Thursday 13 March 2014

Fukushima Disaster 3 Years On

Challenges dog victims
Life in disaster hit areas is still a far cry from what it used to be, yet Japan has to plan ahead for 2020 Olympics.
By Narushige Michishita, Published The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

WHEN Yuzuru Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic figure skating gold medal in Sochi last month, people in Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region burst into cheers and tears. The 19-year-old is from the Tohoku region, which suffered the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. The young athlete’s performance sent a beam of hope to the region still in the process of reconstruction.

With the waves of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, the “3.11” disaster left 18,524 dead and missing, 470,000 dislocated, 400,000 houses and buildings destroyed or seriously damaged, and 27 million tonnes of debris. Cumulative economic damage is calculated to have been 17 trillion yen (S$209 billion), or three per cent of Japan’s GDP.

Important progress has been made in the past three years. The number of the dislocated has dropped to 270,000, and no one is sleeping in schools or community centres. Ninety per cent of the debris has been incinerated or disposed of. More than 90 per cent of hospitals and schools have been restored.

Approximately 40 per cent of fishing ports and 80 per cent of aquacultural facilities hit by tsunami have been rehabilitated.

The hardest hit towns are being rebuilt in safer areas to avoid future tsunamis. Residents will be relocated collectively in order to preserve the sense of community.

Some refugees have developed strong personal bonds by helping each other in difficult times. In some cases, they will be allowed to move into newly built apartments together. Having lost old friends, they have new ones now.

Arduous march continues

THE situation is still far from perfect, however. More than 100,000 men and women still live in temporary houses. Constructed immediately after the disaster, these houses sometimes stand on soft ground and have become lopsided over time. This is making some inhabitants “house sick”.

Only two per cent of planned public housing construction has been completed due to the difficulties in securing real estate and contractors. Some landowners are waiting for land prices to rise. Massive construction needs have resulted in the shortage of contractors and pushed up the cost of materials. Having waited for too long for public housing which never came, some of the refugees have made the difficult decision to leave their hometowns.

Hospitals have been rebuilt, but not all doctors have returned. Some of the local authorities have provided subsidies to woo them back on a part-time basis.

Agricultural, fishing and business activities are returning, but their products still suffer from reputational damage.

It was recently discovered that approximately 100 tonnes of highly radioactive cooling water had overflowed from a storage tank at the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The incident was the latest in a series of leaks that the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power has struggled to control at the stricken nuclear power plant since the disaster.

Fortunately, the unemployment rate in the affected areas remains lower than the national average due largely to the surge in reconstruction- related activities. But the relatively high wages offered in construction and nuclear decontamination works mean that traditional service and manufacturing sectors suffer from a shortage of labour.

Construction of anti-tsunami sea walls is another point of contention. Huge sea walls can resist big tsunamis, but they might have negative consequences on oyster farming and fishing. Moreover, ugly sea walls along otherwise beautiful coastlines will not help tourism. Some governors are more flexible than others in lowering the height of walls in some areas, but there is no solid consensus on this. Behind the controversy lies a philosophical question of how to strike a balance between safety in future emergencies and the need to ensure current livelihoods.

Roads or seawalls?

SOME specialists contend that the money would be better spent on roads designed for quick evacuation rather than sea walls. But bureaucratic red tape has prevented this.

Reconstruction funds can be used to replace things destroyed by the tsunami, but they cannot be used to build something new.

Sea walls existed before the March 11 disaster, evacuation roads did not. In fact, the existence of sea walls made some people complacent and, in some cases, discouraged them from moving to higher ground.

For now, however, the solution is to build even higher sea walls.

Some of the children who experienced the quake and tsunami still suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have stopped expressing their feelings, others have flashbacks. Some respond nervously to loud sounds and small aftershocks. Truancy has become widespread. The Miyazaki prefecture had the largest number of truants per capita in 2012.

Earthquake in Tokyo

TOKYO is expected to host the Olympic Games in 2020, but it is not immune from earthquakes either.

Experts have warned that Tokyo has a 70 per cent probability of being hit by a big earthquake of magnitude 7.3 within 30 years. In December last year, the Japanese government released a new estimate that in the worst-case scenario, 23,000 people would be killed and 610,000 buildings destroyed. Aggregate damage would amount to 95 trillion yen.

