Fukushima disaster

'Toxic rumours' plague Japan, eight years on

Workers building a storage tank (above) for radioactive water and doing decontamination work (left) at Tokyo Electric Power's tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant. Fukushima wants to be the domestic leader in robotics and drones, as well as in sustai
Workers building a storage tank (above) for radioactive water and doing decontamination work at Tokyo Electric Power's tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant. Fukushima wants to be the domestic leader in robotics and drones, as well as in sustainable energy.PHOTO: REUTERS
Workers building a storage tank (above) for radioactive water and doing decontamination work (left) at Tokyo Electric Power's tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant. Fukushima wants to be the domestic leader in robotics and drones, as well as in sustai
Workers building a storage tank for radioactive water and doing decontamination work (above) at Tokyo Electric Power's tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant. Fukushima wants to be the domestic leader in robotics and drones, as well as in sustainable energy.PHOTO: REUTERS

The scars may never heal as Japan continues to pick up the pieces from the devastating triple calamity that ravaged its north-eastern region eight years ago today.

But it is waging a public relations war on the "toxic rumours" that it has labelled as the fourth disaster.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stressed that "reconstruction must not mean simple restoration" and the government has placed its bets on the Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework to build new industries.

Fukushima, Japan's third-largest prefecture in land area, wants to be the domestic leader in the fields of robotics and drones, as well as in sustainable energy like solar power and hydrogen fuel cells.

In July last year, it launched a robot test field replete with an "air control tower" so that multiple drones can occupy the same airspace at the same time.

Fukushima, too, has vowed to take the lead in sustainable energy. It wants to generate enough power from renewable sources to meet 100 per cent of its energy needs by 2040 - up from 30 per cent of its energy mix as of April last year.

Fukushima wants to show the world its resilience as it hosts games from this year's Rugby World Cup and next year's Olympics. But the local people will need convincing.

"We want to communicate to the world, from Fukushima, that new energy sources can be started even from a place that has been damaged by a nuclear disaster," Reconstruction Minister Hiromichi Watanabe told reporters last week, in response to a question by The Straits Times.

"We want to build new industry clusters, which can in turn build human resources and expedite the self-reliance efforts of Fukushima."

At 2.46pm (1.46pm Singapore time) on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the north-eastern coast of Japan, triggering monster waves as high as 16.7m that swallowed vast swathes of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. Official numbers show a total of 19,630 people died, including those from disaster-related illnesses, and 2,569 remained missing as of March last year.

The killer waves also inundated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing meltdowns in three of its six reactors.

At its peak, as many as 470,000 people were forced from their homes due to the tsunami and nuclear disasters. This figure has dropped to 52,731 today, of whom 80 per cent were from Fukushima. Some 4,000 people still live in temporary prefabricated housing.

Today, 2.7 per cent of Fukushima prefecture - or an area about half the size of Singapore - remains "difficult-to-return" zones that are under evacuation orders.

And there is still a host of challenges to the reconstruction effort, not least the lengthy decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a process that may take as long as 40 years.

While as much as 96 per cent of the plant compound is a "green zone", where only light work clothes are required - a far cry from the disaster's aftermath - chief decommissioning officer Akira Ono told a news conference last month the biggest challenges are the removal of fuel debris and preventing the leakage of contaminated water into the ground.

The International Atomic Energy Agency last November urged the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), to stop dragging its feet on a solution to how it intends to manage 1.12 million tons of contaminated water.

The government has mooted five disposal methods, though nuclear experts are leaning towards purifying the contaminated water via a method known as Advanced Liquid Processing System (Alps), before discharging the processed water into the Pacific Ocean.

This process removes all radioactive elements except tritium, which scientists say is a routine by-product that nuclear plants worldwide release into open waters.

Tepco confessed last year that complications meant Alps failed to completely remove all radionuclides - including the cancer-causing caesium - from its processed water, now stored in 1,000 giant tanks at the plant. This means the water needs to be repurified, a process that could take years, while Tepco is quickly running out of space.

Local fishermen, too, decry the option of discharging the water as one that will further taint the prefecture's reputation.

Separately, how to manage the massive amount of contaminated soil has emerged as another issue. An interim storage facility has been built around the nuclear plant, where about 14 million cubic metres of soil and waste has been transported as of October last year.

The government has promised Fukushima that the contaminated soil will be removed from the prefecture after 30 years, but The Straits Times understands that no solution has been decided on thereafter.

And there is still the question of how to woo former residents - especially young people - who have resettled elsewhere to return. Only 23 per cent have returned to former hazard zones, according to Kyodo News.

Mr Abe, on a visit to Iwate on Saturday, vowed all-out efforts to ensure proper care for survivors, even as concrete progress has been evident in the reopening of roads and railways.

His government is taking pains to stress that background radiation dose rates in Fukushima are about the same as in other major cities around the world, while its food is subject to more stringent testing than in the United States and Europe.

Even so, the challenge lies in convincing a sceptical public.

Fukushima wants to show the world its resilience as it hosts games from this year's Rugby World Cup and next year's Olympics.

But the local people will need convincing - a poll by public broadcaster NHK released yesterday showed that about 60 per cent of those from the three hardest-hit prefectures do not expect the Games to spur reconstruction.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2019, with the headline ''Toxic rumours' plague Japan, eight years on'. Print Edition | Subscribe