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Fukushima five years after. Anger and uncertainty are making way to a slow recovery

Fukushima five years on: the nuclear disaster that shook the whole world is still making the news. Its consequences continue plaguing Japan – and other countries.

Five years have passed since the 11th of March 2011, when one the most devastating natural disasters of our decade took place in Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant accident was the consequence of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, so strong that it permanently moved Japan’s main island more than two metres to the east, which caused a tsunami that compromised reactors at the plant. After the death of more than twenty thousand people, with hundreds of thousands left homeless, important questions remain unanswered amidst much anger in Japan. Whilst some progress has been made, a long road to recovery lies ahead.

Former residents of the exclusion zone, which lies within a 20 kilometres radius of the nuclear plant, are unable to return home because of extremely high levels of radioactive contamination. The public is fighting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to reopen nuclear plants in the country, which were all shut down after the disaster. The Tokio Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Fukushima Daichii’s operator, argues that nuclear power is still the most feasible form of energy for Japan, unless the country wants to worsen its carbon footprint and depend on foreign energy sources. In the meantime, the legal battle continues: recently, three former TEPCO executives were charged with professional negligence.

 

Workers monitor radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
A radiation monitor outside the anti-seismic buiding at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

When it comes to the most challenging part of the cleanup, TEPCO has not yet come up with a plan to remove the highly radioactive nuclear fuel found at the bottom of three reactors. The monetary cost would be sky high: the decontamination and dismantling of the plant could take up to forty years with cleaning costs of over 2,000 billion Japanese Yen (20 billion dollars). Damages, including payments to evacuees, will amount to over 10,000 billion Yen (equivalent to 100 billion dollars). The government has also spent more than 170 billion Yen (1.5 billion dollars) collecting radioactive soil from the disaster area, now being stored in thousands of large black bags.

On a positive note, 1,500 spent fuel rods were removed from reactor number four. TEPCO is also working to reduce 400 tonnes of rain and groundwater breaching the plant’s defenses daily, therefore preventing them from being contaminated and requiring treatment and storage. Also, workers can walk around without full-face shields or hazmat (hazardous materials) suits on parts of the site.

 

Looking to the future, the most pressing issue remains the reactors. It is not yet known where all the molten nuclear debris is and how to clean it. Since no human would survive coming into such close contact with it, TEPCO’s only choice for the cleanup of the containment vessel will be to use of robots – but these have failed in the past.

 

Outside Japan, concern is still being felt on the West Coast of North America, where higher amounts of radiation than anticipated have reached the shores of the Pacific Coast. Research conducted by marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler found that the amount of cesium, a toxic metal, in seawater off Vancouver Island in Canada is almost six times the concentration recorded since it was first introduced into the oceans as a result of nuclear bomb testing; a practice halted in 1963. This large buildup in Pacific cesium appears to be ongoing.

 

Graveyard in the tsunami scarred landscape near Fukushima, Japan
A graveyard inside the exclusion zone in Namie, Fukushima © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

In 2012 the World Health Organization reported that in the locations that experienced the highest doses of radiation, residents are 4 to 7% more likely to develop certain forms of cancer, such as leukemia and thyroid cancer. However, it still may be too soon to tell what the long-term effects of the nuclear fallout will be. The health repercussions could be more severe, both in Japan and other countries affected by the disaster.

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