclear crisis was handled mostly on the fly from the prime minister’s office in Tokyo.

The most useful service was probably provided by the Self Defense Forces (Japan’s military). Early on Prime Minister Naoto Kan mobilized about 100,000 troops, nearly half of the total armed forces for duty in the stricken area, where they did the gruesome but necessary work of recovering the bodies as well as providing shelter and food for the many who had lost their homes.
The U.S. pitched in providing some 24,000 service men drawn from the bases around Japan in what was billed as Operation Tomodachi (friend in Japanese), and may have been the country’s largest disaster response. It was largely unheralded in the U.S. but not forgotten by the Japanese, whose respect for both the Japanese and US military was enhanced.

This part of Japan has a history of devastating tsunami stretching back as far as the 8th Century. Yet the planning was haphazard at best. A few small towns were prescient to build breakwaters and sea walls that were tall and strong enough to withstand the force of the tsunami; many others were simply bowled over by the wall of water.
The authors recount the often wrenching decision that many foreigners living in Japan had to make in response to the crisis. Many embassies, though not the American, moved out of Tokyo or advised their citizens to leave the capital or Japan entirely. In all, about 30 foreign missions left Tokyo in the first two weeks of the disaster, setting up temporary operations out of hotel rooms in Osaka and Kobe. They would filter back into Tokyo as the fears of radiation receded and workmen seemed to be making progress in stabilizing the nuclear plants.

Those that left Japan earned the local sobriquet “flygin”, a play on gaijin the word for foreigner sometimes leaving their Japanese business associates or fellow teachers in the lurch. In their defense, many were hearing heartfelt pleas from family and relatives abroad, frightened by often sensational accounts of radiation heading to Tokyo, to get out of Japan immediately. Many found the pleas hard to resist.
Strong in the Rain is a relatively thin volume (fewer than 200 pages), more in the line of a first draft of history rather than a definitive account of what’s been called the worst disaster in Japan’s post-war history. And it is fairly comprehensive, covering the tsunami, the nuclear disaster, reactions in the rest of Japan and abroad, even funeral arrangements and an epilogue of where the story tellers are now.

Many mysteries are still buried in the ruble of the devastated coastline or deep in the bowels of the nuclear reactors, where technicians are still don’t know the exact condition and precise location of the melted cores. The authors have done a good job of collecting stories. There are many more to be told.