Two Years On: Will the Lessons of Fukushima Go Unheeded?

The word Fukushima translates into English as “happy island,” and Diiachi as “beautiful.” But the triple nuclear reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima-Diiachi power station on March 11, 2011, two years ago today, left a mess that continues to be anything but cheerful or pretty for Japan’s outraged citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets since the disaster, calling for the country to move off nuclear power for good. The largest demonstrations occurred last summer, when 200,000 marched on then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s residence demanding the government back off plans to restart two of the country’s 50 reactors, which had been offline since 3/11.

In Western Japan, protesters blockaded the Ohi plant containing the first of the two reactors set to restart, reportedly forcing employees to commute by boat. Seventy percent of Japan’s population remains in favor of a nuke-free future, but the government has, so far, ignored demonstrators’ demands. Over the weekend, large rallies were again held in Tokyo commemorating the dark anniversary of the meltdowns.

The earthquake-triggered tsunami that struck Fukushima is often blamed for the disaster. In reality, it was a nuclear family composed of lax government regulators, a cost skimming mega-corporation and Japan’s powerful mafia, the Yakuza, that managed to decimate much of Northeastern Japan. It’s a tale that nuclear-fueled nations across the world could learn from if they wish to prevent future Fukushimas.

Approximately 17,000 people were killed when the tsunami struck Japan’s northeastern coast, but the deadly effects of the estimated 900 quadrillion becquerels of radiation released from the meltdowns will take longer to reveal themselves. The first cases of illness induced by radiation have only recently begun cropping up among Japanese children. In February, authorities detected ten cases of cancer among youth from Fukushima Prefecture.

The region’s economy is also fighting for its life. Fields of Fukushima’s famed oranges were left to rot on the vine and now the land grows wild without hands to till it. As of two weeks ago, a fish caught near the plant registered radiation levels 2,500 times the government’s recommended limit. It will likely take decades to restore the region’s agriculture and fishing industries. Experts have given cleanup operations at Fukushima a centuries-long timetable.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, a government spokesperson told reporters, “There has been no meltdown.” Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), one of the world’s largest utilities and the operator of the crippled plant, described the tsunami as an “unforeseeable disaster.”

Yet an internal report conducted by Tepco, three years prior to the meltdowns, warned that the company should fortify the plant to withstand waves higher than 5.7 meters. Company higher-ups dismissed the reports’ findings as unrealistic and did nothing. Waves nearly 15 meters high eventually bore down on the plant.

In the weeks leading up to the tsunami, Tepco also failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment vital to stabilizing the plant’s reactors in the event of an emergency, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (now the Nuclear Regulation Authority). The agency described Tepco’s maintenance of the 40-year-old facility as “inadequate” and its monitoring of equipment as “insufficient.”

Stress tests conducted by regulators found breakage in backup generators needed as a last resort to keep reactors cool. Those generators would later be disabled by the waters of the Pacific.

An independent committee authorized by Japan’s parliament to investigate the disaster reported that Tepco, along with regulators, had “failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements—such as assessing the probability of damage, preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster, and developing evacuation plans for the public in the case of a serious radiation release.”

When it came to stabilizing and decommissioning the reactors, who did Tepco call? The Yakuza. Thanks to lax governmental oversight, the mafia has long been entrenched in the Japanese nuclear industry, providing plant operators with a steady supply of poorly trained, low wage workers through subcontractor front companies to do the highest risk jobs.

Sometimes referred to as “nuclear gypsies,” nearly 90 percent of Japan’s nuclear plant workforce are contract laborers. The Yakuza draws them from the bottom rungs of society; the homeless, the chronically unemployed and members of Japan’s outcast Burakumin minority. Sometimes those stepping into hazmat suits are working off a debt they owe the Yakuza.

Nuclear gypsies have been on the front lines of Fukushima from the get-go. One worker told Reuters, “I get stomach aches. I am constantly stressed. When I’m back in my room, all I can do is worry about the next day. They should give us a medal.” Instead they are rewarded with 840 yen an hour, nearly half the typical wage a construction worker in the region receives.

Video obtained by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper last summer showed one foreman ordering workers at Fukushima to put lead shields over their dosimeters in order to doctor radiation readings. Further allegations of health and safety violations abound.

Outsourcing the clean-up job to nuclear gypsies at the whip of the Yakuza has enabled Tepco to shift costs and responsibility off their shoulders. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld employed a similar strategy during the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, outsourcing the tasks of feeding and providing healthcare and protection to troops, even – in many cases – the job of fighting the wars themselves.

