Ten years have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent disaster at the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This article outlines the current situation of the people impacted by this unprecedented nuclear disaster, the prospects (or lack thereof) for the decommissioning of the plant that caused the disaster, and the possibility of using this experience as an opportunity to phase out nuclear power in Japan.
The situation of evacuees
The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 killed nearly 16,000 people and left more than 2,500 people missing. In addition, more than 3,700 people have since died from what are categorised as disaster-related causes, such as ill health caused by evacuation. Of these deaths, approximately 2,300, or more than 60%, were in Fukushima Prefecture.
Victims of the nuclear accident have chosen, or been forced to choose, from several different paths – evacuation, remaining, or returning home following a period of evacuation. Many evacuees have moved from one place to another. In this way, their livelihoods have been destroyed, their social ties severed and their communities torn apart. This loss (or deprivation) of "home" is a striking feature of the damage suffered by the people of Fukushima, and this suffering continues to affect the lives, minds and bodies of many people.
As of January this year, the official government figure for the number of evacuees was just over 40,000, scattered across Japan including the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka, as well as the Tohoku region, where Fukushima is located. While this may be a lower number in comparison to over 200,000 in the past, this is also a result of the exclusion of "voluntary evacuees" from the statistics.
Immediately after the disaster at the nuclear power plant, the Japanese government set the evacuation zone based on an additional annual radiation exposure dose of 20 mSv, significantly higher than the international standard and the Chernobyl standard of 5 mSv for relocation. As a result, many people from areas not officially covered by the evacuation order "voluntarily" evacuated due to fears of the effects of radiation. In many cases, mothers and children were evacuated while fathers and grandparents remained in Fukushima, resulting in the breakdown of families.
Housing support for these voluntary evacuees was discontinued in March 2017, despite a nationwide citizens' movement calling for its continuation. These people are now not officially identified as evacuees, but are integrated into the communities they have moved to, just as any other people relocating. The problems many of them face are intertwined with so-called 'normal' poverty and social problems. The COVID-19 pandemic since 2020 has exacerbated economic inequality and poverty across Japan, as it has around the world.
The Japanese government claims that all decontamination work was completed by March 2018, with the exception of the "difficult-to-return areas" with particularly high levels of contamination, and that it is therefore now possible for people to return to their homes. Even so, the high annual level of 20mSv is itself problematic, and the decontamination target of 1mSv per year in areas where the contamination level is less than 20mSv has hardly been achieved. While decontamination of houses and surrounding areas has been carried out, vast areas of forest and mountains remain untouched. There are many reports of corruption and irregularities in the decontamination work, and although officially installed monitoring posts show a decrease in radiation doses, when residents use their own dosimeters to measure the same areas, they have found many hot spots. All these issues demonstrate the seriousness of radioactive contamination in the living environment.
In the background of encouraging people to return to such areas is the political desire to promote the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to the world as a "symbol of recovery," after the government had made the obvious claim that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was "completely under control" (then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo at the 2013 IOC General Assembly). In fact, although barely any residents have returned to the town of Futaba, adjacent to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, just the train station was rebuilt in time for trains to resume service in March 2020. It was planned that the Olympic torch relay would be held in front of this station.
However, the Olympics have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While at the time of writing they planned to begin in July this year, the overwhelming majority of Japanese people are skeptical about both the feasibility and the appropriateness of the event. Rather, people believe that the country's economic and political resources should be directed towards measures to help the many people in need suffering from the social impacts of the pandemic - including, of course, the victims of the March 2011 disaster, as well as those impacted by the many other natural disasters occurring since, such as frequent floods caused by the extreme weather events.
Prospects for decommissioning – or lack thereof
Ten years after the meltdown of reactor Units 1, 2 and 3 at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, there is still no clear way forward for the decommissioning of the plant. The removal of spent fuel from the pools at Unit 4, where the reactor building exploded, was completed at the end of 2014, and in February this year finally from Unit 3 which experienced meltdown. However, the removal operations from Reactors 1 and 2 remain untouched. In Unit 2, a robot was successfully deployed into the containment vessel in February 2017, but after working for just one metre, the robot stopped. In February 2019, the robot finally succeeded in picking up 3 to 5 cm of sediment.
TEPCO had planned that the removal of molten nuclear fuel debris would begin within 2021, however in December 2020 it announced a one-year postponement. Then, in January this year, it was discovered that the shield plugs directly above the containment vessels of Reactors 2 and 3 were contaminated with extremely high levels of radiation - levels that could kill a person within hours of entry. The work is expected to be difficult.
