One month on psychological impact is only sinking in

Mon, Apr 11, 2011, 01:00

The cherry blossom season is party time in Japan, but this year it has been overshadowed by tragedy and loss

HANAMI SEASON in Japan is usually a time for the nation to let its collective hair down, celebrating the arrival of spring cherry blossoms by drinking beer and sake and partying in parks and city streets. This year the mood has been dampened by the national mantra of jishuku, or self-restraint.

Lights in Tokyo are dimmed, restaurants are half empty and most cherry blossom parties are a muted affair, overshadowed by the tragedy that befell the northeast on March 11th and the nuclear crisis that it sparked in Fukushima, 250km (155 miles) up the coast from the capital. Almost 28,000 people are dead or missing after the earthquake and tsunami, many unlikely to be found after being washed out to sea.

Police in radiation suits only began last week searching for about 2,400 bodies inside the toxic 20km exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The tsunami ravaged over 500sq km of the northeast coastline in Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The disaster produced 25 million tonnes of debris, which will take years and an as much as 10 trillion yen to clean up, according to a government estimate last week.

Engineers inside the Fukushima plant continue battling to restore cooling systems to at least four of the plant’s six reactors, and slow contamination. The crisis will likely drag on for months, hindered by a major conundrum: how to keep reactors cool while also disposing of highly radioactive water pooling in and under the plant.

The engineers pull back every day to J-Village, a temporary base about 20km (12.4 miles) away run by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco). Workers in radiation suits and masks arrive and leave all day at the facility. Inside the main building, Tepco officials hand out protective clothing, dosimeters, iodine pills and water.

Radiation around the nuclear facility has dropped from a high of 3,000 microsieverts an hour. More than 20 workers have been exposed to over 100 millisieverts and at least two have died. The crisis, which could have been averted had Tepco simply housed its backup diesel generators in tsunami-proof shelters, will force power cuts throughout the sweltering summer months, a potentially crippling blow to some of the world’s biggest car and electronics’ makers.

Wolfgang Weiss, chairman of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, this week said Fukushima is second only to the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the league table of nuclear disasters. “It is not as dramatic as Chernobyl, but it is certainly much, much more serious than in Three Mile Island,” he said.

People in towns and cities outlying the exclusion zone are slowly drifting back to their homes but thousands are still taking refuge throughout the country. More than 153,000 are still homeless, waiting for insurance, money for relatives or temporary housing. For some, the psychological impact is only beginning to sink in now. “There have already been suicides,” says Yuji Saeki, a clinical psychologist who has been working voluntarily in the coastal city of Ishinomaki, which lost 5,200 citizens. “When you ask people in the northwest, ‘Are you okay?’ they always say ‘Yes’. But they’re not okay.”

* Japan’s ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, fared badly in weekend local elections after prime minister Naoto Kan came under fire for his handling of the nuclear crisis. It lost almost 70 seats in the election for prefectural assemblies and also lost to the Liberal Democratic Party in three gubernatorial polls.