Japan marks fifth anniversary of tsunami and nuclear disaster

11 March 2016

On the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Japan's emperor has led tributes to the 19,000 people who died in the earthquake and tsunami which triggered the triple meltdown at the NPP. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that many people were still struggling, but said reconstruction was steadily making progress. He added: "Many people are still leading uncomfortable lives in the affected areas. There are many who cannot return to their beloved homes because of the accident at the NPP. "We commit ourselves to providing care for their minds and bodies, forming new local communities and supporting industrial development of the affected areas."

However, many nuclear evacuees, feel they have been abandoned and a significant number do not want to return to their homes, skeptical of official information which has declared some area are now safe. Evacuees relocated to Tokyo said they feared they had been forgotten. "I hope people will remember us, that lives of evacuees are still difficult in many ways, including financially," Kazuko Nihei said at a memorial service in the city. So far, local governments say only about half of 29,000 planned public housing units for evacuees have been built. The disaster in Fukushima displaced 150,000 people according to government figures. Some 100,000 are still scattered around Japan, some in barrack-like temporary housing units and others in government-allocated apartment buildings hundreds of kilometres away.

Although the authorities have opened up some areas near the damaged reactors where access was previously excluded, only a few residents have returned. For example, in the town of Naraha, where evacuation orders were lifted in September, 459 people, or 6% of the pre-disaster population, have gone back. In Fukushima, 40 communities have yet to be decontaminated, and there are concerns that government promises to lift evacuation orders by next March in all of the affected towns and villages apart those closest to the NPP, will not be honoured. Many do not want to return still fearing radiation while others do not want the upheaval of moving again.

The government is spending about JPY40bn ($400m) a year on housing aid for those displaced by the disaster and is financially supporting Fukushima NPP operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) to pay monthly compensation of JPY,900bn - a figure which is increasing. Tests with volunteers who wore dosimeters for two weeks in Naraha found average radiation exposure to be at a rate of 1.12 millsieverts a year. Government official Yuji Ishizaki, who is overseeing the lifting of evacuation orders, says he is merely following policy. "There is no clear boundary for what is safe or not safe for radiation," he said. "Even 1 millisievert might not be absolutely safe."

Fukushima Medical University, the main academic body studying the health effects of the nuclear disaster, says no sickness linked to radiation has been detected so far, although sickness from lack of exercise, poor diet and mental stress has been observed.

While public opinion remains opposed to the restart of reactors closed in the wake of accident, the government is stressing the importance of nuclear energy and said last year that nuclear should account for about 20% of Japan's energy mix by 2020. Abe on 10 March insisted Japan must embrace nuclear power to honour its climate change commitments and lessen its dependence on expensive fossil fuel imports. "Our resource-poor country cannot do without nuclear power to secure the stability of energy supply, while considering what makes economic sense and the issue of climate change," he said.

However, restarting Japan's NPPs is proving problematic, both because of the stringent safety standads that now have to be met, and because of hostile public opinion. On 9 March a Japanese court ordered the shutdown of two reactors at Takahama NPP that had been declared safe to go back online.

On 11 March, plaintiffs including survivors of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings filed a lawsuit Friday with a court demanding a halt to operation of Shikoku Electric Power Co's Ikata nuclear plant in western Japan. They brought the suit to the Hiroshima District Court, arguing that the environment would be devastated and their health affected if an accident similar to the 2011 Fukushima disaster takes place at the plant in Ehime Prefecture, their lawyers said. The three reactors at the Ikata plant are currently off-line but Shikoku Electric wants to restart unit t in the spring. The reactor cleared a safety screening last July.

Meanwhile, clean-up of the Fukushma site continues to pose problems. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) says the radiation in areas 80k from the NPP decreased by 65% in the four years to last October. Although all the Fukushima Daiichi reactors are in cold shutdown, with temperatures at the bottom of each damaged pressure vessel that housed the fuel at 15 to 20 degrees C, this is only being mantained by water being injected at a rate of 4.5 cubic metres an hour. The reactor buildings have been damaged by hydrogen explosions, and the reactor are leaking the highly contaminated water which is mixing with groundwater. Systems to clean and decontaminated the water have frequently broken down, leading to further leaks.

However, the daily inflow of groundwater into the reactor and turbine building basements has been cut to 150 tons from 400 tons and the underground wall of frozen soil now under construction around the reactor building is intended to decrease the inflow further. But there have been a series of technical difficulties and it is still unclear how successful this will be. Fukushima faces a mammoth clean-up task, with decommissioning of the reactors expected to take over 40 years. Some progress has been made but it is wrought with uncertainties.

In marking the anniversary, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano recognized the progress made in Japan and worldwide in nuclear safety since the accident, but emphasized the need to remain vigilant in putting safety first. "The immense human impact of these events should not be forgotten," he said. "In the case of Fukushima Daiichi, tens of thousands of people who were evacuated from their homes have still not been able to return." He added: "I am confident that the legacy of Fukushima Daiichi will be a sharper focus on nuclear safety everywhere. There is widespread recognition that everything humanly possible must be done to ensure that no such accident ever happens again. This is all the more essential as global use of nuclear power is likely to continue to grow in the coming decades."

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