Thursday, October 28

Return to Fukushima: Japan fights stigma of radioactivity

There is something that lasts longer than radioactivity: fear. A decade after covering the tsunami that unleashed the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we returned to the northeast coast of Japan that was swept away first by giant waves and then by radioactive leaks. Ten years later, Villages devastated by the tsunami have been rebuilt. But there are still many closed areas around the sinister Fukushima 1 atomic plant and, in those that have already been reopened, many of its neighbors have not returned for fear of radiation. After suffering the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl on March 11, 2011, Fukushima prefecture is not only fighting against the radioactivity that escaped from the plant, but also against its stigma.

That Friday, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the fourth most powerful earthquake in modern history, of magnitude 9, shook the Japanese archipelago for six minutes and unleashed a tsunami that washed away hundreds of kilometers from its eastern coast. With waves of up to 40 meters, it killed more than 20,000 people, destroyed and damaged one million houses, and flooded the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. Still today, a poster recalls that the water reached there up to 17 meters high. Then, three of its six reactors totally or partially melted when they were without power. Currently, 5,000 workers are working on decontamination and dismantling of the plant, which will continue until 2041 or 2051.

A train that passes by

A decade later, the Tokyo Olympics were to help the recovery of Tohoku, as northeast Japan is known. Along with other prefectures hit by the disaster such as Miyagi and Ibaraki, which hosted soccer matches, the city of Fukushima hosted baseball, one of the most popular sports in Japan. But, with the games without spectators, the tourist train has passed by. As in the rest of Japan, many businesses have gone bankrupt in Fukushima due to the pandemic, which has forced the imposition of a state of emergency due to the rallies this summer. With bars and restaurants unable to serve alcohol and closing at eight in the afternoon, the gloomy nightlife that was breathed in August in Fukushima City was reminiscent of the darkest days of the nuclear catastrophe, when its streets were deserted.

Around the Fukushima 1 atomic plant, about 60 kilometers from the city, damage from the earthquake and tsunami is still visible. On the road that runs along the coast, a dilapidated Toyota dealership still sports a sign advertising the models of that era, some of which are no longer for sale. A few kilometers ahead, the undergrowth grows wild between the abandoned silos of the JA (Japan Agriculture) cooperative and the previously crowded slot machine halls (‘pachinko’). But the worst thing is the radiation, which forces to keep many closed areas, as seen in the fences that abound on both sides of the road. Due to the radioactivity in the soil, in March of last year there were still 337 square kilometers of evacuated areas: a third of the 1,150 square kilometers that were dislodged after the hydrogen explosions suffered by the reactors when they overheated due to lack of electricity, which burst their walls and containment vessels leaving their cores exposed among a mass of rubble.

Of the 470,000 people who were evacuated both by radiation and the ravages of the tsunami, in May there were still 40,000 to return to their homes. The vast majority, 36,000 are nuclear refugees from Fukushima who have not been able to return to their homes because the radioactivity is still too high. According to the municipalities of the twelve municipalities affected by the Fukushima leaks, there are even more, around 60,000, residents who have not returned. Although officially there are 14,000 returnees to the reopened areas, in reality they are far fewer because many sign up for the census to collect the subsidies offered by the Government in order to revitalize the area, but they live in other places.

Olympic flowers

In Fukushima prefecture alone, 165,000 residents had to be evicted, half within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant. Evacuated along with the rest of the 21,000 inhabitants of Namie, which is about ten kilometers from the atomic plant, Yukari Shimizu was only able to return in 2013 to work and in 2017 to live. Although at first he grew vegetables for the nursing home run by the NGO Jin, which had to close due to lack of customers, its radiation levels exceeded what was allowed. For this reason, it was switched to flowers when radioactivity allowed it, as the typical Fukushima species, eustoma, is highly valued in Japan. Starting from 450 yen (3.5 euros) the flower can cost up to 1,400 yen (10.80 euros) in the most refined stores of Ginza, in Tokyo. In a government program to empower the prefectures hit by the disaster, their green eustomas have been part of the 5,000 bouquets of flowers given to medalists at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Along with them and their respective pets, Miraitowa and Someity, in these bouquets of victory were sunflowers from Miyagi and blue gentians from Iwate. While gentians wore the color of the Games and sunflowers honored the parents who planted this plant on a hill to remember their children who died in the tsunami, the green eustomas of Fukushima symbolized hope. “In 2011, we had to be evacuated with what we were wearing. People from all over Japan and the rest of the world were very supportive and we received their affection. Not only with words, but also with humanitarian aid and money. All that support gave me the courage to continue and I would like to thank everyone who helped us with our flowers, ”explains Yukari Shimizu to ABC in one of their greenhouses. He tells us that the secret for this flower to grow is water it with a fair amount of water, It does not specify, although the really difficult thing is to control that the temperature does not rise above 30 degrees.