“The primary difference between Tepco and the Yakuza,” a parliament member from Japan’s rightwing Liberal Democratic Party told The Atlantic’s Jake Adelstein, “is they have different corporate logos,” adding: “They both are essentially criminal organizations that place profits above the safety and welfare of the residents where they operate; they both exploit their workers.”

The lawmaker speculated that the Yakuza might care more about what happens at the plant since many members of the criminal underworld involved in the decommissioning effort live in the area, unlike Tepco’s executives who are cloistered in Tokyo highrises 160 miles southwest of Fukushima Prefecture. For them, he said, “Fukushima is just the equivalent of a parking lot.”

Japanese taxpayers continue to bear the cost of decommissioning the plant and of keeping Tepco afloat. The corporation received a $13 billion dollar bailout last year and has raised rates by 10 percent on residential customers in order to pay back the funds. The company estimates cleanup costs could run as high as $125 billion over the next 10 years and is seeking an additional bailout.

Meanwhile, the price of Fukushima in both economic and human terms has turned many against nuclear power. Olav Hohmeyer, an environmental adviser to the German government, reflected that the $3.7 billion in minimum reactor insurance that German plant operators were required to pay would be merely “enough to buy the stamps for the letters of condolence” should things go the way of Fukushima.

Germany has begun weening itself off nuclear power at the advice of an ethics commission established in the wake of Fukushima. Eight reactors in the country have so far been shuttered. A combination of renewable energy and conservation has filled the gap.

America, where corporations and not ethics commissions decide policy, has taken the opposite route. In 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved two fresh reactor licenses at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia. Also with NRC approval, General Electric, the designer of the reactors at Fukushima, has begun construction of a new uranium enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina.

President Obama was forced to scale back plans to triple the number of reactors in the U.S. after Fukushima, yet nonetheless he has remained steadfast to his commitment to nuclear power, which comprises a powerful part of his donor base.

Exelon, one the nation’s largest plant operators, has described itself as “The President’s Utility.” Employees of the firm, which also has coal and solar holdings, have handed Obama nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions over the years. In return, the president awarded Exelon a $200 million stimulus grant from the Energy Department. And, under terms described by The New York Times as “extremely generous,” the government lent the corporation $646 million to build photovoltaic panels in California.

Not that Exelon is abandoning reactors for that great reactor in the sky called the sun; they’re simply diversifying with the president’s help. If the recent nomination of Ernest Moniz as Energy Secretary – a nuclear scientist as well as cheerleader for the fracking industry – is any indication, we can expect more atomic favoritism throughout the rest of Obama’s second term.

The NRC has estimated that a U.S. nuclear disaster on par with Fukushima could cause more than $500 billion in property damage. Setting aside a review of that assertion by the Congressional Governmental Accountability Office — which found that the agency had low-balled the figure by half — it’s still quite a whopper.

Under the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, yearly insurance premiums required of plant operators are caped at $375 million. The non-profit advocacy group Public Citizen calculates this arrangement leaves taxpayers footing around 98% of the bill. Originally designed to stimulate the atomic industry, which was then in its infancy, the act was renewed in 2005 and has been padding the pockets of powerful energy conglomerates going on six decades.

Over that time span, most of America’s 100-plus reactors, originally designed to last four decades, have entered their geriatric years. All the while, the NRC has remained as committed as their Japanese counterparts to the industry’s desire to keep costs low. The agency has granted hundreds of fire safety exemptions to plant operators through a process it describes as “enforcement discretion.”

Exactly how many of these exemptions remains uncertain, since the NRC does not keep – or at least does not release to the public – a detailed tally. According to a review of NRC records by the investigative website ProPublica, fires occur on average 10 times a year at commercial U.S. nuclear plants. Flames can sever the link between a reactor and its control room. Fukushima demonstrates what happens when that umbilical cord is cut.

Why has Germany moved off nuclear just as the U.S. is further ramping up its operations? For one, Germany has been host to a decades-long anti-nuclear struggle, and people power seems to have prevailed. Likewise, Americans will have to hit the pavement if they expect the lessons of Fukushima to be heeded on their soil.

In Japan, the public’s faith in authorities has severely eroded since the fallout of Fukushima. The new conservative government of Prime Minister Shinz? Abe has announced plans to restart six reactors by the end of this year, and even to build new ones. Which is why, living under a corporate-government alliance that refuses to take stalk of the past, the Japanese public, is putting its hopes in the only forum it has left: the streets.

• An earlier version of this article first appeared at


Peter Rugh is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Peter, or visit Peter's website.