Monday, March 26, 2012

The human cost of the Fukushima meltdowns, one year later


In March 2011, a tumult of natural disasters spurred the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant located near the small rural towns of Okuma and Futaba. In the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands evacuated their homes, likely never to return.

The trident of disasters last March destroyed 90% percent of homes in the small town of Futuba. Soon after the nuclear portion of the disaster became uncontrollable, the government ordered the evacuation of Okuma and Futaba — the area is now a modern day ghost town.

Relocation extended past the small towns where the Fukushima I Nuclear Plant is located, eventually resulting in a 50-kilometer evacuation radius around the plant and the displacement of 130,000 individuals.

Not all residents relocated. A small groups of elderly individuals refused to evacuate and chose to stay in their homes.

Over 7,000 people lived in the small village of Iiate, 40 kilometers from the Fukushima plant, but by August of 2011, only 120 elderly villagers remained. One elderly citizen of Iiate chose a different route, with a 102-year-old man committing suicide in lieu of leaving his home.

One year later, over 80,000 evacuated citizens are still living in temporary shelters, and it is highly unlikely that they will return to their villages. Compensation for destruction of property is large issue as well, with nearly 60% of evacuees are without compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., citing the complexity of the forms as a irritant.

Cleanup workers also face a constant health risk due to exposure to radioactive waste — six workers exceeded the lifetime radiation dose limits in the first few months after cleanup began. Another 300 workers received significant exposure in the early months of the cleanup process.

Overheating is also a risk for cleanup workers, due to a combination of bulky protective equipment and high temperatures in reactor areas — over 30 workers suffered heat stroke since cleanup began. Academic estimates project an additional 1,000 citizens will die of cancer linked to increased radiation exposure due to the core meltdowns.

The devastation caused by this combination of natural and nuclear disasters spurred the growth of a strong anti-nuclear energy movement in Japan. In a Summer 2011 poll, 74% percent of people surveyed voted for Japan to shut down its 54 nuclear reactors as a preventive measure. At the moment, only six of the 54 reactors are in service.

Japan does possess several incredible sources of renewable energy, including a large supply of efficient wind turbines and geothermal plants. Japan received 30% of its electricity from nuclear plants before March 2011, and in order to offset the decrease in production, Prime Minister Naoto Kan put in place significant financial incentives for those purchasing electricity from renewable energy sources. Plans are also in place to construct 80 floating wind turbines off the coast of Fukushima by 2020.

The effects of this three-pronged disaster will be felt for decades, if not centuries, to come. While cleanup efforts are in place, those displaced in Japan continue to struggle and are without harbor one year past the date of dissolution. While the people of Japan turn their focus from nuclear to renewable energy, it is a tragedy to forget these displaced individuals that lived in the vicinity of the Fukushima meltdowns.

The top image is of the damaged Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, courtesy of the AP. Additional images courtesy of Statoil, Mayhew/CC, and the AP. Sources linked within the article.

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