Contaminated water

Besides radiation, the biggest problem is contaminated water that is stored at the Fukushima plant after irrigating its molten reactors. Like Ms. Shimizu’s eustomas, they have to be constantly injected with water to keep them at 30 degrees so their bare cores don’t overheat. Although said water is filtered to clean up to 62 radioactive nuclides, there is a toxic element that cannot be eliminated, tritium. For this reason, the plant accumulates more than 1.26 million cubic meters of contaminated water in large tanks that have proliferated throughout the enclosure. But they are already at more than 90 percent of their capacity, which is 1.37 million cubic meters. Before running out of space, the Japanese government has decided to dump 1.2 million tons of polluted water into the Pacific in a phased manner over the next few years.

Although this is a regular and regulated practice of nuclear power plants throughout the world, the decision has been harshly criticized by environmentalists, fishermen in the region and neighboring countries, like China and South Korea. The authorities assure that they will dilute the water more than a hundred times to reduce tritium to less than 1,500 becquerels per liter, well below the 60,000 that international standards allow and the 10,000 that the World Health Organization (WHO) authorizes for human consumption. 22 billion becquerels will be drained per year, which will be located 1.5 kilometers north and south of the plant and 700 meters out to sea. While there the concentration will reach between 1 and 10 becquerels per liter, the Government promises that in the rest of the sea it will be only 0.1.

But fishermen fear that the spill will put the finishing touches on their business, hurt first by the tsunami that destroyed their ports and fish markets and then by the stigma of Fukushima. «Time has passed and we have been able to do experimental fishing. The fish market is not open for this area, but fishermen can do trial operations at sea. However, sooner or later there will be a spill of the contaminated water from the nuclear power plant. The fishing industry in Fukushima has many obstacles to overcome. We must confront them with new ideas and I am going to try it with inland fish farms, ”proposes Takahisa Abe, a businessman who has become a fishmonger.

After helping in the reconstruction, he has become so involved in the resurgence of Fukushima that he has opened a fish shop, ‘Fish Factory’, 30 kilometers from the plant, where he teaches young people this traditional trade of the Japanese coast so that they do not emigrate to the cities . «My grandfather was a fisherman and I would like to continue on his way, but I know that it is very complicated here, ”laments one of his students, Ashuri Imai, 18 years old.

Pablo M. Diez

Funded by a collection that far exceeded the three million yen (23,079 euros) he needed, Abe’s fishmonger specializes in eels. Although they are highly appreciated in Japan, he is aware of the fear that consumers will have when the spill begins. «In the last decade we have lost hope and now the spill is coming. For consumers to be safe, we need fish farms, as they are already doing in neighboring Tamura, ”Abe details, ready to continue fighting. A decade later The impact of the tsunami and the nuclear accident is compounded by the coronavirus. The evacuation and the closure of numerous businesses have aggravated the depopulation of this prefecture, especially of young people. But some, like former diplomat and consultant Daiju Takahashi, have come from Tokyo to settle in Namie and help its rebirth with the business association Eat and Energize the East (EEE). «Ensuring the safety of food products, as well as life in this area, is an essential requirement in scientific terms. We have enough data, but I don’t think that’s enough. We have to give consumers confidence. To achieve this, it takes a human touch. For example, that farmers and fishermen transmit their passion to consumers: how they create their products, how they fish and how they process food. That will be key for us to regain consumer confidence, “he explains after returning from abroad.

With the help of two prestigious French chefs, Dominique Corby and Jean-Sebastien Clapie, he was in Paris in July promoting the regional delicacies of Tohoku. Thanks to an attractive image, Takahashi has triumphed with a brand of cans of mackerel, ‘Ça va?’, Of which 10 million have already been sold, reporting more than 3 billion yen (23 million euros). A success that encourages him to continue because, of the 54 countries and regions that imposed restrictions on the cultivation and harvesting of Fukushima, there are still 14 that continue to maintain them.

A decade after the tsunami, we return to northeast Japan, which dreams of a bright future thanks to these economic and social revitalization projects. But the fear of radiation from Fukushima, measured by road panels, darkens its future.