On March 11, 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Honshu Island in Japan, but that was only the beginning of a disaster that continues to unfold today.
The earthquake automatically triggered the shutdown of a number of the country’s nuclear reactors, including the three main reactor units in operation at the Fukishima Daiichi Power Plant. The Fukushima power station was cut off from Japan’s electrical grid, and plant operators at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) alerted government authorities when they found the emergency generators in Reactors 1, 2 and 3 had all failed.
In the following days concerns deepened among officials, workers and residents as the government declared a nuclear emergency and evacuated the immediate area. Pressure inside the reactor units built, and as a result workers were forced to release steam containing radioactive material into the atmosphere. There were several explosions, and to cool reactions and prevent complete meltdown TEPCO started pumping seawater into the reactors.
Reports on the disaster from TEPCO and the Japanese government were consistently vague and unclear. They sometimes underestimated the damage and led to a sense of distrust among citizens and the international community. While officials initially avoided the term “meltdown”, the company later admitted that rods inside the reactors had in fact melted in the hours and days after the earthquake.
When it came to evacuating the region, the US Embassy recommended an evacuation zone spanning a 50-mile radius around the nuclear facilities. However, the Japanese government only originally evacuated residents within a 12-mile radius. Over a week after that, they evacuated the area up to 19 miles from the plant. Studies conducted later in the year showed that if Japan had evacuated the region recommended by the US, over two million residents could have been spared the excess radiation as opposed to the 130,000 that were initially evacuated. This info-graphic from the New York Times illustrates the evacuation zones and the effects of radiation at varying distances from the source.
After the event, it also came out that Japan had ignored earlier warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which had notified officials in 2008 that TEPCO’s safety measures were not adequate for dealing with earthquake over a certain magnitude.
The foreign press was critical of both the company and government’s response with regards to public communication and clean-up efforts, but Japan’s foreign minister Chiaki Takahashi defended their tactics and accused international media of exaggerating aspects of their coverage.
April 2011: "no threat to public health"
A month after the initial event, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) announced the official rating of the Fukushima disaster according to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). Though earlier reports had placed it at Level 4, the event was eventually determined to be a Level 7 accident—making it one of only two in international history to reach the highest level of nuclear emergency (the other being Chernobyl).
The majority of radiation released into the environment was said to be through deliberate venting of the reactors, as well as from the release of coolant water into the ocean. As a result, large amounts of radioactive isotopes were released into the Pacific and into groundwater. The government confirmed in April that contamination had reached unsafe levels at several water purification plants around the country.
Despite the apparent gravity of the situation, experts both in Japan and abroad said the Japanese government was downplaying the risks associated with water contamination.
After Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced that there was “no immediate threat to public health”, sources in Japan reported increasing skepticism among citizens about what they were—and were not—being told.
July 2011: radiation found in food
From the beginning, international health authorities started expressing concerns that radiation fallout from the reactors at Fukishima could contaminate food and other consumable products. But in the weeks following the disaster, the message from the government was one of confidence.
"We urge consumers to continue shopping as usual and retailers to do their business as usual," Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano said on March 31, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
Politicians also tried to assure the public that food was safe by visiting farmer’s markets and even eating produce at public events—including strawberries grown just 50 km from the plant.
It wasn’t until July that the government confirmed that they had been unable to control the spread of radioactive material in food that was being shipped and eaten across Japan. At that point, Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted that testing procedures were inadequate, claiming he felt a “personal sense of responsibility” for the now nationwide problem.
Contaminated beef became one of the first major concerns, after testing in July revealed that thousands of cows had eaten hay containing radioactive cesium before being sent to meat markets. Soon after, the government banned shipments of beef from the region, but by then, a good deal had already made its way into supermarkets.
Other products were also found to be contaminated, including mushrooms, spinach, tea, milk, plums, rice and seafood. In the absence of a nationwide testing system, it has been left up to local authorities, farmers and supermarkets to determine if food products are fit for sale.
Japan’s limits for radiation in foods are far more stringent than in the US and in Europe, but the government isn’t equipped to carry out all the testing so many foods don’t get tested at all.
Farmers in regions surrounding Fukushima complained at the time that they were given little information regarding the status of the disaster, and said guidelines distributed by the ministry were difficult to follow. As new reports continued to emerge regarding food safety issues, the government took a good deal of criticism for their misleading claims early on and for their slow reaction in notifying the public.
September 2011: Fukushima restrictions lifted
In late September, the Japanese government decided to lift restrictions in regions surrounding the Fukushima plant. Despite ongoing fears over radiation, the evacuation zone was cut down to just a 12 mile radius around the facility, allowing residents from five different communities to return to their homes.
Around local hospitals and schools, radiation testing revealed consistent low-level exposure that could still be dangerous—particularly for children and pregnant women. But the government defended their decision, saying it was an important step in returning the region to “normalcy”.
While the national government touted the work they had done to aid and rehabilitate affected communities, city officials in areas close to the disaster claimed most of the progress was due to local efforts. Katsunobu Sakurai, Mayor of the city of Minamisoma, expressed concerns that the government wasn’t doing enough to help.
“We’re the ones who took the lead,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster, NHK. “Now we’d like more assistance from the country.”
With public distrust growing over months of misinformation from the Japanese government, members of parliament started taking drastic steps to soothe citizens’ fears. In a bold move, MP Yasuhiro Sonoda drank a glass of water collected from puddles at the bottom of Fukushima reactors.
Before taking a sip (with shaking hands), the politician explained that even though testing was still required, the water was safe—it had gone through a controversial decontamination process to be used for things like watering plants.
TEPCO started treating water to help deal with the massive amounts of contaminated water collected in areas around the facility. Despite decontamination processes that allow the water to be used in certain ways, the company is running out of storage facilities and new radiation leaks continue to be found.
December 2011: radiation in the ocean waters
Early in December, TEPCO announced that up to 45,000 litres of radioactive water had leaked out of the nuclear station, potentially making it out into the ocean. The incident was said to highlight the difficulty of containing and reusing large amounts of contaminated water.
Just weeks later, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that officials had reached an important stage in controlling the impacts of the disaster. Though they admitted that Fukushima would not be completely safe for decades, the company told citizens that temperatures and radiation inside the damaged reactors had finally reached safe levels—a state called “cold shutdown”.
Despite assurances from TEPCO and the government, public anger and distrust was still at a high point. A new social movement had emerged to oppose nuclear activity in Japan, championed by a number of women and mothers affected by the Fukushima disaster. Over 100 demonstrators took their concerns to the Nuclear Safety Commission to demand an open investigation into the accident, and to push the government to shut down all the country’s nuclear facilities.
Recently, news surfaced that workers had been recruited under falsified labour deals to work inside contaminated buildings at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Labourers from distant regions like Kyushu recounted poor conditions at the facility, low wages and the feeling of being “treated like a slave”.
One worker said he had not only been promised higher pay, but had also been told that he wouldn’t have to go inside the dangerous reactor buildings. According to reports, these workers were recruited by subcontractors in a multi-tier system under TEPCO.
Also this month, officials at the plant reported that temperature readings in the pressure vessel of reactor two reached over 90 degrees Celsius. The high temperature exceeds the standard safe limit of 80 degrees, and was an unexpected jump since the company had claimed in December the facility had reached the safe state of “cold shutdown”. After the scare, TEPCO officials announced that the readings were inaccurate and caused by a faulty thermometer.