Fukushima Nuclear Accident 10 Years Later : Short Wave In 2011, villages and towns around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant in Japan were evacuated because of a series of meltdowns caused by a tsunami. Ten years later, some of the villages and towns are slowly reopening. Geoff Brumfiel talks with producer Kat Lonsdorf about the Fukushima nuclear accident, its lasting effects on Japan, and the future of nuclear power.

You can read and listen to more of Kat's reporting about Fukushima and Japan here.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster: 10 Years Later

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Hello. Geoff Brumfiel here steering the great ship SHORT WAVE. And I'm joined today by special guest Kat Lonsdorf. Hi, Kat.


BRUMFIEL: So, Kat, we've brought you on the show today because you were present at a big reopening last year.

LONSDORF: That's right. I won an Above the Fray Fellowship to visit the evacuated villages and towns around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, where you might remember there were a series of meltdowns after a tsunami hit it in 2011.

BRUMFIEL: Yes, I remember very well.

LONSDORF: Yeah. And I was there just at the start of the pandemic before all the lockdowns as one of the towns reopened to the public last spring. It was this big scene. A big gate was unlocked and pulled back.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Japanese).


LONSDORF: I'm going to step foot in the town of Futaba, 'cause it's officially open, into what looks like a pretty quaint little city street - little buildings and shops. Of course, no one lives here, so it's a deserted city street that we're walking down.

As towns like this reopen now, years after the disaster, people are only very slowly coming back, and they're not coming back to their old lives. Buildings and homes have been sitting, rotting for years, crumbled from the earthquake. And there isn't much infrastructure. Generally, it's just pretty quiet and kind of eerie.

BRUMFIEL: You know, March 11 was the 10-year anniversary of that nuclear accident. I can still remember when the meltdowns happened. I was a reporter living in London at the time, and I saw one of those reactor buildings blow up on TV. And I just remember thinking, oh, man, this is going to be as big as Chernobyl.

LONSDORF: Yeah. And in terms of immediate death toll, it wasn't.

BRUMFIEL: That's true. Yeah.

LONSDORF: But this was a huge accident. It still affects so much about Japan. And Fukushima felt all three of those disasters. The tsunami, the earthquake and the nuclear disaster all happened essentially at once.

BRUMFIEL: And, I mean, Fukushima had this other huge consequence, which is that nuclear is one way to produce power without emitting greenhouse gases.

LONSDORF: Yeah, that's right. Before the accident, Japan depended on nuclear for about a third of its power. And keep in mind Japan is one of the top energy consumers in the world. Now most of their nuclear reactors are shut down and might never restart, and instead, Japan is importing a lot of coal and natural gas.

BRUMFIEL: So today on the show, we're going to talk about the Fukushima nuclear accident - what happened, how it's continuing to affect Japan and what it means for the future of nuclear power. I'm Geoff Brumfiel.

LONSDORF: And I'm Kat Lonsdorf. This is SHORT WAVE from NPR.


BRUMFIEL: So, Kat, let's start by just going over what actually happened.

LONSDORF: So first, there was an earthquake.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: An 8.9 magnitude earthquake...

LONSDORF: The biggest ever recorded in Japan. And then there was a tsunami.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: But even more devastating was the tsunami that the quake unleashed.

LONSDORF: Estimates are about 20,000 people died in that. And that tsunami also hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant and knocked out its power and the backup generators, which were in the basement.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Nuclear officials there are warning of a possible nuclear reactor meltdown.

BRUMFIEL: And the types of reactors at Fukushima need electricity to keep water flowing through their cores. Without it, the cores start to heat up.

LONSDORF: Yeah, and that's just what happened. In the days after the tsunami, the heat built up. The nuclear fuel rods inside three reactor cores melted, and explosive hydrogen gas began to be released. That's what caused those containment buildings to blow up.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: A blast at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima.

BRUMFIEL: And once that containment was breached, radioactivity began to flow into the environment. What do we know about that, Kat?

