Caitlin Stronnel

Caitlin Stronell lived in Japan for 20 years before moving to India in 2008 to pursue graduate studies at JNU

Many of us who experienced the earthquake on March 11 last year, felt, as we were being shaken off our feet, that the world would never be the same again. That somehow, the lives we led up to that point in time, 2.46 pm on March 11 2011, would be irreversibly changed. From the images on the TV of such destruction that it could not be properly grasped by the human mind, to the streets of Tokyo, broken glass from the windows of office buildings, now lying shattered in piles on the pavement, as surging crowds of ‘refugees’ (kitaku nanmin), flowed around them… something intangible had also been lost. The crowds in the street were controlling their collective fear, as they tried to get home in a city that no longer functioned, but one comment I heard was ‘This feels like Armageddon.’

Certainly in Tohoku, hundreds of thousands of people were experiencing what must have seemed like the end of the world, but little did we know in Tokyo how prophetic this comment, made at the time with nervous laughter, would prove to be. It’s only recently that the true extent of the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant is coming to light. That at one point, TEPCO, the operator of the plant, seems to have indicated that the situation had got so far out of control and was so dangerous that it was withdrawing its staff, in other words, abandoning 6 nuclear reactors, 3 of which had melted down and numerous spent-fuel pools which were no longer being cooled. The Prime Minister at the time, knowing that he was quite possibly ordering these men to their death, insisted that TEPCO not abandon the plant, as otherwise, it would mean the end of not only Japan, but large chunks of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, worst-case scenario plans were drawn up to evacuate millions of us from Tokyo and surrounding areas.

But we heard nothing official of this at the time. Everyday, amidst the continuous aftershocks and the horrific pictures and stories coming from the north, politicians in action suits and TEPCO engineers on our TVs would assure us that Fukushima Dai-ichi was under control. We were shown pictures of Self Defense Force helicopters dropping water on crumpled reactors and saw interviews with firefighters who had driven their specialized trucks up from Tokyo to try to connect hoses and spray water in what seemed like desperate attempts to cool the reactors, working in extremely dangerous conditions, unsure if they would be coming home, and if they did, in what condition. I don’t think anyone believed for a moment that the situation was ‘under control,’ and many people did voluntarily evacuate Tokyo, but at no point was the government completely honest about how serious the situation was. It is an unfortunate truth that nuclear industries everywhere must lie about the danger that they are exposing people to, otherwise they would never be able to build nuclear plants in the first place, and that governments must collude in these lies, otherwise risk widespread public panic. Up until Fukushima Dai-ichi blew up, the public in Japan were, more or less, conditioned to go along with these lies, but since then, there has been a groundswell questioning supposedly unshakable beliefs.

Obviously the safety myth, propagated over a long period, instilled in the minds of school children through textbooks and the general public through skilful PR campaigns and a compliant media, was as well and truly exposed as the fuel rods without coolant. But other strongly-held beliefs, for example, that nuclear power is essential in order to generate enough electricity in resource-poor Japan, were also exposed as false. Before 3.11 we were told that approximately 30% of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear power. Right now only 2 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are still operating, yet despite a very cold winter, there are no serious power shortages. Many believe that the rolling blackouts imposed on us by TEPCO in the weeks immediately after the earthquake and tsunami were more a PR exercise in attempting to show the public how essential nuclear power is. In any case, the self-imposed power-saving drive that Tokyo plunged into, with shops, households and buildings simply turning off unnecessary lights and heating made many of us ask whether we really needed all that power in the first place. Especially as we now realized where exactly it came from and what exactly we were forcing the people of Fukushima to sacrifice.

The realization that we had been fed a pack of lies, that all we had been told about the safety and necessity of nuclear power had in fact been myths, galvanized many into action. Japan, since the 1970s anyway, has not had a strong political protest culture, but now people flocked to the streets. There were public marches and demonstrations almost every weekend. Each one seemed to grow bigger. The first large one, with 15,000 participating was held one month after 3.11 in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, where historically anti-nuclear demonstrations had started in the 1950s when Japan’s nuclear program began at the behest of Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace.’ Since then, larger and larger demonstrations have been held in Tokyo (for example, 60,000 marched on September 11) and demonstrations in other cities, even those in such far removed places as Fukuoka in Kyushu, have attracted large numbers. Many young people, dismissed as politically apathetic, are joining in, as are mothers with young children, who are likely to be the most severely affected by radiation.

Another very strong rallying point has been the government’s arbitrary raising of radiation safety levels. Before Fukushima Dai-ichi exploded, the radiation safety level for children was 1 milli-sievert per year. This has been raised to 20 milli-sieverts, despite claims by many experts that this will expose children to heightened risk of cancer and other diseases. But this allows the government to side-step responsibility for decontaminating huge areas of school grounds and evacuating even larger numbers of people, thus revealing another sad truth about the nuclear industry and the government—if it’s a choice between cost-saving and safety, cost-saving always wins.

Meanwhile 80,000 still remain evacuated from an area of 20 km radius of Fukushima Dai-ichi and may never be able to return to their homes due to the high level of radiation. Families have been torn apart and must now live in separate parts of the country, children have been taken away from their schools and their friends, entire communities have been decimated, there have been suicides, destruction of livelihoods, doubts, fears and anguish on a daily basis for a whole year, which show no signs of going away. Proponents of nuclear power say that no one has actually died as a direct result of radiation from Fukushima, but how do you measure the kind of loss and suffering that is taking place and will continue to for generations?

I believe the world has changed in many ways after 3.11. The nuclear myths were shattered in the shaking that day and washed away by the tsunami. While some still cling to them and try desperately to resurrect them, many others, in Japan and around the world are re-thinking not just practical matters of how to generate electricity in safer, cleaner and cheaper ways, but much more basic matters of what it means to be happy, what the important things in life really are and that we stand to loose them, irretrievably, if we continue to believe the myths that are presented to us by governments and industries.