‘Great Walls’ and Geiger Counters: Life After Japan’s Triple Disaster

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‘Great Walls’ and Geiger Counters: Life After Japan’s Triple Disaster

Ten years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, the rebuilding process continues for the few who have returned to the region.

‘Great Walls’ and Geiger Counters: Life After Japan’s Triple Disaster

Streets that lead into some residential areas are closed with barricades and are indicated with signs for the exclusion zone in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Hiro Komae

A long steel fence stretches along the perimeter of Tomioka city. It is the only physical barrier between the radioactive areas and where residents have been partially allowed to return. Here begins the exclusion zone: 370 square kilometers of land still undergoing decontamination. The damaged reactors of the Fukushima plant are less than 10 kilometers away.

Hiroshi is a 60-year-old security guard who mans the fence. He used to live here before the great earthquake and subsequent tsunami that caused the meltdown at the plant 10 years ago. He retired and decided it was time to do something to help: “I feel I owe a lot to the city where I was born.” He works four shifts a week, morning to evening, and has no fear whatsoever of the radiation. “If you keep on this side of the fence you are fine,” he says confidently pointing to the concrete road where we stand.

Over the other side of the fence, you can spot the bulldozers. Whether in hot or freezing weather, like today, the operators go on and on, excavating tons of dust from the still-contaminated ground. They make between $4,000 and $5,000 a month working from 8 to 5, a regular salaryman’s life that very few would trade for.

Then there are the most intrepid of them all: the workers at the Fukushima plant. Many of them live right here in Tomioka city, and you can easily spot them in the empty, desolated streets. Most of the former inhabitants left long ago.

Hirofumi is 55 years old. Today is his day off. He is responsible for collecting the contaminated rainwater, significantly underestimated in the initial forecasts, into huge cisterns all around the nuclear plant. So far they have erected over 1,000 of them, “but there is no more land available to build any more tanks,” he says.

The content of the tanks (which every day swells by 150 tons), after being purified and diluted, should be released into the sea. “It was all well planned for after the Tokyo Olympics, but when the Games were postponed everything had to be postponed,” Hirofumi explains.

The discharging of tons of liquid into the ocean, which many fear is not entirely safe, does create headaches. Experts have openly said that it is no longer the science problem to convince the public that the water is safe. Not matter how much they try, the idea of purifying contaminated water and liquidating it into the sea doesn’t appeal to anyone.

So what to do? “The deadline is the summer of 2022, by then some solution will have to be found,” Hirofumi concludes.

The deep distrust sparked by the Fukushima meltdown lingers in other ways as well. Japanese are still not at all confident about the future of the nuclear energy: 65.5 percent of them view it “negatively,” a figure almost unchanged in 10 years. And the fact that it will take over $70 billion (the cost of five Olympics) and at least another 30 years to dismantle the damaged plant does not help convert the skeptics.

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide himself, on his debut in October, hinted at the need for nuclear energy but ruled out the construction of new power plants. The strategy is to gradually restructure the semi-obsolete existing ones, extending their life for another 20 years. Despite the low profile, the road is, politically speaking, all uphill.

The government has announced the goal of becoming “carbon neutral” by 2050, with the share of renewables going from 19 percent of the current total energy production to 22-24 percent in 10 years. But to avoid gulping down titanic portions of fossil fuels, high in greenhouse gases, 20-22 percent of energy needs will still be milked from atomic energy, a level that now sits at just 6 percent. (It was 29 percent pre-Fukushima.) Of the 55 existing plants, nine are in operation, 22 will be dismantled and seven have obtained approval to restart; the rest are awaiting a decision.

One of the reactors in the warm-up phase is that of Onagawa, which is located 174 kilometers from Fukushima ground zero. The city was completely eradicated by the 2011 tsunami, so much so that today it no longer even resembles a typical Japanese coastal village. It is more like a newly opened suburban outlet.

Few are aware of it but on that fatal March 11, there could have been two nuclear accidents. The Onagawa power plant was barely saved by its five safety systems, of which only one actually worked.

