Three Years of Fukushima—What I still believe in

Keito Hirabayashi

For those of us who lived through 3.11, even in Tokyo, it is a day we will never forget.

Small details are etched indelibly in our minds and come to the surface once again at this time of year in all the graphic intensity of that horrible day. Being unable to stand because of the shaking, which went on so long that it gave you time to think, as you flailed helplessly with everyone around you for something solid to hang on to. In that moment, somehow there was a realization, deep inside, completely irrational, but nonetheless true – That the world would never be the same again.

9-11When I staggered out of that building, it would be a different Tokyo that faced me from the one when I came in. Sure enough, the shattered glass from the windows lying on the streets and the massive crowds of people, some wearing emergency helmets, all walking home because the city’s lifeblood—the train system—was of course completely shut down, the empty shop shelves, the disabled mobile phone network, the people stranded on the top of 60 storey buildings because the lifts had also shut down and the growing gridlock on the roads all added to the conviction that the world as we had known it had somehow changed irreversibly.
For those of us lucky enough to make it home that night, we remained transfixed in horror at the images on our TV…of a world literally swept away by a tsunami of incomprehensible strength, of such overwhelming destruction and suffering.

The lies also escalated exponentially on 3.11 itself.

We were told that all the nuclear reactors – Tohoku was home to 14 – had shut down as per emergency procedures and there was nothing to worry about. The blatancy of this lie was proven soon as we watched the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi on our TVs and constant news reports showing Self Defence Force helicopters dropping water on the reactors and firefighters hosing them down from special fire trucks in desperate efforts to cool them and prevent what was described later by the then Prime Minister Naoto Kan as a catastrophe that would have necessitated the evacuation of the entire northern Japan, including 35 million people in Tokyo and its surrounds, and would have rendered Japan unable to function as a state.

We were that close.

Fukushima picture by keitoThe spectacle of one of the prime symbols of Japan’s technological prowess – its nuclear reactors – spinning hopelessly out of control, being hosed down by firefighters only added to this growing realization that there was something fundamentally wrong with all the ‘truths’ that we had believed so easily up until then.

But then, what has actually changed over the last 3 years?

The initial reaction was massive numbers of people on the street in an outpouring of opposition to nuclear power plants. Such huge street protests had not been seen in Japan since the 1970s. Prof. Oguma Eiji has documented these protests and the people who took part in them in his book Genpatsu wo Tomeru Hitobito (The people who stop nuclear power plants). Some were veteran activists but many were not…many were ordinary people with ordinary lives who would never have thought of taking to the streets before 3.11. Many were young—in the 20s and 30s—the so-called politically apathetic generation…what made them participate in such numbers in this movement?

Surely a big reason was the realization that we were shaken into on 3.11, that our world had been built on lies and sacrifices by the vulnerable for the benefit of the powerful and that the technological edifice – which we Japanese were so proud of – could so easily come crashing down…

And what was left behind?
What was important after all?
Who could be trusted?
Big questions were being asked…

In just over a year after 3.11, in May 2012, the last of Japan’s remaining 50 nuclear reactors were shut down. Since then 2 were restarted at Ohi in the western part of the country but they were again shut down in September last year. Japan has just survived its first winter with zero nuclear power, despite the dire warnings of electricity companies that there would be power shortages…after 3 summers and 2 winters when similar warnings were made and no major shortages actually occurred, everyone has now realized beyond a doubt that electricity companies are not talking about power shortages but about profit shortages.

While these achievements by the no nukes movement are actually very impressive when you think about Japan before 3.11, when 80% of the general public fully approved of nuclear energy (now opinion polls show that over 50% are against it) and a total of 54 reactors generated 30% of Japan’s electricity requirement, national government policy has recently shifted back towards nuclear power.

At the end of last month, right after the election of a pro-nuclear candidate in the Tokyo gubernatorial elections, the national government presented a draft of its basic energy plan to the Cabinet, reversing the previous government’s commitment to phase out nuclear energy and saying that nuclear energy remains an important source of base load power.

