Three and a half years after a catastrophic meltdown, Fukushima is far from fixed
Three and a half years after the most devastating nuclear accident in a generation, Fukushima Daiichi is still in crisis. Some 6,000 workers, somehow going about their jobs despite the suffocating gear they must wear for hours at a time, struggle to contain the damage. So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction. Every 2½ days, workers deploy a new giant storage tank to house radioactive water contaminated after passing through the damaged reactors. We wander past a forest of some 1,300 of these tanks, each filled with 1,000 tons of toxic water, some of which was used to cool the reactors.
In the meantime, Fukushima’s fallout continues to claim victims. Nearly 20,000 people—mostly in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures but also in Fukushima prefecture—were killed by the earthquake and tsunami. Yet only in Fukushima, the epicenter of the nuclear catastrophe, does the number of people who the Japanese government says have since died from causes indirectly linked to the natural disaster now exceed the initial death toll. Stress, both physical and mental, has led to a rise in suicides.
About 125,000 Fukushima residents, most of whom used to reside within an 18-mile (30 km) radius of the nuclear station, still exist as evacuees because their homes are within a government-mandated exclusion zone. Some now subsist in prefab units more evocative of a third-world disaster zone than the world’s third largest economy. In June the Ministry of Environment admitted that decontamination efforts in some towns near the stricken plant had failed; residents cannot return, even if they want to. Fear has infected other neighborhoods as parents wonder whether the radiation clouds that spewed out of the ruined reactors in the days following the tsunami harmed their children. At the disabled plant itself, many experienced employees have reached the official limit on maximum dosages of radiation—leaving critical work in less skilled hands.
Despite all this, the Japanese government’s message to the world is, Trust us. Last year Prime Minister Abe visited Fukushima, flashed a grin and bit into a locally grown peach to prove that the area’s produce—an economic mainstay—was safe to eat. Shortly after his fruit tasting, Abe traveled to Buenos Aires and gave a speech that propelled Tokyo to victory as the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics. “Let me assure you the situation is under control,” he said. But is it? “This was a grave accident in which many mistakes were made,” says Haruo Kurasawa, one of Japan’s foremost TV commentators on nuclear issues. “But no one has gone to jail, and no one wants to take responsibility. Everyone still wants to look the other way. Nothing has really changed.”
Yukie and her family have moved 10 times, from one set of cramped rooms to another. But the specter of radiation—invisible, odorless, tasteless—follows them. Yukie, 33, and her two small children now live like shut-ins on the outskirts of Iwaki, the biggest city near Fukushima Daiichi, about 25 miles (40 km) away. Earlier this year, her daughter broke out in mysterious rashes; one visiting doctor speculated that radiation could have caused the outbreaks. (Other doctors, however, blamed different causes.) Yukie suffers from frequent nosebleeds, which she says she never had before the disaster.