In November of last year, the governor of the prefecture met with the mayors of 35 towns and villages adjacent to the plant, and a compact opposition emerged. The mayor of Kami raised the issue of the evacuation plans (currently non-existent). The one from Misato feared that the risk of restarting reactor two will lead to the consequent restart of number three, with the risk of keeping the plant for another 40 years. The mayor of Shikama stressed that there is still no final treatment plan for high-level radioactive waste. All valid objections – yet the city closest to the power plant, the homonymous Onagawa, gave the green flag. Once the infrastructure for the evacuation plans is completed, the plant should start operating again.

But that is not guaranteed. Restarting a nuclear plant is a complicated task made worse by the layers upon layers of bureaucracy involved.

Ron McFarland, who has lived in Tokyo for over 40 years, has personally dealt with the dismantling of five plants. “There is a sticky hierarchical pyramid in Japan,” he says, “An operator manages the plant, a general contractor physically builds it, and then there is the company that designed it. Above all there is the government, which for contingent reasons can freeze the decision at any time.”

That’s why, he says, last year he gave up. For the sale of a single piece of machinery he had to obtain approval from each of the individual players, only to discover, after months, that there was no more demand because Tokyo, short of funds, had blocked everything.

The surreal demands generated by the formality of the Japanese bureaucracy can be grasped in one specific case. In the hours following the great tsunami that left only a handful of buildings standing in the whole town of Onagawa, with the electrical system gone, the mayor received urgent instructions from the prefecture to communicate the number of dead and injured and to send it to them via… fax machine.

According to Douga-san, a technical consultant for the municipality’s fisheries sector, the danger doesn’t come from the nuclear power plants per se, but from earthquakes and tsunamis: “Those are unpredictable.”

For this reason, a mighty 91-kilometer-long wall has sprung up along the coast of Iwate prefecture.

In Miyako, a gigantic 5-meter-high reinforced concrete door – already behind a 10-meter wall – automatically seals at the first tsunami warning, cutting out latecomers as in the worst nuclear nightmares of the Cold War. Locals have already renamed it banri no choujo, the great wall. But the solution ended up making everyone unhappy.

“Not only does it shield the view of the sea, but we would have preferred that the government had spent the money providing a home for the displaced rather than this,” says Kiyoshi-san, whom I find walking a dog along the great barrier.

Of course, natural disasters do not rage against the nuclear power plants alone. Wind turbines sometimes collapse during the typhoons that regularly ravage the archipelago, and during winter, solar panels need a new technical trick to get rid of the 40 to 50 centimeters of heavy snow that makes them temporarily inoperable. Still the renewables have one huge advantage: They don’t need any radioactive waste disposal.

Today the radioactive materials of the to-be-dismantled Japanese nuclear power plants either remain parked inside the plants themselves or are transported on very expensive journeys to the cold north at Aomori where they are then buried 70 meters underground inside barrels solidified with mixtures of cement, bitumen, and mortar. There they will remain – for up to 100,000 years.

The heaviest economic burden, however, is linked to the dismantling of the plants themselves. The technically thorny procedure requires them to be cut into pieces with super expensive diamond machinery, which will in turn be demolished and disposed of in special deposits. For each plant, between $600 million and $950 million must be sacrificed and the operation can last up to 30 years.

It is therefore understandable why around the recently decontaminated areas in Fukushima there is already a huge flourishing of renewables. The fertile fields that 10 years ago teemed with rice and vegetables today are today filled with solar panels, which in turn fuel all the energy needed for the few heroic inhabitants who have chosen to return.

One of these is the 64-year-old Takao, whom I meet just before crossing the border that leads from Tomioka to Futaba. He lives with his wife and his 20-year-old son in a small house not too far from where a menacing Geiger counter reports radiation at 0.37 microsiverts per hour.

For four years he has consumed everything he grows – cabbage, turnip, kiwi. He doesn’t touch the water, but not for the reason you might think: There’s “rust in the pipes,” he says. “The house was abandoned for years. I’m honestly not concerned about the radiation.”

Admittedly, asking about the dangers of being here to the residents who have returned feels like asking the sommelier if the wine is good. The statistics are clear: 90 percent of Tomioka’s former residents have made the opposite choice, and decided this is no longer a safe place for them.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi is an Italian journalist and the correspondent from Japan for both La Repubblica and La Stampa.