August 4: Japan Update-Coping

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | August 4, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

The people of Japan have long displayed a stoic face and a resilient spirit in a culture that values conformity. In the wake of the dual natural disasters and the still ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, there is an increase in activism and volunteerism as people organize and work to rebuild their communities. Businesses are sacrificing for the good of the nation, rationing electricity to reduce demand by limiting lighting and air conditioning. Evacuees are mourning their losses even as they brave potentially life-threatening situations. For instance, some entered the evacuated Village of Okuma, where the damaged reactors continue to release radiation, just days before record breaking radiation readings were measured near the Unit 1 reactor and five months after the March accident.

Radiation exposure is the primary concern for many and the Japanese government is calling on citizens to assist in the clean up of lower levels of radiation in the 700 square kilometers most affected by radioactive fallout. Additional evacuations are beginning this week, as radioactive hot spots continue to be found outside of the official 20 km evacuation radius. The Fukushima prefectural government is setting up a program to do lifelong thyroid checks on its 360,000 residents under the age of 18.

Last week, residents of the city of Fukushima cleaned up the routes their children take to school after multiple radioactive hot spots were detected in the area. Citizen decontamination efforts have prompted a local temple priest to begin storing hundreds of bags of radioactive soil at the temple and to organize distribution of 20 million sunflower seeds, as the grown plants are known to absorb radiation. He says, “The people here are threatened, and I cannot leave them without help. Sacrificing oneself and taking on burden is the duty of a priest.”

Further complicating efforts is the growing list of radioactively contaminated food. The recent discovery of contaminated beef has increased concerns over food safety. Last month, nearly 3000 beef cattle from 15 prefectures were shipped out to market after eating hay contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium. Cattle shipments from 4 prefectures have already been banned, causing many farmers increased economic hardship as they struggle to balance maintaining the health of their cattle with managing their farms. Contaminated items have been found as far as 360 km from the Fukushima reactors and include spinach, plums, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, fish, tea and milk.

The extremely difficult situation is affecting the mental health of the Japanese population. Suicide rates, already the highest of industrialized nations, have increased 18%, particularly in the regions affected by the nuclear accident and tsunami. This comes after two years of decreased suicides resulting from a 2009 national suicide prevention campaign. Many deaths are being attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. Two individuals, however, have made international news after taking their own lives. In June, a dairy farmer in Soma City (43 km from Fukushima) killed himself after slaughtering his cattle herd. His note blamed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant and the lack of compensation from the government after the economic hardship caused by a milk ban. He lived outside of the evacuation zone and compensation payments would only be given to evacuees.

93-year old woman also took her life in June, claiming in one of her final letters that she would “evacuate to the grave” rather than evacuate for what would have been her second time. She also wrote, “My heart is in my mouth everyday due to news of the nuclear power plant.” Local residents in Soma have taken matters to heart and launched a “Morning Market Club” to combat “lonely deaths,” or suicides by older and disabled persons that are living in temporary housing. They sell fresh food to temporary residents from a wheeled cart and purposefully spend time chatting with them in the hopes of building stronger community ties.

A distrust in the government has led many to take a more vocal stance against an “establishment” that seems more interested in keeping the public calm than in keeping them informed. A teacher in Fukushima recently quit his job after being warned by the school administration to stop alerting children about the risks of radiation exposure. Also dissatisfied with government radiation information, grassroots monitoring groups are forming across Japan, some recording startlingly high readings even 32 kilometers from the damaged reactors. As far away as Fukushima city (60 km), parents are transferring their children to schools outside of the prefecture in hopes of reducing radiation exposure.

Citizens are also taking to the streets. Mass demonstrations against nuclear power are becoming more common, as illustrated by a 1,700 person protest in Fukushima city this past Sunday. In addition to public protest, citizens are displaying concern and outrage at public meetings. This video shows an emotionally charged exchange, as citizens of Fukushima demand to know if government officials believe they have the right to live a radiation-free life. Many of those in attendance were parents that brought samples of their children’s urine, demanding that it be tested. It is obvious that the Japanese public is becoming increasingly angry at their government’s ineffective response to the nuclear disaster and subsequent radioactive fallout.

Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the people of Japan as they struggle towards recovery.

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