Fukushima's fallout still radiates across Japan

Ten years on from the nuclear disaster, Japan's trauma may be holding back its fight against climate change

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In a recent episode of the Netflix documentary series Unsolved Mysteries, residents of Japan's Tohoku region describe their encounters with spirits in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies to befall the island nation. On this day 10 years ago, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake – the strongest ever recorded in Japan – and a resulting tsunami killed nearly 20,000 people in the areas surrounding the country's eastern coast, displacing hundreds of thousands of others and destroying livelihoods, property and infrastructure.

Tsunami Spirits is a gripping 48-minute documentary that is interspersed with spine-chilling re-enactments of "ghost sightings". It is thought-provoking, as you hear both sides of an oft-made argument: do spirits really exist or are they simply paranormal sightings made by those undergoing trauma? But for the most part, it is a melancholic story of a largely rural part of Japan that has been left depressed and, yes, haunted by the March 11, 2011 disaster.

One, however, doesn't have to believe in ghosts to be haunted by the tragedy. Its economic, environmental and psychological after-effects can be seen and felt across the region to this day. But the deepest, most far-reaching and perhaps longest-lasting impact is how it has greatly dimmed the Japanese public's view of nuclear energy – which, in turn, could undermine the government's efforts to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050.

The now-defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant serves as a painful reminder of the disaster. How it came to be destroyed by the tsunami is a long and complicated story, but in a nutshell, the flooded facility lost power, resulting in a meltdown in three of its reactors. Radiation levels spiked in the following few days after one of the reactors’ walls was damaged by a blast, forcing the evacuation of more than 160,000 people. Widespread anger, initially directed at Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) for its mismanagement and poor communication, evolved into an anti-nuclear movement that forced the government to shut down all the country’s 54 nuclear reactors.

These closures have led to unintended and unpleasant consequences, including a gradual rise in air pollution, as Japan turned to coal and liquefied petroleum gas for its power. They have also hurt the average citizen’s pocket, with electricity rates going up nearly 40 per cent in subsequent years. Nuclear power is cheaper than other sources and had greatly benefited an energy resource-poor country like Japan for decades. The relatively less space taken up by nuclear power plants, compared to solar and wind farms, had been a bonus to the mountainous and thickly forested chain of islands.

But the most profound impact of the closures is on Japan's climate fight.

As part of its commitment to the 2015 Paris climate accord, the government is banking on nuclear energy for it to reach its carbon-neutrality goal in three decades' time. But Tokyo's shorter-term pledge, to cut emissions by 26 per cent by 2030, has already hit a snag: nuclear energy currently accounts for just six per cent of Japan's energy mix, falling well short of the 22 per cent requirement (before the Fukushima tragedy, nuclear had accounted for 30 per cent of the mix). Grassroots opposition to the reopening of the country's nuclear plants is strong: almost 40 per cent of those consistently polled want all plants shut down permanently. Local governments, which have jurisdiction over these plants, are wary of reopening them. Courts, meanwhile, are turning down appeals to do so.

Tokyo can only sway minds by winning back the public trust

The likelihood of missing the 2030 target is already raising questions about whether the 2050 goal is feasible. As the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, Japan’s energy future is critical in the global efforts to tackle climate change. But clearly, public opinion has put the government in an extremely difficult position.

There may be a temptation for those who follow Japan's post-war history to suggest that Tokyo can win over a reticent public on nuclear matters. It took only a decade after the US dropped atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people, for Japan's first research reactor to hit first criticality, which is the normal operating condition of a reactor.

Bloomberg’s Stephen Stapczynski has written in depth about how the Japanese and US governments worked with Japan’s largest corporations and media outlets to shape public opinion in favour of nuclear energy. Within 15 years, government enacted a law making nuclear energy development a strategic priority. And between 1970 and 2010, it installed 54 reactors.

It would be a mistake for nuclear proponents to hope that such a campaign in Japan could be repeated at such speed. That the Fukushima disaster was an accident and not the result of an attack by an external enemy makes the comparison irrelevant to begin with. But even if one was to do it, the mood is decisively more sombre today than it was in the 1950s for a variety of reasons. That Japan is earthquake-prone is also a source of concern; just last month Fukushima was hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

Participants pray and observe a moment of silence towards the sea at 2:46 p.m. (05:46 GMT), the time when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off Japan's coast in 2011, at Arahama district in Sendai, northeastern Japan, March 11, 2021, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis.  Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.
The disaster killed almost 20,000 people. Reuters

Tokyo can only sway minds by winning back the public trust. For this, it will need to work much harder at information-sharing and transparency. According to a Bloomberg report, the ministry of economy has still to confirm to the country’s influential chamber of commerce its plans to build new reactors – a necessary step towards increasing nuclear production by 2050. Could the announcement of commissioning next-generation reactors with updated technologies not help improve confidence?

Much is desired, too, by way of clarity from key government-run companies. Tepco, which continues to be viewed with scepticism, has conceded that its website can be better presented so that the information it puts out can be more easily understood. A tendency to bury data and downplay bad news, as it has done in the past, will only further raise public suspicions.

What happened in and around Fukushima on that fateful day 10 years ago was no doubt incredibly tragic and the Japanese public will be haunted by it for many, many years to come. This makes Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's task of rebuilding the country's nuclear industry that much more difficult – something even Shinzo Abe, his predecessor, failed to complete with considerably more political capital. Worryingly for Mr Suga – and the country's nuclear proponents – the clock is ticking.

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil is an assistant comment editor at The National