LONSDORF: So radiation levels were high - not as high as Chernobyl but too high for anyone to stay in the area. So the government ordered evacuations essentially for a 20-kilometer radius, and then that grew some in the weeks afterwards. So about 160,000 people had to flee and leave their homes immediately.

BRUMFIEL: And there's been a lot of criticism about how the government and the utility that ran the plant handled this crisis.


BRUMFIEL: But they did manage to get people out of the way relatively quickly. And as a result, the scientific consensus is that nobody died of sort of immediate radiation exposure from the accident.

LONSDORF: Right. Yeah, you'll hear a lot of people say that. And it's true, although it's hard to prove if someone dies from cancer caused by radiation later. But there are so many more ways this disaster had a lasting impact on people's lives. And now 10 years later, you can really see that.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, I definitely want to talk about that because I personally think that counting the number of deaths is the worst way to understand Fukushima.


BRUMFIEL: It just - it ignores so many of the other problems the accident caused.

LONSDORF: Yeah. I mean, everyone's lives were just completely disrupted, to say the very least.


LONSDORF: A lot of people were living very, very temporary lives for years after the accident. I mean, that's a long time to put your life on hold. And now, a decade later, a lot of people still can't go home.

BRUMFIEL: I went to Fukushima to report on the aftermath of the disaster about a year after the accident, and I remember visiting this family in temporary housing. And the housing itself was pretty grim.


BRUMFIEL: It was tiny and isolating. And the family was dealing with a lot of trauma even a year later.

LONSDORF: Yeah, yes. And that has not gone away in the decades since. There's a lot of anxiety still. People are still worried that they got high doses of radiation after the disaster. I mean, it's hard to know, and it's even harder to be reassured about, honestly. So every nosebleed or headache is just a panic, especially if you have kids. And there's the lasting impacts of trauma. Having your whole life suddenly turned upside down and having it be all completely out of your control - I mean, there's a lot of depression. And suicide rates have spiked among evacuees. And then in the area that was evacuated, there are just all these buildings completely abandoned and rotting. And that does something to your mental health, too, to see your old home or business or town like that.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, it's huge.


BRUMFIEL: So tell me about some of the people you met there who have made the decision to return.

LONSDORF: Sure. I mean, first, it's important to note that even though 80% of this exclusion zone is reopened now, only a very tiny fraction of the population has decided to come back. I spent some time in the town of Okuma, which borders the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and there used to be, like, 11,000 people living there. Now there are just a few hundred. I met a woman named Kazuko Endo. She was gardening outside her new home, and she came back with her husband because they wanted to be near his family's land.


KAZUKO ENDO: (Through interpreter) Everything is different now. It's a different town, even if it has the same name. There are only old people here, which I guess includes me. What young family would want to live here? Any school, hospital or grocery store is miles away.

LONSDORF: And that's really what I noticed. Most of the people I met were older. They had a strong connection to the place and the land, and they weren't as worried about the long-term effects of radiation. And, you know, these people are working to make it as nice as they can to build a new home there, but it's just never going to be the same.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, how can it without kids, without schools...


BRUMFIEL: ...Without sort of the whole community returning?


BRUMFIEL: So those are some of the human impacts. Talk to me about what's going on in the environment.

LONSDORF: I mean, it's hard to say what the long-term effects are there, to be honest. But when you're there, you don't see, like, forests of dead trees or anything. But there are high levels of radioactive material in those dense forest areas in the soil, and residents are told to basically not touch it. I talked to one man, Shuichi Kanno. His family has been in the mountains in Fukushima for generations, and he came back as soon as he could.


SHUICHI KANNO: (Through interpreter) I loved hiking. I loved foraging for wild vegetables, finding wild mushrooms. But now it's so dangerous. We can't have a relationship with nature anymore. It's gone.

BRUMFIEL: And, I mean, this is so sad.


BRUMFIEL: Fukushima is, like, beautiful.