In this context, TEPCO's target of completing decommissioning by around 2050 is a mere statement of determination, with no realistic backing whatsoever.
A recent major problem is the attempt of the Japanese government and TEPCO to discharge “treated” water into the ocean. Since the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the inflow of groundwater into the site has continued to produce high volumes of contaminated water. During the highest period, this was between 300 and 500 tonnes per day, and even now, with measures such as a frozen wall in place, around 150 tonnes per day is produced. This water is treated using an Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove most of the radioactive material, and is now stored as “treated contaminated water” in more than 1,000 tanks on the Fukushima Daiichi site, amounting to over 1.2 million cubic metres.
The government is reported to have made an internal decision last year to release this “treated” water into the ocean, but the actual decision has been postponed, perhaps in anticipation of a domestic and international backlash. Opposition to the plan is strong, with more than half of respondents to a January 2021 poll opposed to the plan, for reasons such as the fact that tritium is not removed through the ALPS treatment, and that such a discharge into the ocean would devastate the local fishing industry. There is also a great deal of apprehension in neighbouring countries, some of which have pointed out that such this would be in breach of the London Convention which prohibits the dumping of waste into the sea. If these plans are forced ahead, it is likely to become a major international issue.
Q and A on 'Treated Water' Containing Radioactive materials, FoE Japan
Iitate Village, May 2019
The impacts of exposure to radiation
It is estimated that more than 4,000 people a day are currently working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as part of the decommissioning efforts. The time a single worker can work is limited according to the limits of exposure to radiation. As a result, if we consider that 10,000 new workers are needed each year, a total of 300,000 workers will be required over the next three decades.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, more than 250 occupational accidents or illnesses have been reported to date, including six cases of cancer and leukaemia identified as being caused by radiation exposure. There have also been three deaths from accidents during work, as well as reports of heat stroke, death (karoshi) and mental disability due to overwork.
In regards to health issues for the general population outside of the plant facilities, one of the most debated issues is that regarding thyroid cancer in those who were children at the time of the accident. Fukushima Prefecture has been conducting thyroid tests for some 380,000 residents who were under the age of 18 at the time of the disaster, and more than 240 people have been diagnosed with either having or being suspected of having thyroid cancer in the four test rounds so far. The Fukushima prefectural committee has acknowledged that this number of thyroid cancers is on the order of tens of times higher than normal, based on incidence statistics. Some medical experts believe that this is due to over-diagnosis, while other reports have been published indicating that it is related to radiation exposure. There have been moves to reduce the number of thyroid tests, but there is a strong call emphasising the need for continued testing. The future of this testing regime is currently under debate.
In this context, a non-profit organization was established in 2016 to provide support to children diagnosed with thyroid cancer and their families through a private fund, which continues to be active. In the process, it became clear that there were thyroid cancer patients who had not been included in the prefectural testing. The effects of radiation exposure can become apparent over time, so long-term efforts and observation are necessary.
Radiation monitoring in Iitate Village, May 2019
Compensation and accountability
In July 2012, the year following the disaster, the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (chaired by Dr Kurokawa Kiyoshi) issued its report, stating that the accident was clearly a man-made disaster, not a natural one. It pointed out that inadequate safety measures to deal with the earthquake and tsunami had been taken prior to the disaster, and that the regulatory authorities had been complicit in the "safety myth" of the plant and had failed to monitor and supervise it. The cozy relationship between the nuclear industry, bureaucrats and academics, together with the media, has since been criticised as the "nuclear village".
Despite the scale of damage, the Japanese judiciary has yet to hold TEPCO's management criminally responsible. In September 2019, the Tokyo District Court acquitted three former TEPCO executives in a mandatory prosecution over the accident, saying that the possibility of prediction of a large tsunami was not proven. The designated prosecuting lawyer has appealed against this decision and the case is now before the Tokyo High Court.
At the same time, around 30 civil lawsuits have been filed against the government and TEPCO by evacuees, with more than 10,000 plaintiffs. Of these, three cases have been decided by the High Court of Appeal, with two admitting the state's responsibility and one denying it. (Under the Nuclear Damage Compensation Law, TEPCO is liable for damages regardless of whether or not it was negligent, so the issue in these cases was whether the state was liable for foreseeability.) It is expected that the Supreme Court will make a unified decision in the future.