Several measures are being taken to minimise the possible damage. The most important element is prevention of fire. There is an area with a large number of wooden houses lying around the centre of Tokyo. Installing high-tech circuit breakers, which automatically shut down electricity in response to a big earthquake, in wooden houses is therefore a high priority.

Making buildings and houses earthquake-resistant is another priority. However, it is hard to undertake this venture since it costs a lot of money. Elderly citizens living in wooden houses do not have many incentives to invest in this because they don’t think a major earthquake will happen in their lifetime.

Providing warning information quickly and effectively in multiple foreign languages would also be critical. It took five days after the March 11 earthquake for the Prime Minister’s Office to start disseminating situational assessment and evacuation guidance in English through Twitter. The latter was an indispensable communication tool during the crisis.

Finally, in the period leading up to the Olympic Games, training and educating some 400,000 expatriates living in Tokyo on disaster response will be another key challenge.

If these expatriates can help foreign visitors in case of emergency, they will become one of the most important assets in bolstering resilience of Tokyo.

The Japanese government contends that death toll could be cut by 90 per cent and damage could be halved if preventive measures and disaster-relief preparations are aggressively pursued.

Let’s hope the world does not have to see how well Tokyo does the job. Japan should be prepared, nonetheless.

The writer is associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme. He is the author of North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.

Life goes on in Japan, but some things have changed
By Kwan Weng Kin, Japan Correspondent, In Tokyo, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THREE years ago on March 11, 2011, an earthquake and massive tsunami crippled Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant. The closest towns to the stricken plant remain deserted for fear of further radiation leaks.

Is the Fukushima nuclear crisis under control? Is the food in Japan safe to eat?

Living and working in Tokyo, where life hums along, it is easy to forget that the problems spawned by the massive disaster that struck the northern Tohoku region three years ago have mostly yet to be resolved.

While the government plans to decommission the stricken power reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, located just over 200km north of Tokyo, exactly how and when that will be achieved remains largely unknown.

Sceptics think that the government and Tokyo Electric, which runs the Fukushima plant, are trying to hide the truth even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tells us that things "are under control", as he did last year when Tokyo made a successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

But even if the Japanese suspect Mr Abe does not have a grip on things, can they believe the other side?

Reports of contamination of fish caught near the plant, for instance, may well have been engineered by anti-nuclear groups in Japan and overseas, as the occasional Western expert has come out to say that the dangers at Fukushima are exaggerated.

The Japanese media is often criticised for not carrying much news of the crisis, save perhaps the odd report of a spike in radiation readings. But in special reports last week marking the third anniversary of the disaster, the dailies pulled no punches.

The influential Asahi Shimbun reported that even now, opinion is divided as to whether it was the tremors or the tsunami waves that destroyed the Fukushima reactors.

A detailed analysis that would yield the answer could take years, the Asahi said.

It is depressing to hear that Tokyo Electric still does not know the extent of the damage and whether it is feasible to remove all the fuel rods from the radioactive wreck, an operation for which there is no precedent.

It is unnerving to see Mr Abe pushing for the restarting of nuclear reactors and to peddle his nation's nuclear technology to other countries, even when Fukushima remains a smouldering, radioactive wreck.

So three years on, shutting out negative news about Fukushima seems the only option for the Japanese if they are to live in this country, which is now paying the price for choosing nuclear power without fully considering the deadly consequences.

But for food, which is the concern of both residents and visitors, there should be few worries.

In the months immediately after the disaster, many parents took great pains to avoid feeding small children food grown in Fukushima prefecture, which hosts the damaged plant, and even neighbouring prefectures.

Asked if she still had qualms about the food sold in this country, a Japanese acquaintance, who wished to be known only as Chieko, confided that she still checks the labelling on vegetables and shuns produce from the Fukushima area when shopping for her two young children.

For rice, she chooses a variety grown in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.

But there is no reason to doubt the government's repeated assurances that all foodstuffs are checked and only those with radiation levels within official safety limits are allowed to go to market.

Ms Chieko concedes that her continued misgivings may be unwarranted. "We go out to eat as a family occasionally, and in such circumstances, we implicitly trust the restaurant. So I guess it's largely a matter of feeling," she said.

But at the nursery where the office worker drops off her children every morning, the notice board routinely displays information about the food served to the children, including where it comes from. It never used to do that prior to the Fukushima disaster.

While life goes on in Japan, some things, it seems, have changed.

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