The billboard sign reads, “Nuclear energy is the bright energy of the future.”
Ironically, the future isn’t so bright for the people who lived within 10, 20, or 30 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This is located in Futaba, one of the towns that hosted the power plant in exchange for generous subsidies by the government. I took this picture around this time last year when I participated in a study tour hosted by my internship’s organization. We drove on the national highway that passes the power plant and the nearby towns, abandoned with no signs of human life and appeared as though frozen in time.
Prior to the 2011 triple disaster, the Japanese government and electric companies assured the safety and environmental benefits of nuclear energy. This assumption of safety traces back to “atoms for peace,” a phrase originally coined by President Eisenhower to promote an alternative use for nuclear power, ten years after the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On March 11, 2011 at 14:46, an earthquake in the Pacific triggered a series of tsunamis along the coast of the Tohoku region. The earthquake and tsunami caused the reactors to shut down immediately; however, workers could not cool the fueling rods and led to a hydrogen gas explosion. Many of them were forced to evacuate from their homes. Some chose to stay indoors while others had the accessibility to escape.
Five years later, over 100,000 are still displaced from their homes. These evacuees include those who have also fled because of the earthquake and tsunami, such as the case with Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures. Many of them live in “temporary” housing set up by the government, which provides little comfort for residents who are mostly elderly folks. Thin walls, limited access to substantial food, cramped rooms–this isn’t a suitable long-term living environment for anyone.
Depending on the distance from the power plant, some towns have lifted evacuation orders and encouraged residents to return. However, former residents choose not to return for many reasons including uncertainty of the radioactive levels and health concerns. The closer to the power plant, the less access permitted for people to return to their own homes. Traditionally, the home is a sacred space for their ancestors, and now people can no longer return home for long enough to look after the sanctuary.
In many cases, a large percentage of mothers with children evacuated outside of Fukushima due to health hazards with radioactive contamination. Meanwhile, most fathers remain in Fukushima to continue working their jobs and live in isolation. Family separations have led to cases of domestic violence, divorce, and threats from the husbands. This puts mothers in a conflicting dilemma, whether to stay in the resettled location with less health concerns, or to return to Fukushima at the high risk of contamination. The problems with family cohesion stems from the indirect consequences of the meltdown.
Endless rows of decontaminated waste stored in black plastic bags.
Although proponents champion nuclear energy for its low cost and little to no greenhouse gas emission, the irreversible damage as seen by Fukushima and Chernobyl completely outweighs the benefits. Millions of dollars have been spent on decontamination work and containing the radioactive leak. Meanwhile, regional energy companies have began restarting power plants since last August, beginning with the Sendai Power Plant in Kagoshima with the most recent one being the Takahama Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. Yet even the latter automatically shut down three days later for unknown reasons.
Presently, I’m in the states contemplating the socioeconomic impact of the Fukushima disaster in conjunction with the tsunami and earthquake on its fifth anniversary. I can’t help but also think about the environmental disasters happening within this country.
People in Flint, Michigan have no access to clean water because the city government (read: Governor Rick Snyder) deemed most fitting to save millions of dollars on switching water supply to the polluted Flint River at the damaging cost of lead poisoning in the water. With a state of emergency declared in January, the livelihood of these communities–disproportionately affecting people of color who come from low-income backgrounds–are in severe jeopardy. The local government’s response sounds too familiar to the Japanese government: people in an influential, authoritative position to change policies did not take responsible measures to prevent catastrophes in their communities.
Meanwhile in Porter Ranch, California, methane gas has leaked throughout Aliso Canyon, forcing people to evacuate from their homes. Similar to TEPCO in its delayed announcement of a reactor meltdown, the Southern California Gas Company did not immediately notify its residents when the leak began. Furthermore, the well’s infrastructure was more than 80 years old with an average age of 52 years, underscoring the lack of routine maintenance for facilities that hold gas. Whether radioactive or methane gas, these cannot be seen by the naked eye and yet can lead to long-term health problems including cancer and leukemia.
My heart really hurts to know that these man-made disasters slowly destroy Mother Earth. With multiple factors escalating into hazardous circumstances, people have no control over their lives when the larger corporations and authorities control the environmental resources. The world cannot hold itself up if people continue centering themselves over the very environment that keeps them alive. If we don’t start taking better care of the earth on a larger scale, then the consequences will become too enormous for us to handle in the near future.
**Note: I know I need to cite my sources better this but I felt like thought-dumping everything. With today being the fifth anniversary of 3/11, I want to give a little bit of time out of my studying to reflect on issues affecting both of my countries. I’ll come back to this after I finish my finals.