20.03.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan: Five Years after the March 2011 Disaster

3453453444On March 11, 2016, Japan marked five years since the occurrence of one of the most devastating natural and technological catastrophes in world history, triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Its epicenter was located 150 km to the northeast off the coast of Japan’s largest island Honshu, at a depth of 24 km below the sea bed. The height of the resulting tsunami wave that hit the coastal regions of six Japanese prefectures was estimated at 5-40 m.

The disaster claimed about 20 thousand lives and partially or completely destroyed 62 cities and villages. Several hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. An area of land about 600 sq. km in size was covered with water for some time. Later, when the ocean withdrew, the land emerged polluted with debris. The level of salinity of the farmlands increased sharply.

The third component of the disaster, triggered by the vast impact of a 14-meter-high tsunami that hit Fukushima-1 nuclear power station, consisting of six reactors, led to some specific (and more long-term) consequences. In particular, on March 12, 14, and 15 explosions were heard in the areas of the station’s first, third and second reactors, respectively.

The tsunami knocked out the cooling systems of all three reactors causing a partial or complete meltdown. The explosions led to a simultaneous radioactive discharge and contamination of the soil in the area ranging from 20 to 30 km from the nuclear power plant. By March 15, the exclusion zone (the zone no people are allowed to visit) had extended as far as 20 km from the nuclear station. Citizens residing in the areas located 20 to 30 km from the nuclear power plant were given the recommendation to abandon their houses.

There are no statistics showing the number of people relocated from their homes and still living elsewhere because many of them (mostly minors) moved to their relatives and skipped the registration procedure. The number of relocated victims is roughly estimated at tens of thousands.

The core meltdown and soil contamination are the main long-term consequences of the accident at Fukushima-1. In particular, the removal of fuel from the reactors might take up to 40 years.

Today we can see how the disaster has gradually transformed from the immediate disaster into an ongoing, long-term situation. It will be a long time before the consequences of this catastrophe are fully eliminated. We also understand that the inhabitants of the devastated areas have but a vague chance of moving back to their former homes. Plus, there is the issue of the health of the victims and children born after 11/03/2011 that will require a long-term monitoring.

The population is beginning to treat the problem in the same way an adult would treat the news about an unpleasant, but not terminal illness. The drop in public interest in the problems associated with Fukushima-1 is testimony to that.

Until recently, the government was reluctant to make any predictions regarding the amount of time required to reduce the level of radiation in the most heavily contaminated regions to an “acceptable” one so that the former residents may return to their homes. Many of them, having lost hope, are finally settling in their new places.

Meanwhile, the state expenses for the cleanup alone were initially estimated at approximately $100 bn. But it is likely that this amount will be exceeded manifold. It would not be an exaggeration to say that on March 11, 2011 Japan turned a new leaf in its post-war history: the events that unfolded five years ago affected almost all aspects of the country’s life.

Prior to March 11, 2011, nuclear power plants generated about one third of all energy produced in Japan. A moratorium on the production of nuclear power that lasted till the autumn of 2014 incited a sharp increase in the demand for fossil fuels, required to run thermal plants, procured on the international markets.

As a result, Japan’ balance of foreign trade swung to a deficit for the first time in the three preceding decades and widened in the subsequent years. It reached $115 bn in 2013, nullifying the positive trends in the Japanese economy that emerged in response to PM Shinzo Abe’s new economic policy (coined “abenomics”).

As the competition against China is toughening, the country’s economic health and free access to primary international sources of fossil fuels are surfacing as issues of a particular strategic importance.

For this reason, after an extended deliberation, the government finally authorized (in September 2014) the restart of two reactors of the Sendai nuclear power plant located on the island of Kyushu in the Kagoshima Prefecture despite public discontent. It seems likely that (despite protests) the government will be gradually restarting existing nuclear power plants, whose operation was halted to verify compliance with the new (much tougher) safety standards. It will also most probably engage in the construction of new facilities.

These moves seem very logical, as the problem of the country’s energy self-sufficiency has become a pressing issue for Japan. Before the Fukushima-1 accident, the share of energy supplies imported from abroad was estimated at about 70% of the country’s energy balance. After the disaster, it soared to 90% in the wake of the nuclear power plant’s decommissioning.

Oil and liquefied gas are mainly shipped to Japan from the Persian Gulf. Energy supplies are delivered via a maritime trade route extremely vulnerable to the potential attacks of different geopolitical “ill-wishers,” with the South China Sea representing the route’s most assailable part.

Japan closely monitors all “peripeteias” of the territorial struggle in the South China Sea involving China and its southern neighbors, some of which have already earned the support of the US and now are calling on Japan to take the same path.

It seems to be relevant to also cover the “crime and punishment” aspect of the tragedy. Of course, considering the scale of the disaster that struck Fukushima-1, it would be unthinkable not to investigate its causes and find the guilty party. Japanese public opinion identified the responsible party almost instantly (and this time the government embraced public opinion).

Back then, fingers were pointed at TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.)—the operating company of the nuclear power plant. In December 2011, a state commission confirmed the public sentiment. It also made a note of the inefficient state control and response system.

But in 2013 the prosecutor’s office did not find the management of TEPCO guilty and judged that force majeure was the core cause of the March 11, 2011 disaster.

In July 2015, however, an Independent Committee of Citizens studied the Fukushima case again. At the end of February of this year, it found three former TEPCO executives guilty. The charged executives, however, pleaded not guilty. It remains unclear what legal implications will this decision have.

To mark the five years since the March 11, 2011 disaster, the reigning Emperor of Japan, Akihito, addressed the public with words of a “deepest regret” for the consequences of the accident. He also expressed his “admiration for the police, firefighters, border patrol as well as for the employees of the central and local authorities and volunteers,” who, risking their lives, searched for victims and escued them.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, delivering a speech to parliament on the same occasion , promised to continue restoration works in the Fukushima prefecture to triple the current number of tourists visiting the Tohoku region by the time Japan hosts the 2020 Olympic games. Situated in the northeastern part of the Honshu Island, this region, comprised of six prefectures, suffered the combined effect of the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant accident.

We wish the leadership and the people of Japan success in the implementation of the program on the elimination of the consequences of the most devastating disaster in the country’s postwar history.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.