longtime foreign correspondent based in Japan. He writes for The Independent of London, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. He is co-author of the book, Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.
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Japan is getting ready to mark the third anniversary of one of the world’s worst atomic disasters. It was March 11, 2011, when a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coast. The twin disasters triggered a meltdown at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The radiation that spewed from the plant stranded more than 315,000 evacuees. In the years following the Fukushima disaster, tens of thousands of Japanese have taken to the streets to march in opposition to nuclear power. In the nearly three years since the disaster, the Fukushima cleanup and decommissioning efforts have been complicated by leaks of highly radioactive water. The effort has also suffered from a lack of oversight and a shortage of workers, which Reuters reports has led to Japan’s homeless population being easy prey for recruiters. Following the disaster, Japan halted nearly all nuclear-related projects. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party reversed its campaign pledge to move Japan away from nuclear power just one week after coming into power in December 2012. Today, Japan’s trade ministry said it would approve a revival plan for the utility responsible for the Fukushima nuclear disaster: Tokyo Electric Power Company. This will be the second attempt to restore the utility’s depleted finances. We speak with David McNeill, a longtime foreign correspondent based in Japan who writes for The Independent of London, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. McNeill is co-author of the book, "Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster."
But right now, we are here in Japan. The country is about to mark the third anniversary of one of the world’s worst atomic disasters. It was March 11th, 2011, when a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that struck Japan. It struck Japan’s northeast coast. It left an estimated 19,000 people dead or missing, and forced 160,000 to flee their homes. Many have never been able to return. The twin disasters triggered a meltdown at the Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO. That’s the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s owner. The radiation that spewed from the plant stranded more than 315,000 evacuees. In the years following the Fukushima disaster, tens of thousands of Japanese have taken to the streets to march in opposition to nuclear power. This is protester Mitsuhiro Watanabe speaking in Tokyo last year.
MITSUHIRO WATANABE: [translated] Take nuclear energy completely offline, and I want the government to make a complet change over to natural energy sources for the nation.
AMY GOODMAN: In the nearly three years since the disaster, the Fukushima cleanup and decommissioning efforts have been complicated by leaks of highly radioactive water. The effort has also suffered from a lack of oversight, a shortage of workers, which Reuters reports has led to Japan’s homeless population becoming easy prey for recruiters.
Following the disaster, Japan halted nearly all nuclear-related projects. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, reversed its campaign pledge to move Japan away from nuclear energy just one week after coming into power in December 2012. Earlier today, Japan’s trade ministry said it would approve a revival plan for the utility responsible for the Fukushima nuclear disaster. That’s Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO. This will be the second attempt to restore the utility’s depleted finances.
Well, for more, we’re joined by David McNeill, longtime foreign correspondent based here in Japan. He writes for The Independent of London, for The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. He is also co-author of the book Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.
David McNeil, it’s very good to have you here.
DAVID McNEILL: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: And for—to be here in Japan. Your book is an astounding blow-by-blow account of what’s taken place, and you continue to report on what’s happening. What should we understand about the effects of Fukushima today?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, of course, the effects of the radiation are hotly disputed, and they will go on for many years to come. You know, we are seeing reports of an increase in problems with thyroids among children in Fukushima. But the science is yet to be decided. But what is really very clear, you know, completely without dispute, is that it has caused an enormous amount of disruption to people’s lives. First of all, as you said, 160,000 people were forced to flee from Fukushima. Another number—we don’t know how many—have voluntarily fled from Fukushima. There’s a phenomenon called the "Fukushima divorce," which is families splitting up because the wife wants to leave because she’s worried about her children, and the husband doesn’t. And you also have a spate of suicides, of early deaths, of old people, you know, experiencing massive disruption because they’ve had to evacuate from communities where they’ve lived all their lives. So, when people say the death toll from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is zero, they’re not correct. People have died from that disaster. And I think people will continue to die in the years to come, whether or not the radiation is the cause or not.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, let’s talk about nuclear politics right now. One of the notable opponents of nuclear energy since Fukushima is a man who wasn’t always opposed to nuclear energy. He is the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan. He was head of Japan at the head of the—at the time of the crisis. He resigned later that year, but not before he ordered the closure of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant and froze plans to build new reactors. He has since called on Japan to reduce its dependence on nuclear energy. This is a brief excerpt of remarks he made at an event in New York City this past October. He spoke through a translator.
