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A woman prays at a beach near the sight of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A woman prays at a beach in Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, March 11, 2019 (Kyodo photo via AP Images).

The Unlearned Lessons of Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Last week, Japan marked the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit the country in 2011, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or unaccounted for and triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the worst nuclear accidents in modern history. A moment of silence was observed across the country at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, the time the earthquake struck. Sports teams interrupted their practice to pray for the souls of those who perished. “We must never let the valuable lessons that we have learned from the enormous damage caused by the disaster to fade away,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a commemorative ceremony.

The following day, three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, or TEPCO—which operated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant when it took a direct hit from the tsunami—entered the district courthouse in Tokyo for the final day of their trial. They reiterated pleas of “not guilty” in response to charges of criminal negligence in connection with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The prosecution is requesting that each defendant serve five years in prison.

The case has garnered attention in Japan partly for the unusual circumstances that led to it. Initially, the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office twice declined to issue indictments. But an inquest panel, a mechanism by which aggrieved plaintiffs can try to force a trial, rejected those decisions, ensuring the case would be heard. At its heart, though, the TEPCO trial is a test of whether the Japanese system of justice can live up to Abe’s lofty exhortation: to preserve the lessons of one of the worst nuclear accidents in modern history by holding accountable those who failed to prevent it.

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The case hinges on whether the three former TEPCO officials knew in advance of the possibility that such a large tsunami might hit the plant and could have taken precautions. Key pieces of evidence include a prescient government study from 2002 that found a 20 percent chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake striking along the Japan Trench, off the eastern coast of Japan’s main island, over the following 30 years. Then, in 2008, TEPCO’s senior executives received an in-house report that found that the Fukushima facility could be hit by a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters, or 51.5 feet. But testimony from other TEPCO officials indicates that the company’s top leadership put planned countermeasures on ice once they realized how much they would cost.

TEPCO’s 2008 estimate proved eerily accurate. The height of the tsunami at the Fukushima power plant reached 15 meters, though it was even higher along other parts of Japan’s coastline. The tsunami inundated 215 square miles of land—nearly 10 times the area of Manhattan—wiping out entire neighborhoods and penetrating as far as six miles inland. Drowning was the cause of death in more than 90 percent of the confirmed fatalities from the disaster.

At the Fukushima nuclear plant, the wall of water knocked out the power supply, halting the flow of coolant around the reactors. That caused the nuclear cores to overheat, triggering a multi-reactor meltdown. Subsequent explosions sent plumes of radioactive steam and debris into the air. Hundreds of thousands of nearby residents evacuated, and 1,600 people are believed to have died from exhaustion, inadequate medical care and other causes related to the evacuation.

Eight years on, residents of Fukushima continue to feel the impact of the nuclear accident. Much of the surrounding area remains designated as a “difficult-to-return zone,” requiring special permission to enter. Even in parts of the nine municipalities that have been deemed safe since 2014, most residents have yet to return home. An investigation by the Kyodo News service revealed that only 23 percent of registered homes in those areas are currently inhabited.

For citizens affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the process of seeking justice has been halting and uncertain.

Even for areas outside the initial evacuation zone, fears of radiation persist amid a massive, ongoing cleanup effort. One problem has to do with contaminated soil and debris that has been removed and stored in black bulk container bags across Fukushima. There’s still no set plan for their removal, so in many neighborhoods, the bags simply pile up—an ugly reminder of a tragedy that continues to reverberate through the area. In some cases, storage pits have been created, but they are far from a lasting solution, and not sufficient to hold the massive amounts of contaminated material slated for eventual disposal. The government has also installed monitoring posts throughout the affected area, but these sensors often fail to catch radioactive “hot spots”—concentrations of contaminated particles that accumulate over time due to weather patterns.

Concerns over residual radiation are also hampering the recovery of the largely agriculture-based economy in Tohoku, the region that includes Fukushima. In the weeks and months after the meltdown, as many as 54 of Japan’s trading partners, fearing that radiation would reach their shores via contaminated produce, enacted trade embargoes on agricultural products from the region. Many governments have since removed or relaxed these prohibitions, but 24 countries and territories maintain some form of restriction despite repeated assurances from Tokyo that food products from the region are safe. These include major nearby export markets like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, reports roughly $6 billion worth of exports are affected.

This reality points to the permanent reputational damage to the people of Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures caused by the nuclear meltdown, which is proving just as hard to clean up. Like other sites of major nuclear accidents—Chernobyl, for example, and Three Mile Island—Fukushima is indelibly associated with nuclear fallout and the stigma that comes with it.

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For affected citizens, the process of seeking justice has been halting and uncertain, but there has been some progress. The verdict in the Tokyo criminal case is expected in September, though legal experts point out that guilty verdicts in cases that have been forcibly brought to trial by an inquest panel are rare. Meanwhile, roughly 30 class action lawsuits brought by residents of the Fukushima plant’s surrounding area are working their way through Japan’s legal system. A number of courts in those cases have found both TEPCO and the Japanese government liable for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, awarding substantial damages.

But many observers doubt that this legal process can spur the kinds of changes necessary to prevent another accident like Fukushima. One particularly outspoken critic is Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the former chair of the investigative commission created by Japan’s legislature to look into the causes of the accident. Kurokawa’s panel blamed a pervasive culture of “regulatory capture,” in which government agencies tasked with overseeing the safety of nuclear plants failed to exercise adequate oversight of Japan’s nuclear industry. In an interview last summer, Kurokawa said that the seven recommendations made by his commission, including the need to increase oversight by the legislative branch and review the country’s disaster management system, are being largely ignored.

Japan is certainly no exception when it comes to lax and failing government regulation. Nor is it the only country that has prioritized economic growth over safety concerns. But as Japan’s nuclear reactors gradually come back online eight years after the meltdown in Fukushima, the potential costs of failing to learn from its mistakes seem particularly stark.

Elliot Waldman is the associate editor of World Politics Review.