Fukushima lives in limbo, three years on
Battle to decommission nuclear plant continues
In the countryside surrounding Fukushima homes and farms are blanketed in an invisible poison only detectable with beeping Geiger counters. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
In March 2011, housewife Kaori Saito watched the Fukushima nuclear crisis unfold on television from her living room, some 60km away from the Daiichi power plant. When the government told her to keep her two young children indoors to avoid radiation, she asked her husband if they could move away. He refused.
Today, on the third anniversary of the huge earthquake and tsunami that levelled
much of Japan’s northeast coast and triggered the
world’s first triple nuclear meltdown, Saito is divorced. She lives with her children hundreds of miles from her old home. “I felt I had no choice if I was going to protect my kids,” she says.
Nuclear divorce is one of the less-documented problems to have emerged since the meltdown. Nobody knows how many couples have been split by the disaster, but anecdotes suggest dozens, perhaps hundreds of families permanently separated.
Nearly 270,000 people from the northeast region remain scattered throughout Japan since the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster began. Of these, at least 100,000 are so-called nuclear refugees, forced to abandon their homes in or near the government’s mandatory evacuation zone.
Inside the Daiichi plant, engineers for operator Tokyo Electric Power Co
mpany (Tepco) are still pouring thousands of gallons of water every day on the melted fuel in the plant’s three most damaged reactors to keep it from overheating. Plant manager Akira Ono insists the 40-year battle to decommission the facility is progressing. But his most “urgent mission” is dealing with the build-up of contaminated water on site. “Unless we address this issue the public will not be assured and the evacuees will not be able to return home.”
Cooling the melted fuel at the bottom of reactors one, two and three generates 400 tons of contaminated water every day. More than 436,000 tons of radioactive water is stored in giant tanks, being built at the rate of several a month. The plant’s makeshift decontamination system cannot keep pace with the amount of toxic water being produced.
“It’s the issue that keeps me awake at night,” says Dale Klein, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who advises Tepco. “Storing massive amounts of water on site is not sustainable.”
Eventually, he says, the water will have to be decontaminated and dumped into the Pacific “A controlled release is much safer than keeping the water on site.”
Tepco is putting its faith in a system called ALPS that removes toxins such as strontium (linked to leukemia and bone cancer) in the radioactive water. Even if the system works as planned, however, flushing the water into the world’s largest ocean is bound to be controversial. Meanwhile, 400 tons of what Tepco calls “lightly” contaminated water leaks into the sea every day.
But there is a €290 million plan to plug those leaks: a 2km frozen underground wall around the most damaged reactors. Engineers don’t know for certain if the plan will work or if they can stop leaks elsewhere at the plant. Last month another 100 tons of highly radioactive water spilled unnoticed for hours from one of the tanks.
In the surrounding countryside, homes and farms are blanketed in an invisible poison only detectable with beeping Geiger counters. Critics say the government is reluctant to admit that the clean-up of Fukushima will take decades, or that parts will remain uninhabitable, because it would complicate plans to restart Japan’s 50 idling commercial reactors.
Without that admission, thousands of refugees cannot claim compensation for homes and other lost assets, meaning they cannot move on with their lives.
Unsurprisingly, some of those who fled have despaired. Local officials cite high rates of depression, premature death and suicides among refugees.
In some parts of Fukushima near the Daiichi plant, the government has partially lifted the evacuation order, allowing refugees to spend daylight hours in their homes.
But radiation is considered too high for permanent return. A survey this year by nearby Namie, a town of some 7,000 people forced to flee, found that nearly 40 per cent of refugees had abandoned hope of returning.
The government of Fukushima Prefecture has promised lifelong health checks for 360,000 people under 18 years on March 11th, 2011. By September last year, suspected cases of thyroid cancer had grown to 75, with 33 confirmed.
Scientists argue over the significance of that figure, and of the long-term health impact of Fukushima’s payload. About all everyone seems to agree on is that life has been hard on people like Saito and her two children. “At first we thought our problems would last a few weeks,” she says. “Now we wonder if they will ever end.”