NAOTO KAN: [translated] My position before March 11th, 2011, was that as long as we make sure that the safety—it’s safely operated, nuclear power plant can be operated and should be operated. However, after experiencing the disaster of March 11th, I changed my thinking 180 degrees, completely. You know, we do have accidents, such as an airplane crash and so on, and sometimes hundreds of people die in an accident, but there is no other accident or disaster that would affect 50 million people—maybe a war, but there is no other accident can cause such a tragedy.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Japan’s former prime minister, Naoto Kan, as he said, making a complete change in his position on nuclear power, now saying it should be phased out in Japan, that it’s such a threat to civilization. David McNeill?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, his statement was remarkable for a couple reasons. First of all, he was a sitting prime minister when he turned against nuclear power. And since he resigned, or since he was turfed from power, what we’ve learned is that he commissioned a report into the worst-case scenario for Fukushima, which included the evacuation of Tokyo, which is, as anybody who lives here knows, impossible. It’s impossible to evacuate a city this size. You know, it’s 36—the whole Tokyo metropolitan area is 36 million people. So, that was the kind scenario he was facing, and that’s what convinced him. I mean, Japan has 50 working commercial nuclear reactors, including some over on the Japan Sea coast. And if there was a problem there, a similar problem to Fukushima, what you could see is the poisoning of all the water that supplies Osaka, which is Japan’s next big city; and Hamaoka, as you’ve just mentioned, you know, again, if the winds were blowing wrong for Tokyo, you could poison Tokyo, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Japan was going to what? Something like, by 2030, 50 percent of their energy provided by nuclear power; now, already, it was at 30 percent.
DAVID McNEILL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: This is fascinating. As you point out, this is a nation that is the only nation in the world that had two atomic bombs, nuclear bombs, dropped on it.
DAVID McNEILL: Yeah, and the background to how Japan was able to overcome its resistance to or how the powers that be were able to persuade ordinary Japanese people to overcome their resistance to nuclear power is a fascinating story. That happened in the ’50s and ’60s, and America was, of course, heavily involved in that. And Fukushima—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, America—because Japan was American ally at the time in the 1950s, there was a program called Atoms for Peace, which I’m sure you’re aware of, which—under which America supplied peaceful, so-called peaceful, atomic power to its allies. And part of that program was trying to persuade ordinary people to overcome their resistance, you know, their natural resistance, I suppose, to what nuclear power meant. And there’s a long history kind of associated with that, but part of it is that people who were opposed to nuclear power, including academics, were—found themselves sidelined career-wise and so on. It’s a fascinating story, how we [inaudible].
AMY GOODMAN: So, you not only have the more progressive prime minister, you have conservatives also now opposing nuclear power.
DAVID McNEILL: That’s right. Well, sort of even more remarkable, if you like, than Naoto Kan is that Junichiro Koizumi, who was a conservative prime minister—Naoto Kan is a sort of liberal-left leader, if you like, one of the very few we’ve had in Japan over the last 60 years. But Junichiro Koizumi was a conservative prime minister, who actually visited Yasukuni, as the previous speaker said. So his conversion was remarkable. And what we hear is that even among the conservative LDP, the party of the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, up to, well, 30 to 50 percent—is the number we’re hearing—of the lawmakers in that party are also in favor of scrapping nuclear power. But the lobby, the nuclear lobby, is very powerful, and they’re winning the game for now.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have the prime minister pushing nuclear power, though the country is becoming increasingly anti-nuclear.
DAVID McNEILL: That’s right. Well, the statistics—any statistics that are worth calling that—you know, say that the majority of people in Japan still, despite the last three years of sort of relentless pro-nuclear propaganda, are still against restarting these reactors.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about this Reuters exposé about the homeless workers. Let’s turn to one right now. This is Shizuya Nishiyama, a 57-year-old homeless man.
SHIZUYA NISHIYAMA: [translated] We’re an easy target for recruiters. We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around the station, and we’re easy to spot, Then they say to us, "Are you looking for work? Are you hungry?" And if we haven’t eaten anything, then they offer to find us a job.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this, David McNeill, homeless people being recruited to clean the meltdown plant, and what this means, how threatened their health is?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, the company that runs that operation, TEPCO, has struggled, since this disaster began, to find people who can help clean it up. There are thousands of people on that power plant every day. There are many more thousands outside of the power plant who are employed to decontaminate the surrounding countryside. Basically, what they do is they scrape away the earth, five centimeters of earth, put it into bags and move it somewhere else. So, if you think about that workforce, they have struggled to find people who can do that. And it’s a sort of natural process, in a way, right, for them to eventually turn to people who have very little to lose and who have no work. And it’s not the first time. The Reuters exposé is interesting, but it’s not the first time that these companies, mainly the subcontractors who work for Tokyo—or for TEPCO, rather, have gone looking for people in homeless areas. And, of course, the wages they’re paid are very, very low. I mean, they’re paid $100 or less a day.
AMY GOODMAN: And, overall, talk about what these people are doing in the plant, the remarkable stories you tell in Strong in the Rain.
DAVID McNEILL: Well, one of the things that they are doing is ensuring that water keeps going to those nuclear reactors, those three reactors that melted down. That’s the key task of anybody who’s on that site, you know, is to make sure that that fuel does not overheat again. The other task that they must do is to just keep the area clean for trucks and so on that are coming back and forth. I’ve been on the power plant twice, and it’s still strewn with debris. Debris is all over the place. So they have to make sure that it’s a workable plant, a place where there’s no obstructions. And then, as I said, outside of the plant, you have thousands of people whose job it is to try and make it livable again, make the area around the power plant livable again for the people who used to live there.
As for their health, well, this is—again, you know, this is going to be disputed for years. The general level of radioactivity that you’re supposed to absorb in a year is about 20 millisieverts. It goes up in emergencies to 50.
AMY GOODMAN: Millisieverts is the measure.
