Fukushima Cannot Divorce Itself From the Nuclear Plant - The nuclear power generator business is int
May 19, 2011
Minamisoma City, Fukushima, Japan.
Near the roped-off border of the 20 kilometer radius area of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, I found the National Road 6, the regional arterial roadway, was closed off in the middle of rice fields and there a checkpoint was set up. There was a familiar-looking electric bulletin board, flashing letters saying “No Entry due to Basic Act on Disaster Control Measures.” There stood 10 or so policemen stopping cars.
“Can you let me pass through here?” I asked. “I am a news reporter.”
“I’m afraid not.” replied a young policeman wearing a helmet that read “Kyoto Region Police.” (I guess he is from one of those loaned police forces.)
I decided to take a photo of the checkpoint area. It was about 6 o’clock in the evening. The sun was sinking into the horizon in the west. Wild cherries were in full bloom. The area bathed in orange light was strikingly beautiful.
Young construction workers in uniform coming out of the restricted zone.
While wandering about the checkpoint area for about an hour, I noticed something strange. Crossing the 20 kilometer line, beyond which was supposedly an uninhabited land, automobiles appeared one after another.
A few young men were sitting in a white minivan. Through binoculars, I realized they were in workers’ uniform. They were smoking cigarettes, shoes off and resting their feet on the dashboard.
It was followed by a white truck. On the side panel, I saw “XXX Builder” logo. Then, there came a white light station wagon, followed by a dump truck. So many of them one after another.
The police stopped each one of them and seemed to be checking some documents. No one wore a hazmat suit.
I turned around and saw a policeman running toward me.
“Excuse me, but please stop taking pictures.”
The police man turned his head toward the vehicle. “I don’t know why, but it’s not allowed.”
I let go of my camera. Through the window of a car passing by us, a young man glared at me. I sensed the highly-charged atmosphere.
Only one vehicle with people wearing hazmat suits passed by. It was a light station wagon with two workers. As soon as the vehicle exited the checkpoint, the vehicle entered into the parking space by the road and they came out to take off their hazmat suits. Then, the vehicle drove off.
A man came out of a roadside diner. He was about to lock the door to go home. I asked why so many people come out from the restricted zone.
“Oh, those? Those people are workers for the clean-up or some other jobs in the Nuclear Plant.”
I was shocked.
“Are they really working in the restricted zone?”
“Yah, there are many people commuting to the Nuclear Plant. Some people come from as far as Sendai.”
He laughed and said this is nothing special in the area. He told me, in fact, those drivers had been major source of his business before 3/11.
I realized it was a scene of “the daily commute” : people going home passing through the highly contaminated restricted zone from the Nuclear Plant.
The Power Plant provides “a great job” with stability.
In Minamisoma-shi, it was easy to find people whose job was related to the Nuclear Plant.
In a business hotel, in the city center area where I stayed, I happened to encounter a man who used to work at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant till last year.
I went back in my hotel and read some local papers in a couch nearby the front desk, when a grey-haired gentleman wearing glasses, skin tanned by the sun, sat in front of me.
We chatted: Radiation dose in Iitate-mura, located in the north west of Minamisoma-shi, is as high as 4.0 micro-Sievert/hour and the residents have been forced to evacuate. On the other hand, at the sea shore area of Minamisoma-shi, situated inside the 30 kilometer radius line, the number is as low as 0.53 micro-Sievert/hour. It is truly paradoxical.
“In my work place, the subject of micro-Sievert never came up in our conversation.” The gentleman smirked.
“3.5 micro-Sievert could be a normal, every day work environment for me. Our dosimeters could only measure over 10 micro-Sievert in the first place.”
Listening to this, my heart was pounding.
“I assume such a job must be at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant?”
The man nodded. And, he even said that he had been working in the building where the disaster happened.
Cloths used to wipe water or dirt off in the building, plastic sheets used to cover motors and so forth, are regarded as “radioactive wastes” and it is strictly prohibited to take those items off the site. It is bound by a law. Therefore, those items must be incinerated on the site. Such was his job, he said.
He wore a hazmat suit, which was called a “coverall” and he also carried a dosimeter.
“Power Plant jobs are great as they are so secure.”
What do you mean by secure? I asked. The man took out a used copy paper and using a pen, quickly drew a rough chart. It was a schedule of routine inspection on nuclear reactors.
“According to law, a nuclear reactor must receive a routine inspection every year, which takes about three months. I guess, the electric power company might have complained that it was too long a time. Suddenly, the law changed to make it OK with 38 days only now.
The man grinned.
“That means, constantly, one of those nuclear reactors - Reactor 1, Reactor 2 and Reactor 3 - is under inspection. That is the why this job is so secure.”
Except from June through August, the period the demand for electric power hits its peak, one of those reactors must always receive such an inspection. Then, for such inspection services, jobs are given to some construction companies.
“Such inspection work generates 5,000 employments per year in total. It is quite secure, isn’t it?”
The man mentioned a specific number, “5,000 people.” They come to work there not only from “Minamisoma-shi, but also from Soma-shi (neighboring city to the north) and Iwaki-shi. This is a norm in this area.” The man said.
Now, I know. The “mysterious commuters” I saw at the 20 kilometer line checkpoint are people like this man.
Residents who refuse to talk about the TEPCO and the Power Plant
While I was interviewing residents in the no-man’s-land between 20 kilometer radius line and 30 kilometer radius line of Minamisoma-shi, who are forced to suffer every day, I felt the strong existence of the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Nuclear Power Plant here and there.