According to 2016 Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) estimates, the total cost of dealing with the Fukushima disaster would be nearly 200 billion US dollars (22 trillion yen) – 70 billion for decommissioning, 70 billion for compensation and 50 billion for decontamination. However, many costs are as yet unaccounted-for, and some private think tanks estimate that decommissioning, including treatment of contaminated water, may cost more than 450 billion US dollars (50 trillion yen), bringing the total cost of the accident to over 700 billion US dollars (80 trillion yen).
Even though TEPCO has the direct responsibility for covering the enormous compensation expenses, the Japanese government in 2012 effectively nationalised TEPCO by investing in it through a government agency. This has allowed TEPCO to avoid bankruptcy to this day, but also obscured its responsibility. Now, ten years since the disaster began, TEPCO is seeking to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture. There are even comments from TEPCO arguing that restart of the plant is necessary to secure funds for dealing with the disaster.
A quiet energy transition
As ten years have passed since the disaster, it cannot be simply said that Japan will return to the nuclear-dependent society it was before the Fukushima disaster.
At the time of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, there were 54 nuclear reactors in Japan, providing around 30% of the country's electricity. Following the disaster and the establishment of the new Nuclear Regulation Authority in 2012 and its stricter regulatory standards, the decommissioning of 21 reactors has been decided (including 10 in Fukushima Prefecture), and 9 out of the remaining 33 reactors have been restarted. (Some of these are undergoing routine inspections, and only four were actually in operation as of March 2, 2021). Following the disaster, zero nuclear plants were operating in Japan for more than one year between 2013 and 2014, but with gradual restarts, nuclear power increased to account for 6.5 per cent of total electricity generation in 2019.
In the aftermath of the accident in 2011, momentum against nuclear power extremely strong in Japan. Anti-nuclear demonstrations took place regularly in front of the Prime Minister's office, 200,000 people joining at their peak. A large group of NGOs came together to twice organise Global Conferences for a Nuclear Power Free World. Under the then Democratic Party government, a national people’s deliberation on future energy options was held.
As a result, in September 2012 the Cabinet approved an energy strategy that aimed to achieve "zero nuclear power plant operations in the 2030s." The promotion of the peaceful use of nuclear energy had been one of Japan's fundamental policies since the 1950s, but this marked a first-time turning point.
However, the Democratic Party was defeated in the general election in December of the same year, likely largely due to the social turmoil following the earthquake, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Abe Shinzo returned to power. Under the LDP, a Basic Energy Plan positioning nuclear power as an "important base load power source" was formulated in April 2014. The aim was thereafter stated for nuclear power to achieve 20-22% of the power source mix by 2030.
Such a return to nuclear power is however unlikely to be easy to achieve, as the aversion to nuclear power in civil society remains high. A public opinion poll in March 2021, ten years after the disaster, showed that 76% of people support a future (or immediate) zero nuclear. Mayors for a Nuclear Power Free Japan, launched in 2012, includes 103 members, both current and former mayors. Nuclear power plants cannot be restarted without the consent of the local municipality.
Even in places where nuclear power plants have been restarted, local residents have filed numerous lawsuits claiming safety problems. In December 2020, the Osaka District Court ruled that there were "errors and omissions that cannot be overlooked" in the licenses granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority for the two reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, and revoked the licenses. Other lawsuits seeking to stop nuclear plant operations have been filed across the country, with around 30 cases currently pending. For restart to be granted, electric utilities must meet tightened regulatory standards, and local governments must create evacuation plans in the event of an accident. The technical, economic and political costs of nuclear power have remained consistently high since the Fukushima accident.
Of course, there are many uncertainties. In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, there was momentum to save energy and improve energy efficiency, and Japan's electricity supply was not strained even when the proportion of nuclear power plants was at or near zero. This fact has given people a certain sense of security in phasing out nuclear power. At the same time, however, the extreme weather conditions of recent years, with hot summers and cold winters, and the frequency of natural disasters in the midst of these conditions, have also caused concern about electricity supply.
Furthermore, the Suga Yoshihide administration which replaced Abe Shinzo in September 2020, announced a pledge in the Diet immediately after taking office to achieve a carbon-neutral society by 2050. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, fossil fuel-based thermal power generation accounts for around 80% of total electricity generation in Japan. It cannot be denied that the pressure to reduce this may accelerate the trend towards a return to nuclear power to some extent.
Nevertheless, the expansion of renewable energy in Japan has been remarkable, with the share of electricity generated (including large hydro) rising from 10.5% in 2011 to 17.4% in 2018. The expansion of solar power has been particularly strong, accounting for 7.4% of total electricity generation in 2019, surpassing nuclear power.
