Reminiscing the Fukushima Nuclear disaster
March 11, 2011. Time: 14:46 hours. Shigeru Fukaya, the Former-Vice Mayor of Miharu Town in Eastern Japan, was in the Municipality Office that day when suddenly he was alerted by an alarm message in his mobile—“Warning: Earthquake. Stay Alert and Careful!”
Obviously, Fukaya got in dilemma about what to do when it happened. In order to save his life he sheltered himself underneath the table nearby. Glasses could be heard breaking into pieces. The Municipality employees started panicking. “So, is this it? Are we going to make it alive?” Fukaya wondered himself. The shock came to halt after a while. But this was just a beginning of what was yet to happen.
The 9.0 magnitude of earthquake was followed by several aftershocks. The glasses of the office building were already shattered to pieces. “It was undoubtedly risky to stay any longer in there, so I asked everyone to evacuate the building,”, Fukaya shared his experiences with journalists from different countries during the tour to the disaster-hit area of Japan, “The situation called for Urgent Counter-measure Center (UCC). But since the City Office Block was damaged by the earthquake, we set up the UCC in the Welfare-house and engaged right away in rescue operation.”
Aftershocks were still active. At the same time, the earthquake triggered Tsunami that could be seen live on TV. “The images from that day still haunt me. I can never forget it”, Fukaya recounts, “But we were lucky. Our structures were earthquake-resistant. Most of the infrastructures stood tall even though several aftershocks of 5+ magnitudes were felt. No lives were lost in our area. Electricity supply remained intact.”
April 25, 2015. The earth beneath Nepal began to move—the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the country. The temblor was anticipated but the country was not prepared for it! About 9,000 lives were lost; 23,000 injured. But, In such a state of emergency, the immediate rescue operations carried out by Japanese teams were exemplary.
After a month and a half of that disaster in Nepal, I got the opportunity to attend the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists, held in Seoul, South Korea, and we were in Fukushima, Japan on a Post-conference Tour. Fukaya recalls that day back in 2011, “The evacuation places were immediately managed. Immediate actions were taken on the basis of the information received by UCC with regards to the need for rescue. The residents coordinated very well in that situation. The aftershocks were residing slowly.”
But just as everything seemed to be going back to normal, something disastrous happened. The massive Tsunami caused damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Plant. The residents of Miharu Town came to know of this Nuclear Emergency Situation at 7 pm in the evening via KAN FM. The area within the radius of 5km from Nuclear Plant was evacuated and the residents there were directed to move for safety at Evacuation center.
The next day, on March 12, 2015 at 3:30 pm, the hydrogen in the Fukushima I Nuclear Reactor building exploded. The evacuation area was expanded to 20 km radius from the plant. More than 2,000 people from Okuma and Tomioka cities were accommodated in the public buildings. The plight was such that thousands of people moving towards the safe zone resembled that of the refugees trying to cross the border to get away from the war zone.
As the number of people displaced increased, it became extremely challenging for the Municipality to manage the situation. So, Municipality employees from Okuma and Tomioka cities came in for help. ”We provided kitchen utensils and food items for the people so that they could cook the food themselves to eat. This helped a lot to keep everything under control,” Fukayareminisces.
Back in Nepal, for the first few days after the earthquake, the government was widely criticized for lagging in Search and Rescue Operation. Even in the Japanese context, the people criticized the government for not being active in rescue operation. “No formal orders were issued by the State or the Prefecture government for evacuation. Everything that was done post-earthquake was done with self-motivation and responsiveness of the local residents,” Fukaya continues, “Even in such a situation of emergency, the government wasn’t there. The State and the Prefecture governments didn’t take any concrete action in counter-measure plan.” It was obvious that the government lacked sense of responsibility. The adverse impacts of nuclear accident gradually spread out. This led to the reduced supply of daily consumption goods. Shortage of petroleum and other basic goods hit the life hard.