DAVID McNEILL: Millisieverts, yes. A lot of the workers who are on site, particularly the ones that we have talked to, they tend to reach that limit over a period of one or two—reach their limit, their nuclear limit, over a period of one or two years. And then they’re asked to leave. And in many cases, what they’ll do is they’ll find work outside of the power plant, such as in the decontamination work in areas where the radiation is supposedly lower. And eventually, of course, they face unemployment. They’ll just be let go entirely.
AMY GOODMAN: And the effect on the water? The effect even here in Tokyo? And how do you trust the information that comes out and doesn’t come out to the public, which is another very big issue, is what the Japanese government is willing to tell the people of Japan?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, we’re fairly confident the airborne radiation—you know, this is the really bad radiation that left that power plant in the week after the disaster began—we’re fairly confident that that is now low, you know, low to make Tokyo and even the surrounding areas livable again. The poisoning of the water, we just—we don’t know, you know, but there is a lot of independent monitoring going on—not talking about government monitoring, just independent monitoring going on—of the water and of the air. I mean, I have a two-year-old son, you know, and most of the journalists who I work with have children here. So they have made that decision, based on what they know about the facts, that Tokyo is livable. But anybody who’s living here keeps a very close eye on not only what the government is telling us about what’s going on at the power plant, but also what could happen again. There’s still the potential, of course, for more trouble there.
AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera has said, out of 200,000 children screened so far in government-ordered tests, there are 18 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer, 25 suspected cases.
DAVID McNEILL: Well, you know, I’ve done quite a lot of work on the thyroid cases. Generally, where I come down is, the science is inconclusive, as far as we know so far, because if you look at those statistics, we’re not sure yet if it is statistically relevant, because we’re testing only in one part of the country. We don’t know, if we compare it with other parts of the country. What I tend to do when I’m doing those stories is I focus on something I can prove, which is that the people who—the parents, in particular, who—parents of those children who have to get those tests, and in some cases who have turned up sick children, are just very, very afraid of their future, of what will happen to their children, and of the fate. And that’s what makes radiation such a devious enemy. You know, it’s so insidious.
AMY GOODMAN: The government estimates some 300 tons of radioactive water are pouring into the ocean every day?
DAVID McNEILL: Yes. And the story behind that is that, you know, for years, for the three years since we’ve been looking at this disaster, the experts have been telling us—experts who are talking to us, journalists, have been telling us that there’s no question that water, radioactive water, is pouring into the sea. But the company and the government, TEPCO and the government, denied that, until July last year, when Shinzo Abe, coincidence or not, was elected back into power as prime minister. Shinzo Abe, of course, is a pro-nuclear prime minister. You know, we all suspected it, but it has been—it’s only been confirmed, and the company has only really started to take measures to stop it since the summer.
You know, again, it’s an open question about how dangerous that water is, what it will do to human health, to people around Japan, let alone in America. I tend to think that the amount of radiation that’s gone into the sea at the moment is relatively small, but that doesn’t mean it will always be like that, and it also doesn’t tell us anything about the long-term impact of radiation on the bottom of the sea, on marine life and seaweed and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the fish market here in Tokyo is legendary all over the world. The fish, the level of contamination, what do we know of that?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, we know that the fishermen who work around that area, who work around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, all along the east coast of Japan, are subject to voluntary restraints. What they will do is—what they are doing is they’re not fishing. So one of the people that we write about in the book, for example, is a fisherman who worked that area, a place called Soma, which is near the power plant. And he has not been out to work since. He cannot fish, because the radioactive limits have been breached, and they haven’t come down to a low enough level for him to be able to go back to work.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the plant under control now? I mean, there are six nuclear power plants in Fukushima.
DAVID McNEILL: Six reactors.
AMY GOODMAN: Six reactors.
DAVID McNEILL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Are the reactors under control now?
DAVID McNEILL: Well, it depends on what you mean by "under control." What—so, there was three—three of those reactors melted down. A fourth suffered an explosion, the fuel pool of Number 4 reactor. We know that the fuel in the three reactors is being kept cool, as long as water is going there and keeping it cool. But what that means is if for any reason the water was to stop, unlikely as that sounds, then we would have another problem, because the fuel would heat up again, and it would start to release radiation. And the fuel pool 4, again, you know, scientists tell us that removing—that what they’re trying to do is remove that spent—those spent fuel rods from the storage pool of fuel pool 4. And that’s a very, very complicated engineering task, that carries with it a lot of potential problems. So, is it under control? Well, it’s more under control than it was in March and April 2011, that’s for sure, but the decommissioning of the power plant, even the government admits, is going to take 40 years. And I think one of the things that people don’t talk enough about, because they focus a lot on radiation, which may or may not be a concern, is just the huge cost. The cost of bringing that place under control is just astronomical.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, David McNeill, I want to thank you for being with us. It’s great to meet you here in your home turf in Tokyo, Japan, where we’re broadcasting from. He and another journalist, Lucy Birmingham, wrote this remarkable book, Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we look at a film that’s just out; it’s called Nuclear Nation. And we’ll speak with the filmmaker who made it, following the nuclear refugees. Stay with us.