The election of Abe Shinzo’s government in December 2012, defeating anti-nuclear candidates, was a major setback for the anti-nuclear movement and since then Abe has moved towards restarting as many of the presently idled reactors as the new safety regulations and the hosting local governments will allow. Opposition to nuclear power is still high amongst the population, but that this does not get reflected in election results and national government policy is obviously a huge disappointment and frustration to the no nukes movement.

But what about ground zero?…

What is the situation in Fukushima?

The Japan Times editorial of 1st March quotes a report compiled by prefectural authorities and local police which found that 1,656 people in Fukushima Prefecture have died from stress-related illnesses after the disaster. This figure surpasses the 1,607 people who died from disaster-related injuries. Nothing shows more starkly than these figures the stress that so many in Fukushima are now living under. Nearly 160,000 people still living in temporary housing with no indication that they will ever be able to return to their houses, their communities, their roots—all is lost forever. And those who do return (amidst government assurances that radiation levels are ‘safe’) are reporting that they feel as though they are living there as ‘guinea pigs,’ for human experiments on the effect of radiation. Families are split up due to radiation concerns. And which parent wouldn’t be concerned when the latest figures show that 43% of children in Fukushima have abnormal thyroid glands, up from 36% in the previous examination report?

Demands for supported evacuation, especially for children, are being ignored or worse, suppressed. People feel as though they cannot defy official assurances that everything is OK. It takes huge courage to speak out against the arbitrary safety standards that have been set, standards which defy international norms and scientific evidence. People are being forced to believe the very scientists and governments who betrayed them so cruelly, who have failed them completely for three years and lied to them for decades before that. Living in denial of what your heart knows is surely one of the hardest existences.

Fukushima graphic

A woman wipes away tears as she listens to a speech at a demonstration in Tokyo as hundreds rallied against a decision by prosecutors to drop charges over the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Almost three years after the triple meltdowns ripped the Fukushima No. 1 plant, a disaster later described as ‘man-made,’ no one has been sanctioned. | AFP-JIJI – (Article link here: )

But of course many brave people are speaking out, trying to call those responsible to account, trying to save the children from certain future and present health problems, trying to take back control of their own lives. Bitter experiences can also be translated into strength.

While the national government espouses the necessity of nuclear power for Japan and moves to restart reactors which are all presently offline, the Fukushima Prefectural Government has committed to supplying its primary energy demand from 100% renewable energy sources by 2040. Governor Sato has said that he wants to make Fukushima into a wind Mecca and large-scale offshore wind generation projects are already underway. The ‘Community Power International Conference’ held in Fukushima in January this year brought together many of the players who are working towards making the 100% renewables goal a reality. This is certainly a process, which is bound to face setbacks as well as successes, and must work through complex economic and political issues. Yet even though politicians in Tokyo fiddle while Japan burns, the people who are really feeling the flames are the ones most committed to real change and will surely show by action not just words, that it is possible.

What I still believe after 3 years of Fukushima is the realization that the world will not be the same as it was before that fateful day was indeed right.

There is no going back.

No matter how hard governments and the electricity companies try to convince us that nuclear power is the only way, and that it can be made safe, the continuing debacles at Fukushima Daiichi proves otherwise.

While voters may be swayed by other issues, in their hearts they know that nuclear is not the answer and the search for alternatives is on. The big questions thrown up by 3.11 have not gone away and once asked, they cannot be ignored. Indeed these questions reverberated around the world and have irreversibly changed people, and in some cases policy, in many different countries.

There is no going back for the people of Koodankulam, for example, their long struggle was galvanized by the experiences of their brothers and sisters in Fukushima. Their lives and thinking have changed fundamentally, by the knowledge they have gained and experiences they have been through and hence, they can no more go back to quietly watching serials on TV and believing the government safety assurances than the people of Fukushima.

What I believe after 3 years of Fukushima is that it is the people whose lives have been completely devastated by nuclear power plants, or whose lives have the potential to be destroyed – these are the people we must listen to. They are the ones whose questions must be answered, as they are the questions which confront all of us after 3.11. These are the people, who from bitter experience, are moving closer to the answers.

Keito Hirabayashi is a research scholar currently based in Delhi


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