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Japan's Nuclear Disaster: Three Years Later

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Japan's Nuclear Disaster: Three Years Later

Japan's Nuclear Disaster: Three Years Later

Japan's Nuclear Disaster: Three Years Later

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It's been more than three years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japam. NPR's Arun Rath talks to Time Magazine East Asia correspondent Hannah Beech, who recently toured the plant.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's been more than three years since the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at Japan's Fukuskima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As Time magazine's Hannah Beech reports, the country is still reckoning with the disaster. In the ongoing fight to prevent further damage, thousands of workers swaddled protective gear clock in every day at the plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO. Recently, Beech toured the crippled nuclear plan and witnessed the lingering devastation in the surrounding countryside.

HANNAH BEECH: There is a 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant, so nobody can essentially live within that area. And it's a really surreal place to go into because as you're driving in, it's almost like a Hollywood movie. These places have been depopulated, and they're preserved in amber. You see noodle restaurants - ramen restaurants. You still see the chopsticks on the counters. And yet, it's been completely untouched since March 2011. Now, the people who live there, which is about 125,000 people - most likely, for the rest of their lives, they will never be able to go home.

RATH: You visited the control room at the plant where you saw evidence of the men that you wrote about, who were desperately trying to avert a nuclear meltdown. Can you describe that?

BEECH: Sure. I mean, just to get into the plant, it is - again, it's like a Hollywood movie. You have to put on these respirator-like gas masks, three pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks and then this, you know, weird hazmat suit that makes you look like the Michelin Man.

And what was very strange about walking into this place is that it feels - it feels completely dead. You don't see that many people moving around. And those people that you do see, there's not a palpable sense of urgency, but you realize that the work that they're doing is so important. And they may not be getting the full of backing that they should to be able to do this.

RATH: After the disaster, all the nuclear power plants in Japan were taken off-line. What is the status of nuclear power in Japan today?

BEECH: Well, yeah. So right now, 48 nuclear power plants are shuttered. The current government is now pushing to start up those nuclear power plants that can pass a higher level of kind of stringent tests. And there are a couple that look like they may potentially be able to come online soon. From the government's perspective, the costs of having stopped nuclear power have been expensive. I think the government's figure is something $35 billion a year.

And from an environmental perspective, Japan's greenhouse gas emissions have gone up because, you know, you're replacing clean nuclear with fossil fuels. At the same time, I think public opinion currently, which was relatively pro-nuclear before the accident, is quite understandably anti-nuclear at this point.

RATH: You know, there's been a lot of reporting about how unprepared TEPCO was for the disaster, in spite of what some would say was ample warning. With this push to restart the reactors, you know, is their faith from the people or assurance from the government that there are - have been enough reforms to prevent this from happening again?

BEECH: I think from the government's perspective, they said, look, we've put together new commissions, new ways of bureaucracy to be able to better regulate the power plants. But the question is, has the government been able to put in enough safeguards, to change the culture enough so that something like this can't happen again? And I don't know the answer. I think that if you look at the polls, there is still a lot of skepticism from the Japanese public as to whether that has been done.

RATH: Hannah Beech is East Asia bureau chief for Time magazine. Hannah, thank you.

BEECH: Thank you very much.

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