Opinion: What does “Fukushima” signify?

by Noritaka Egusa, Editorial Writer

Crisis reveals lack of understanding about nuclear issues

“Uninhabitable for 10 or 20 years” was the insensitive remark made by those close to Prime Minister Naoto Kan in regard to the evacuation zone around the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Because the central government, as well as the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had not given serious thought to the threat of a tsunami, the nuclear accident, which has resulted in radiation leaking from the facility, is, in a sense, a man-made disaster. Despite this fact, members of Mr. Kan's circle made such remarks as if they were mere bystanders.

The people who have been displaced by the crisis naturally were incensed, responding, “Who do you think you are? You're the ones who've driven us out of our own towns.” The government now has the grave responsibility of resolving the situation so that these people can return home and regain their normal lives as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the accident at the Fukushima plant has been raised to level 7, a ranking on the international scale which indicates the highest level of severity. With the radiation leakage reaching roughly 10 percent of that from the accident at Chernobyl, the accident at Fukushima now ranks alongside Chernobyl as the worst in history.

Groundless discrimination

The ramifications are serious. Internationally, “Fukushima” has become widely associated with the tainted image of radiation leakage. In Japan, the people of Fukushima Prefecture are suffering from groundless discrimination.

I hear that children who have been evacuated from the vicinity of the nuclear plant to the Tokyo metropolitan area are treated as if they are carrying infectious diseases. I have also heard that drivers with Fukushima license plates are tersely told to head back home.

Disposing of the debris from the tsunami disaster demands the nation's united efforts, but there are some who say: “We must refuse to accept any debris from Fukushima.”

“Nothing will grow, no grass or trees, for the next 75 years.” This was a widespread rumor in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In reality, this was not the case, but the A-bomb survivors suffered from discrimination nevertheless, just like the people of Fukushima today.

The same thing happened 12 years ago, when the criticality accident took place at Tokaimura in Ibaraki Prefecture. Due to improper procedures at the nuclear fuel fabrication plant, two people died. Although only a small amount of radiation leaked from the facility, harmful rumors were spread, causing damage to the reputation of local products.

I visited Tokaimura to cover the incident after it occurred. When I told local people I was a newspaper reporter from Hiroshima, I was besieged with questions: “Can we eat vegetables in our garden?” “Is the tap water safe to drink?”

As Tokaimura was a mainstay of the peaceful usage of nuclear energy in Japan, I was surprised to hear such questions because I had expected that the local people would be adequately informed with regard to radiation.

Following World War II, the Japanese government promoted the building of nuclear power plants as a national policy. Many people in Japan, however, know little about radiation, and ignorance is breeding misunderstandings and prejudices. Our society must do better.

Hiroshima has a mission to convey, both inside and outside Japan, the damage that resulted from exposure to the atomic bomb, the damage wrought by radiation. But have we neglected to fulfill our obligation? This is the question I asked myself while in Tokaimura.

Consumption in our society must be reconsidered

When the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture was hit by the Chuetsu-oki earthquake four years ago, black smoke rose from the transformer. At that time Kaoru Takamura, a novelist, anticipated the current crisis when she was interviewed by a newspaper reporter from Niigata Nippo. Ms. Takamura said, “The disarray caused by an earthquake, if coupled with a nuclear accident, would be more than human beings could cope with.”

Through the many years of continual efforts to reconstruct the city, Hiroshima has become a symbol of peace, appealing for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

“Fukushima” must remain free from any negative image that stirs discrimination. In every conceivable way, the breadth of human wisdom and effort must be summoned to end this crisis without delay. At the same time, accurate information on radiation must be disseminated, and the future affairs of nuclear power plants must be thoroughly reviewed by the entire nation.

Meanwhile, let us seize this opportunity to review a lifestyle in which we consume an inordinate amount of energy. “Fukushima” can serve as a starting point for changing our mindset.

(Originally published on April 17, 2011)