Distribution of Iodine Tablets
Tomioka City decided to distribute Iodine tablets to those who needed it at the Evacuation center. This action was taken as the preventive measure against the possible health hazards that could result from the nuclear accident. Still, the government remained dormant.
On March 14, 2011 at 11 am, Edano, the Speaker of the Government of Japan, appeared on a Live TV Press Conference, in which he tried to convince the people that everything was under control and there was no fear of emergency. But during the conference, the explosion at Fukushima Daiichi IIINuclear Reactor building made it to the breaking news, and Edano could be seen literally shocked and taken aback hearing about the accident. This further eroded the trust of the people on the State and Prefecture governments. “We didn’t wait for the state to wake up and come to us. We did what we could by ourselves. We did our best to help and rescue the people in the affected city areas. Where the higher level governments lost the faith of people, the local government garnered their trust instead,” Fukaya smiles.
The Prefecture government didn’t release any information following the nuclear plant explosion about the radiation area, and neither did the media. People were in confusion. “We felt like there was no government at all in Japan,” Fukaya recalls.
Sakuma, a local resident, had bought a Radiation Level Meter (RLM) after Chernobyl incident. The RLM showed the readings at higher level than in other normal days. After receiving this critical information, people were alerted to protect themselves from the effects of radiation. All the residents were informed via Wireless Announcement System to stay indoors, not to get wet in rain, to use masks… among other preventive measures.
In order to protect against radiation, the Iodine tablets brought in from the Prefecture Calamity Counter-measure Center were distributed to 7,248 people from 3,303 households. The radiation level was suspected to rise further on March 15. The wind started to flow from east to west. It rained during the afternoon.
The Tsunami following the earthquake further added the damages on the Nuclear Plant. After the explosion in Fukushima Daiichi IV Nuclear Reactor building on March 15 in the morning at 6 am, the radiation level in the Tokai village was recorded to be 100 times more than in other days. Locals immediately decided to distribute the Iodine tablets to the city residents and taught them the methods to use it. This worked very well without any side-effects. It certainly feels good to help the people by taking right decision, especially during the emergency situation.
It has been four years since the explosion in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in 2011. The earthquake that hit Japan four years back and the subsequent Tsunami not only staggered—literally—the world’s Nuclear energy giant, but it also changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people forever.
According to Akio Komori, Fellow of Tokyo Electric power Co. Inc. (TEPCO), more than 100,000 people were evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture. Those people still are unable to return back to their own home back there. “It is really upsetting for them to be distanced from their homes and their families. They are sad, and they feel weak,” he says.
After the Nuclear accident, three out of four reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant have exploded. The remaining one reactor didn’t suffer any damage. Government of Japan has assigned to the company called TEPCO the responsibility of decontaminating the Ground Zero. According to Mr. Komori, Fellow of TEPCO, it could take as long as three decades before the affected area can get back to normal. The TEPCO employees are doing their best to fulfill the responsibilities they are entrusted with.7000 staffers work every day insite the site to repair the destroyed reactor buildings and decommision the reactors as well. The residents of the affected areas are going through hard times. But they still hope to see the bright future ahead.
After such life-threatening and dangerous effects following the nuclear accident and hundreds of lives lost to it, many Japanese are beginning to speak openly against Nuclear Energy. But Government of Japan says that there’s no any alternative to Nuclear Energy, at least not anytime soon.
Four years have already passed since that nuclear accident in 2011, but still the life hasn’t gotten back to normal. The fear lingers among the people today. The cases of physical health problems accompanied by psychological issues are on the rise. The people blame on the State and the Prefecture government for not taking any effective action regarding the post-disaster evacuation process, radiation level information, radiation washing, and several other matters.
Has the situation come under control after nuclear accident? When questioned about this to Former-Vice Mayor Shigeru Fukaya, he says, “We still couldn’t live in total composure. But we still do have the courage to live in our own place like we always did, and will continue to do in endless future. We can never forget that incident after the earthquake, and the tragedy it brought to us. No… Never!”