A decade on, Japan is still picking up the pieces after the most powerful earthquake in its history unleashed a devastating tsunami, which killed around 20,000 people, wiped out entire towns and caused the world’s second-worst nuclear disaster, whose fallout, including debates around potential health effects, is projected to keep plaguing the country in decades to come.
Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – How Did It Start?
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. local time, a 9.0-magnitude offshore earthquake hit the northeast of Japan. Its epicenter was located 373 kilometers (232 miles) northeast of Tokyo at the depth of 24 kilometers.
As a result, the east coast of the Japanese island of Honshu shifted 2.5 meters to the east, with the Oshika peninsula, located in the northeast of the island, moved 5.3 meters to the southeast and dropped 1.2 meters.
In addition, the quake triggered a massive tsunami, which flooded 561 square kilometers of land, or 90 percent of 23 special areas that make up the core of Tokyo.
The number of dead and unaccounted for as a result of the destructive wave totaled some 20,000 people. Another 3,700 people died of the consequences of the tragedy, including acquired health issues.
As many as 126,000 buildings were completely destroyed, and 260,000 were partially damaged.
The 46-foot wave also caused a meltdown at three of the four units of the NPP in the eastern Fukushima prefecture and hydrogen-air explosions, leading to the leakage of radioactive materials.
Consequences Of Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
Following the nuclear disaster, high levels of radionuclides were found in food not only in Fukushima itself, but also in areas remote from the stricken prefecture. People who lived near the power plant were exposed to external radiation from the radioactive cloud and contaminated soil, as well as to internal radiation through inhalation and ingestion of radionuclides from food.
Contamination of soil and groundwater forced the Japanese government in April 2011 to evacuate residents living within 20 kilometers from the site and create an exclusion zone within a 30-kilometer radius. In total, over 150,000 people were evacuated from the affected areas.
A decade on, many have not returned. According to a November poll by Kwansei Gakuin University, 65 percent of Fukushima evacuees have no plans to go back.
Among the reasons, 46.1 percent cited remaining fears of environment contamination, and 44.8 percent said they had settled down in new places.
Fukushima residents, meanwhile, continue seeking compensation over the government’s alleged lackluster initial response to the 2011 disaster, which, they say, left them exposed to radiation, the NHK broadcaster reported last week.
Back in 2015, the Japanese government confirmed that almost 40 percent out of 3,000 servicemen, police officers and emergency workers involved in first response efforts in the affected areas had received a radiation dose exceeding the annual norm of 1 millisievert. Five percent of the first responders had a radiation dose ranging from 5 to 10 millisieverts.
Health Effects On Humans
Despite this and reports of high incidence of thyroid cancer in children living in Fukushima at the time of the disaster, a UN report — published two days before the 10th anniversary of the tragedy — said that the nuclear catastrophe has not damaged the health of local people.
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) thus confirmed the conclusion of its previous reports of 2013 and 2015.
“No adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that are directly attributable to radiation exposure from the FDNPS [Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station] accident,” UNSCEAR chief Gillian Hirth said in the report.
Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager at UK-based nonprofit World Nuclear Association, believes that the fresh conclusion provides “greater certainty” of the previous findings “thanks to the additional data and evidence that has been gathered since the last report.”
“I hope the UNSCEAR report will provide reassurance to the people of Japan, in particular to those living in Fukushima, and those still deciding whether they will return,” he told Sputnik.
Linda Pentz Gunter from Beyond Nuclear, a nonprofit pushing for abandoning both nuclear power and nuclear arms, in contrast, bashes the report.
According to Gunter, UNSCEAR attributing the higher rates in thyroid cancers among Fukushima children to the use of highly sensitive ultrasound equipment and a large number of examinations “defies logic and credibility.”
“This is reminiscent of ex-US President Trump claiming COVID-19 cases were only higher in the US because the US was testing more. Those cases were real, with a real cause,” she told Sputnik.
She noted that tests of over 70 percent of the children with thyroid cancers showed lymph node metastasis, and almost 40 percent of them had “cancer cells spreading outside the thyroid.”
“Why then, do we not see dramatic increases in cancers and mortalities among children elsewhere who were not subject to this sophisticated testing to catch the disease early, if indeed the Fukushima disaster is not the cause?” she wondered.
The expert dismissed the anniversary report as an attempt to cover up the truth about the real health effects of the disaster.
“The rush to release this report around the 10th anniversary of the nuclear accident looks suspiciously like a politically-timed effort to whitewash the true health effects of the Fukushima disaster.
This is exactly what UNSCEAR did in its response to the Chernobyl accident, findings which were also soundly debunked by medical experts from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War,” she argued.
Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – Cleanup Process
The decommissioning of the plant, meanwhile, still continues. According to various estimates, it will take up to 40 years to address the fallout.
In February, media reported that Japan would have to invest an estimated 440.1 billion to 675.6 billion yen ($4.2 billion to $6.4 billion) in the disposal of contaminated soil, plants and other waste produced during the decontamination efforts.
Dispose of radioactive water from the plant remains one of the biggest challenges, causing alarm in neighboring China and South Korea.