Meri Joyce, International Coordinator, Peace Boat (Tokyo, Japan)
The second anniversary of the March 11 triple-disaster was marked in Japan and around the world by quiet reflection, looking back on the immense damage and suffering the triple disaster has caused, remembering the thousands of lives lost, and considering the deep impact made on the very foundations of Japanese society. Forty thousand people in Tokyo and many more around the nation also gathered the weekend before to call for an end to Japan's reliance on nuclear power, and for the Abe government to respect the majority wishes of the citizens for a nuclear phase-out − demonstrated for example in the huge turnouts at regular weekly demonstrations, and the tens of thousands of public comments submitted as part of the policy consultation process.
The real damage caused by the Fukushima disaster is not only that which can be simply measured numerically such as radiation doses, but also the more complex and ongoing social impacts. While it is true that at this stage there are no cases of deaths or diseases proven to be caused directly by radiation damage, any appearance of cancers and other diseases caused by radiation is likely to take several years and the future situation cannot be predicted.
The Japanese Government's Reconstruction Agency announced in August 2012 that more than 1,600 people passed away from "disaster related deaths" such as decreased physical condition following the disaster. Of these, almost half were from Fukushima Prefecture, demonstrating the extreme hardship local citizens were forced to bear as a result of the nuclear crisis. Many farmers and others who lost their livelihoods following the disaster have committed suicide. And even today, there are approximately 160,000 people living in evacuation both within and outside of Fukushima Prefecture, forced to live as internally displaced persons, with even their basic human rights neglected.
Such social and economic damage caused by the disaster is enormous, and difficult to fathom, let alone calculate. Little is known about the situation of workers at the nuclear power plants; agriculture, fisheries and dairy farming were dealt a devastating blow; and food safety is now a serious concern for all of Japan. On top of this, the financial and human costs for stabilising and decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant from now on will reach unprecedented amounts. These must all be understood as costs of the nuclear power plant accident.
Yet amidst these overwhelming difficulties, many individuals and citizens groups both in and outside of Fukushima have been struggling tirelessly to address these issues. While immediate activities were focused on emergency relief such as supporting evacuation centres, food provision and so on, the main focus now is on programs for the protection of children, radiation measuring and monitoring, health support, and information dissemination.
The misinformation, deception and confusion following the nuclear disaster has led to a deep-rooted lack of trust amongst citizens towards the government, and serious difficulties still exist regarding access to timely, accurate information. For this reason, groups of citizens have been coming together attempting to monitor and understand the actions of the government and other international agencies active in Fukushima, and ensure that their needs and demands are sufficiently reflected.
For example, in 2012 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it would establish a research centre in Fukushima in 2013 focusing on decontamination and health management, and hold a Ministerial Meeting on Nuclear Safety in Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture on December 15-17, 2012. Upon hearing this, a group of citizens from various backgrounds and different parts of the prefecture established the Fukushima Action Project (npfree.jp/english.html), which aims to: "raise awareness about these facts, and to ... enable those affected by the TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster to monitor the IAEA plans in Fukushima, and ensure that their demands are delivered and that the IAEA research activities are conducted to be for the benefit of the people."
Launched in October 2012, the Fukushima Action Project has held several public events together with international experts to share information about the background and track record of the IAEA, produced information booklets, and successfully lobbied the Japanese Government to hold information sessions for residents before the Ministerial Conference and display messages of local citizens at the conference venue, and meet with IAEA officials to convey their demands. While their capacity and resources are limited, such actions are serving the important purposes of demonstrating the importance of local agency, raising public awareness both amongst local residents and in the rest of Japan – in a situation where it is still very difficult for citizens from Fukushima to raise their voices critically − and finally, working towards acting as a watchdog for the IAEA and Japanese Government activities in the future.
Other significant examples include citizens' groups holding regular health consultation sessions, monitoring the activities of the Radiation Medical Science Centre for the Fukushima Health Management Survey, based at the Fukushima Medical University (www.fmu.ac.jp/radiationhealth), including seeking outside expert analysis and evaluation of the survey design and results, observing and broadcasting live online the committee meetings, and helping to provide opportunities for second opinions and medical check-ups for children and their concerned parents.
Since the first reports of radiation, citizens – despite having no prior experience or knowledge in such matters – also began to measure the air radiation level in Fukushima, followed by measurements of food items such as rice and vegetables. The Citizens' Radioactivity Measuring Station, established in July 2011 in Fukushima, has played a leading role in this and the health related efforts, continuing to conduct training, measurements, and provide information on internal and external exposure. There are now at least 26 such stations in Fukushima, and many have also been launched in other parts of Japan. Such efforts have also helped to lead the government to provide monitoring services for citizens and also called attention to discrepancies and problems to do with official measurements, and despite resource related and other difficulties continue to provide a vital service to the people of Fukushima. These efforts are largely conducted through the support of outside donors, many from overseas.
External support has, and continues to be, crucial for the citizens of Fukushima. A rural agricultural area, the region was not home to many civil society organisations or NGOs prior to the accident. Furthermore, radiation concerns meant that very few outside organisations, whether from other parts of Japan or overseas, could enter the area to provide aid and relief following the disaster. This issue continues today, where groups which have mobilised large numbers of volunteers to help in recovery activities are not able to conduct similar programs in Fukushima due to radiation contamination and health concerns.
Such limitations highlight the continuing urgent need for outside support, both in relation to resources but also provision of information, independent analysis, and solidarity for the people of Fukushima – both those still resident in the prefecture and also evacuees who have since moved to other parts of Japan. With the ongoing confusion surrounding information, including how to understand radiation and its effects, continued communication and interaction is crucial.
Furthermore, there is also a need to disseminate more information from Fukushima and Japan to the world, in order to enable such engagement to take place in a meaningful way. One effort towards this is the online portal "Fukushima on the Globe" (fukushimaontheglobe.com) set up earlier in 2013 by the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (www.janic.org/en), one of the few outside NGOs to set up a headquarters in Fukushima since the accident and which continues to play a lead role in coordination, communication and linking Fukushima citizens with individuals and groups in both the rest of Japan and around the world.
NGOs are also working to support Fukushima citizens in efforts to tell their stories throughout Japan and internationally. One such example is Mr Hasegawa Kenichi, a dairy farmer from Iitate Village, which was entirely evacuated following the nuclear disaster. Mr Hasegawa is this week in Australia for a speaking tour coordinated by Peace Boat and local Australian organisations.
Mr Hasegawa says: "I hope that hearing my story is an opportunity for people to understand more about the ongoing situation in Fukushima. It is important to make sure that what is happening in Fukushima is not forgotten. Two years have passed, but nothing has changed. We are still struggling not knowing what will happen in our future. And we are worried about the children. We are still living in evacuation. Will we be able to return in a few years from now? Ever at all? We have no idea. We must prevent any other place from suffering as Fukushima and Japan have. Human beings have opened a Pandora's Box which should not have been touched, and taken out this thing from uranium. Yet this was something which humans could not control. We need to work together to close this Pandora's Box."
While the media and public interest may be fading, the radiation and concerns of citizens are not. Although two years have passed, continued support and solidarity from medical and radiation experts, human rights advocates, and everyday citizens around the world is needed to deal with the ongoing situation in Fukushima, to protect the lives and health of the citizens there, and to prevent such a disaster from ever occurring elsewhere.
Contact: Meri Joyce, Peace Boat, email meri[@]peaceboat.gr.jp, www.peaceboat.org.