It was when I was setting up an interview with an older lady who lived on the outer edge of 20 kilometer radius line. Through an intermediary, she responded “come on over my house any time” once. I was looking forward to meeting her as the intermediary told me “she is really talkative, so it’s going to be very interesting.”
However, next morning, I got a call five minutes before the appointment.
“I’ve decided not to do it after all,” she said. I asked about the reason. She got tongue-tied on the other end of the line. “It seems her son came home later that day and told her not to talk to the media. She suddenly turned cold,” the intermediate said apologetically.
Later, as many of my interview requests were turned down, I learned that, behind such incidents, there lied implications like:
“As my relatives or family members work there, I wouldn’t dare say anything negative about the Nuclear Plant and TEPCO.”
“I would never talk with the media or outsiders on the subject.”
“If I say something negative to the media, I would be ostracized by my neighbors.”
“If I talk, I never know what kind of adversities I might suffer later.”
I explained my intention was not to ask them to criticize the Nuclear Plant or the Tokyo Electric Power Company. I just wanted to hear from them about inconveniences of living in no-man’s-land. It didn’t work. “You never know of the consequences.” Everybody is afraid of “something invisible.”
The accident at the Nuclear Plant contaminated their homeland with radiation. Even when the situation became so bad, it remained taboo to talk about TEPCO and the Nuclear Plant.
Back in Tokyo, I called the owner of a local company and requested he talk to me. But, when I went there to meet him, he rejected my request. “You never know what the media might write,” he said. I visited the company physically, but, this time, an employee came to the door and told me to leave.
I made a last visit, with a box of sweets as, at least, I wanted to introduce myself to him. He finally let me in. Perhaps he felt pity on me.
“Literally, I am surrounded by people who are hired by TEPCO or other Nuclear Plant-related organizations.”
I sat face to face with him in the sofa of the guest room. He was nervous about the interview. He said if I was planning to write an article, he wanted to see it beforehand. I turned down the request, saying “it is not possible as it would fall into the category of censorship.” Because of this exchange, I withhold his name here.
Opposition to Nuclear Plant makes you “a crazy person.”
“There are a number of small companies that hire family members plus five or so employees earning modest sales in this neighborhood. Such companies get jobs [from the Nuclear Plant] and various people are involved in businesses related to the Nuclear Plant. We also hear inside stories. So, the more connected you are to the local community, the more difficult it becomes to raise your voice.”
--- Can you describe it in more specific manner?
“For us, it is not just ‘TEPCO.’ It means a specific person like ‘Mr. A’ or ‘Mr. B’ of ‘TEPCO.’ Each one of us is related to the company in such a way. Moreover, there is no bad person among the employees working in the TEPCO site. Those individuals have well-integrated themselves in the local communities and have earned understanding and trust. “
--- Do you see Nuclear Plant-related money floating around near you, in the form of cash contribution or subsidies?
“Of course, it is a matter of money as well. They spend enormous amounts of money to win the locals’ support. All of us benefitted from cash contributions. We owe the company a lot. TEPCO wants us to believe it is safe.”
--- Is it hard for you to criticize [TEPCO]?
“Yeah, because we’ve taken (the money), right? It’s like we are already an accomplice in the crime. (Laugh) When a nuclear power plant gets built in a region where no industry exists, suddenly the area becomes rich. An insane amount of money - much more than that might come from a regular power plant - gets strewn around the area. People are aware of it somewhere in the back of their head.”
---- Are there still people left protesting against nuclear plant?
Then, it came down to “extremists are opposing it” or “people opposing it are crazy.” In an atmosphere like that, no one wanted to speak up.
“Forty years ago when the Nuclear Plant was built, there were people who considered having a nuclear shelter. But, recently, we began to think that had been perhaps an overreaction, before this accident took place.”
--- Did the Nuclear Power Plant make your life richer?
“Everybody thought our lives had become more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘civilized.’ Hot water gushes regardless in the morning or at night. A new hall was built. Celebrities like Mariko Senju came for concerts, plays, shows and so on. TEPCO would provide funding and invite local residents for those events with a minimal ticket price. “I know even J-Village Stadium is funded with money from TEPCO. The whole city relies on TEPCO for its existence. In that environment, people gradually forget that they used to oppose the nuclear power plant. Actually, instead of opposing, the city mayor and town mayor in the area lobbied to the government to build another nuclear reactor as ‘once the old reactor stops working, we lose employment,’” the man commented wryly.
--- “I am angry,” but still cannot bring my criticism out.
He talked for more than three hours. Distribution systems in the Minamisoma-shi came to a halt, making the city virtually a ghost town. This man’s company was also being pushed to a near shutdown state.
“I love natural beauty of this place. That’s why I live here. The fact that its nature was damaged in this manner makes me angry.”
But still, he suppresses his criticism of TEPCO and nuclear electricity generation. The local lives and the Power Plant are enmeshed deeply at this level.
“Actually, I had a house in Ookuma-machi.” Said the man previously mentioned, who used to work at the Nuclear Plant.
Ookuma-machi is the town where the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is. Of course, it is now one of the restricted zones. The man has not returned his own home since 3/11. He ended up renting an apartment.
“I heard the radiation level is too high even after decontamination efforts. They say, if you try to wash it, radiation will flow into the sewage system. Even if you paint over wall surfaces, there still remains radiation…”
He fell silent. And then, he mumbled as if he is probing for possibilities.
“I may not be able to go back home for another 10 years… Or, may be never….”
The way things stand, are those people in Fukushima dragged to share the same fate with the nuclear plant without uttering a word? The thought made me profoundly depressed.