BRUMFIEL: I mean, it is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

LONSDORF: Yeah. It's a huge shame. And there's also another way the Fukushima disaster changed the environment there. Wildlife moved in. So plants have grown over buildings and taken over old sidewalks. And there are all these wild boar, which can actually be quite dangerous, that run around at night and just packs of dogs and monkeys that have taken over whole neighborhoods.

BRUMFIEL: I mean, this is really striking to me because another thing I can remember from my trip - which came, again, just a year after the tsunami - was that vast sections of the coastline had already been rebuilt. I mean, it was remarkable to me how fast Japan was able to turn that around. But the areas affected by the nuclear accident - the impacts just drag on and on. And, I mean, this has to factor into how we think about nuclear power, right?

LONSDORF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that's what is really obvious from a disaster like Fukushima. There are lots of costs to society, and the economic cost is just huge. I mean, some estimates put the cleanup of the Fukushima disaster at over 700 billion - with a B - U.S. dollars, and it'll take at least 40 years.

BRUMFIEL: It really makes you think about what is the true cost of nuclear power.

LONSDORF: Yes. This is something I was thinking about the whole time I was there. Nuclear power was sold as a cheap energy source.

BRUMFIEL: And, I mean, to be clear, it really can be dirt cheap if you do it right and you don't have a major accident.

LONSDORF: Yeah, exactly, if it's working right and if the equipment is up to date. But that's just not always going to be the case. I talked to Tatsu Suzuki about this. He's a former nuclear engineer and now a professor at Nagasaki University in Japan. He says that the disaster in Fukushima really made people completely rethink the cost of nuclear power in broader terms.


TATSU SUZUKI: The social cost of separation, the family losing the land, losing their jobs - how can you measure all of this impact estimating the risk of nuclear power?

LONSDORF: And after Fukushima, some countries like Germany have pledged to completely shut down their nuclear plants in response.

SUZUKI: Right, which, at one level, makes sense because it does have this long-term effect. But then at the same time, the entire planet is going through a disaster right now. The Earth is warming, and that has long-term consequences of its own.

LONSDORF: Yeah. And nuclear could be a huge help because it can deliver lots of electricity with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, Suzuki basically sees nuclear power as a strong medicine with a potentially strong side effect.


SUZUKI: Which do you want to choose? You may have to choose nuclear power eventually. I mean, climate change is a life-threatening event for the world. So the world may have to take medicine of nuclear power. But you have to be very, very careful. And you have other choices. I would recommend that nuclear power should be the last.

BRUMFIEL: So he's saying nuclear power is the last resort, but, I mean, kind of aren't we at the point of last resort right now? This is honestly what I wonder whenever we talk about nuclear climate change. Can the world decarbonize fast enough without it?

LONSDORF: Yeah. I mean, so whether that's possible is a huge debate in the energy world. But I called up Jessica Lovering to help think through this. She's the co-founder of an organization called Good Energy Collective, which works on progressive nuclear energy policy.

JESSICA LOVERING: Here's how I think about it and talk about it. It's definitely possible to fully decarbonize without nuclear power - like, physically possible. You could build enough wind turbines and solar panels. It just has a lot of other trade-offs. So it's more expensive. It will take longer. It will take a lot more land.

LONSDORF: She says that it makes sense that there's been this global reevaluation of nuclear power after Fukushima. But she says...

LOVERING: You know, a lot's changed in those 10 years. So it's kind of - it's good to reflect now. I think there's a lot more momentum around climate action now, and so kind of our thinking around nuclear is maybe a little more nuanced now.

LONSDORF: She points out nuclear reactors are safer, but there's still not a good way to dispose of nuclear waste or to deal with nuclear disasters when they do happen. So it's just a lot to think about, really, especially as we see world leaders committing to ambitious carbon reduction plans.

BRUMFIEL: Kat, thanks so much for going out to Fukushima and bringing us back the story. I really appreciate it.

LONSDORF: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

BRUMFIEL: Today's show was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. The audio engineer for this episode was Alex Drewenskus. I'm Geoff Brumfiel, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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