Resilience after disaster: Fukushima, 10 years later

Photo of Fukushima
IAEA Imagebank/Creative Commons
IAEA Imagebank, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Ten years ago, on Mar. 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan rattled off the Tohoku coast. Causing a tsunami, the Great Tohoku led also to the most severe nuclear accident of the 21st century at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, when a power outage led to a cooling system failure of three reactors, the melting of fuel and release of radiation.

A decade has passed since this triple-disaster, and remarkable recovery has been achieved and is still ongoing. March 11, 2011 leaves a legacy of valuable lessons for community resilience, disaster preparedness and risk-assessment, among other applications.

Kai Vetter, UC Berkeley professor of nuclear engineering and director of the Institute for Resilient Communities, recalled the line of reporters waiting for him and his colleagues after a faculty meeting that Friday morning, ten years ago. In the early days following the disaster, Vetter and his students collected radiation measurements in response to concerns from residents that radiation would have travelled from Fukushima to the West Coast. Although they picked up radiation that could be attributed to Fukushima in the early days after the disaster, Vetter said this was due to the sensitivity of the instruments and did not necessarily denote any danger. He remembers drinking local milk for the news twice on air to prove the safety of local produce in the Bay Area.

This grew to become the Berkeley RadWatch Program and DoseNet, outreach programs that provide transparent information about radiation in the environment. High school students who take part in DoseNet are taught the vital scientific and engineering concepts to understand radiation and make informed decisions. Because units of radiation can be difficult to understand, the measurements Vetter and students took in response to the March 11 disaster were contextualized by comparing them to the amount of radiation a person is exposed to during a cross-country flight.

“It’s so critical in our society that people are able to not only use important science and engineering concepts, but also to understand them,” Vetter said.

Empowering communities to collect and understand their own data is an important aspect of the Institute for Resilient Communities, which Vetter, who has visited Japan for related work over 20 times in the past ten years, started in response to this disaster. According to Vetter, important pillars of the institute include education, research and community. 

At this point, over 97% of Fukushima is no longer an evacuated zone, and there is expected to be no measurable effects from radiation. The legacy and negative image created by the fear of radiation, however, still has had a lasting effect on the farming and fishing industries of the prefecture.

“Environmental contamination always brings social divisions, and creates enormous psychological impacts,” wrote Haruko Wainwright, research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and lead of the Environmental Resilience program, in an email.

Wainwright expressed that local communities in the prefecture are resilient in that they take their own dosimeter readings and understand that radiation is at a safe level, but negative outside media has led to discrimination. 

“Environmental contamination always brings social divisions, and creates enormous psychological impacts.” – Haruko Wainwright

According to Vetter, there are several lessons to be learned from this disaster, specifically about risk awareness and preparedness. While no deaths have been directly attributed to radiation, there are quantifiable psychological and indirect effects of the nuclear disaster including an increase in diabetes, injuries and deaths sustained by vulnerable populations during evacuations and the psychological effects of displacement. 

It is also important to note, in conversations about the effects of March 11, 2011, that the effects of the tsunami are often overlooked in favor of discussing and prioritizing the nuclear disaster. While no deaths have been directly attributed to radiation, nearly 20,000 people died and hundreds of thousands lost their homes due to the devastating tsunami.

“It’s really remarkable how resilient the society is in terms of tsunamis, in terms of earthquakes or volcanoes, because people in Japan have dealt with these events already, since first settlements,” Vetter said. “But we should not neglect the fact that 20,000 people died because of the tsunami. We should honor them too.”

Wainwright highlighted the heterogeneous nature of recovery, reiterating that Fukushima is a large prefecture, the third largest prefecture in Japan, about the same size as Connecticut, and home to over a million people. This variability makes it difficult to generalize the state of recovery, which is still ongoing.

“I always wonder how to inform people. If we highlight the negative aspects and difficulties, a lot of people will suffer from discrimination and economic damage. But if we just highlight the positive aspect, then the people who are displaced are left out,” Wainwright wrote.

William McMichael, Deputy Director of Fukushima University International Center, was living in Fukushima City at the time of the disaster, and was not impacted directly by the tsunami waves. He recalled, however, the power of the earthquake, losing electricity and the food insecurity that followed March 11. In response to the disaster, McMichael began organizing volunteers along the coast and getting foreign residents involved in recovery. 

“I feel Fukushima is really full of potential. I like to call this place an advanced region for 21st century issues, or SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals),” said McMichael. “Solving issues in Fukushima I feel can really contribute to solving a lot of issues in other communities around the world.”

“I don’t want people to know this place as a place where there’s no hope.”  – William McMichael

McMichael works with Fukushima Ambassadors, a program where students from around the world visit Fukushima and are able to understand the effects of the March 11 disasters and aid in recovery efforts.

Although some areas in the prefecture are still depopulated, McMichael said that communities that have returned after evacuation have found strength in their shared love for the area. 

“I don’t want people to know this place as a place where there’s no hope,” McMichael said.

Speaking on the future for Fukushima, Vetter highlighted local and global goals. Locally, he hopes the tremendous on-site recovery and clean-up in Fukushima will continue and that the community will experience revitalization. One of the issues moving forward is the eventual release of the contaminated water currently being stored on-site. Although Wainwright, Vetter, and many other experts agree it will be safe to release this water to the ocean, there is a fear that negative media portrayal will further hurt Fukushima’s fishing industry.

Globally, Vetter hopes that lessons in nuclear power can be learned and applied from Fukushima. Vetter explained that the nature of advanced technologies, specifically nuclear energy, causes hesitation – because you can’t see or sense radiation, many experience a greater motivation to be fearful. Social media and misinformation not grounded in scientific evidence and data contributes to this misperception of risk, he added.

While the full decommissioning of the power plant will likely take several more decades, and many communities are still depopulated, there has been enormous progress in the past ten years. McMichael described the future of Fukushima as a period of revitalization in which some difficult decisions regarding the contaminated water storage and other dilemmas will have to be made.

“Our wish is, we want people to take some time and just look up Fukushima, and just understand what’s actually going on here. And also understand that this place is recovering, but it’s still an amazing place full of great people, great food, great culture and great innovation.” said McMichael.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].