Let us share one example symbolising the expansion of renewable energies. Kyushu Electric Power has had to restrict solar energy supplies for the first time in October 2018, because the massive expansion of solar power has meant it is generating too much power. This shows that, with flexible planning and operation, it is possible to best utilise solar power and shut down coal and nuclear power.
The international dimensions - nuclear power exports and the nuclear fuel cycle
Following the Fukushima disaster, unable to build new nuclear power plants in Japan, nuclear manufacturers tried to find a way to export nuclear power. But in each case - Vietnam, Lithuania, Turkey and the UK - plans were cancelled or withdrawn. The plans of Japan's big three - Mitsubishi, Toshiba and Hitachi - all fell through. It is still fresh in the memory that Toshiba was plunged into severe insolvency and financial crisis when Westinghouse, the US nuclear giant it acquired in 2006, collapsed in March 2017.
Another important factor for the future of nuclear energy in Japan is the handling of spent fuel. Japan has consistently followed a nuclear fuel cycle policy of reprocessing all spent fuel to extract plutonium, a policy also still maintained by the Democratic Party government in 2012 when it announced its nuclear phase-out policy. This policy itself continued even after decision was finally made at the end of 2016 to decommission the Monju fast breeder reactor project, a core element of the nuclear fuel cycle policy, after many years of failure.
As a result, Japan has continued to hold large quantities of plutonium with no prospect of using it, a situation that has raised international concerns from the perspective of nuclear weapons non-proliferation. In July 2018, the Japanese government made the decision not to increase its plutonium stockpile beyond the current 47 tonnes (36 tonnes abroad and 11 tonnes in Japan). Since then, due to the domestic use of MOX fuel, the stockpile has been slightly reduced to 45 tonnes (36 tonnes abroad and 9 tonnes in Japan).
With no prospect for a significant recovery of nuclear plant operations, this is a huge liability for Japan. NGOs working toward the nuclear phaseout and nuclear weapons abolition have repeatedly joined together to call for the plutonium stocks not to be further increased, and therefore not to operate the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture.
This issue is inextricably linked to the question of what to do with Japan's nuclear waste finally. In 2020, two towns and villages in Hokkaido put their hands up to be surveyed for a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste, in anticipation of government grants. This is something to pay attention to, yet it is unlikely that any conclusions will be reached in the short term.
Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy
Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP)
The author (left) with Hasegawa Hanako and Kenichi, and ICAN Co-Founder Dr Tilman Ruff (IPPNW), at the Hasegawas' home in Iitate Village, Fukushima (May 2019)
Ten years have now passed since the disaster. The government is loudly promoting its keywords of recovery and reconstruction (see: Fukushima Updates, Reconstruction Agency), while the enormous damage and continuing latent dangers are being covered up and rendered invisible. While political slogans and the business community's call for a return to nuclear power cannot be ignored, the reality is that Japan has made significant progress away from nuclear power in the last decade. Renewable energies have taken off, power consumption has been reduced, and energy efficiency has been improved.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is driving a global shift in social and economic practices, including in Japan. Moves towards greater social decentralisation and efficiency could lead to further energy conservation and efficiency, the development of community-led renewable energy, and the active involvement of civil society in such processes. On the other hand, the ongoing economic crisis and social uncertainty caused by the pandemic risks exacerbating the situation of still-suffering victims of the nuclear disaster and workers exposed to radiation. It will become all the more important for civil society, both in Japan and transcending borders, to be able to exchange information on these changes, little reported in mainstream media, in a timely manner.
The Global Conference for a Nuclear Free, Renewable Energy Future: 10 Years Since Fukushima
As an initiative to examine the lessons learned from the past ten years, and the necessary steps and visions to move forward, Peace Boat is involved in organising an online global conference to be held on March 11, the tenth anniversary. The "Global Conference for a Nuclear Free, Renewable Energy Future" will be a chance to inform people in Japan of global trends promoting an energy shift, while also sharing information with people around the world of the current situation and challenges in Japan after the disaster at the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. As the pandemic continues to expose people around the world to great hardship, this conference will also be an opportunity to pursue a new model for a sustainable post-COVID-19 society.
The conference can be joined for free with no prior registration required. It is organised by the Federation of Promotion of Zero-Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy (Genjiren), an organisation co-founded by former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, and Peace Boat is glad to join together with the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), FoE Japan, and Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants as partner organisations. We look forward to your participation.
See here for full details and to join: https://20210311.genjiren.com/en/
Article by Kawasaki Akira, translation by Meri Joyce