Fukushima fall out: Japan one year on

“Yes, even by Koriyama standards, this is cold,” the cabbie says cheerfully, snow-laden winds buffeting the windscreen. I’m in northern Japan, Fukushima Prefecture, to attend a meeting between a group of Tokyo lawyers and local farmers. A group of schoolgirls on bikes struggle past in skirts and socks, and a small, morbid part of my…

“Yes, even by Koriyama standards, this is cold,” the cabbie says cheerfully, snow-laden winds buffeting the windscreen. I’m in northern Japan, Fukushima Prefecture, to attend a meeting between a group of Tokyo lawyers and local farmers. A group of schoolgirls on bikes struggle past in skirts and socks, and a small, morbid part of my curiosity wants to know what it feels like to bare skin to such sub-zero temperatures. I can’t recall ever being so cold in my life.

My complaint is unwarranted, though. According to NGO Direct Relief International, it’s in these same conditions that around 117,000 people found themselves searching for places to live and work in the aftermath of last year’s March 11 disaster – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown.
At the local community centre where the meeting is held, the local farmers – in their parachute ski-gear and weathered skin – seem far more comfortable than the legal suits. The hum of human and electric energy fills the room: the murmur of farmers consulting with the lawyers, and a simple gas stove, stutteringly spreading warmth from the back.

It’s an appropriate combination, representing the short and long term energy woes the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors have delivered: the crash of electricity production, and the continuation of a historically fraught relationship between the Japanese people and nuclear power. The past year has seen the Kanto electricity grid in the north – encompassing Tokyo and a region responsible for half of the country’s economic output – flicker in and out of life, posing an immediate threat to Japan’s economic health. But there’s worse to come. An exodus of residents, business-owners and farmers from the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant face an uphill battle against the infamous “nuclear mura” (nuclear ‘village’) – an elite estate of pro-nuclear bureaucrats, pro-nuclear industry and the ten electric power monopolies in Japan. The compensation nightmare and social fallout of the catastrophe are tearing at the resilience of Fukushima society.

Walking home to my apartment in the hills district of Tokyo, I see Tokyo Tower – incandescently red in the winter night. It humbles the constellation of lights from surrounding office buildings. But almost a year ago, its light was snuffed out.

“Japan’s Nuclear Damages Act exempts the operator from liability “in case of extraordinary natural catastrophe. Debates are ongoing…”

The Heart of Darkness

It’s hard to imagine a darkened Tokyo. Surely it lays claim to one of the most iconic nightscapes in the world – think the neon signs of Shinjuku behind Scarlet Johansson’s silhouetted, insomniac body; the ever-bright vending machines; the incessant chatter of pachinko pokies and games arcades.
My visit comes at the end of a year that saw the city’s shops, galleries and offices cut down on much of their electricity use in the wake of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant meltdown. Harumi Ozawa, a journalist living and working in central Tokyo, said that even the city’s subway was dimmed. “When you’re standing on the station platform and you see a dark train sliding in, it really looks like a ghost train!” she said of the eerie phenomenon. “Now we have more lights on, but not all of them are back like before the disaster.

Life and light may have returned (relatively) to normal, but beneath the façade is the dark reality of the disaster. Japan’s energy production is crippled, and it can little afford to keep its nuclear reactors offline for much longer.

Radioactive Fallout?

Every disaster has an iconic image, and perhaps the one that notched such a global foothold in last year’s three-fold disaster was the grainy image of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors exploding.

A wave of radioactive energy pulses through the air – the visible wince of every country using nuclear power – before plumes of smoke, filled with debris, engulf the plant. It’s less dramatic than the aerial footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki some 67 years before, but over the past year, its shadow has passed across the country’s cities in waves of energy shortages.

It’s been bad for Tokyo’s aesthetics, but even worse for the country’s economic viability.  The Fukushima crisis led the government – swayed by domestic and international concerns about the ability of reactors to withstand natural disasters – to shutdown all but two of Japan’s 54 plants. As of April this year, all are expected to be offline.

Starved of 30 per cent of their regular electrical energy supply, the nation has been forced to rely on alternative sources to meet demand – particularly during the summer. The Japanese media report that the government estimates a 9.2 per cent overall shortage if the reactors aren’t switched on this summer.

A report from The Economist shows that the shortages during both winter and summer were less frequent than expected, largely sparing Tokyo, thanks to the efforts of households and businesses to curb consumption. News reports predict city-dwellers shaved 15 per cent of their regular electricity use, as office hours were shortened, LED lights installed and ties loosened in un-airconditioned offices.

Ozawa, reflecting on this, thinks many residents were willing to endure a darker city. “Even if it is slightly darker at stations and in other public places, you’ll still have to use [and be in] them eventually,” she tells me. “And if it helps the capital avoid a massive blackout, it’s worth it, isn’t it?”

Corporate Economics

But the energy diet comes at a price. The daily fast by ordinary Japanese citizens seems naïve next to the needs of corporate behemoths – food production companies, car manufacturers, mining giants and computer chip makers – operating in the Kanto region. These industries mean the Tokyo region, supplied by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the same firm behind the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant), accounts for around half of the country’s economy.

With these companies threatening to move business offshore in fear of power cuts – a brief outage could derail an entire line of computer wares, car steering, or jeopardise food safety standards – the government has scrambled to find energy alternatives. The energy crisis in Japan has created a boom in Australia’s fossil fuel and gas imports. The Consulate General of Japan, Dr. Masahiro Kohara, speaking last month at a Sydney University conference about the disaster, said he had recently attended a signing ceremony in Darwin between the Japanese government and an Australian liquefied natural gas company.

“The nuclear accident was a big trigger for the Japanese government to reconsider its energy policy for the future,” he said. “A key point is how to decrease our energy dependence on nuclear power … [but at the moment] the main dilemma is how to meet the gap between supply and demand for electricity.”

But investing in foreign energy reserves is not something Japan can really afford. With the world’s highest level of GDP debt – sitting pretty at 218% – it’s far above the red flag economies  of Italy and Greece (128 per cent  and 159 per cent, respectively).  Somehow it’s kept its head above the global sea of economic woe, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess.

The cultural baggage of nuclear energy may well be the sinking blow. After almost a century of nuclear victimhood, the country’s relationship with the resource is set for a troubled future if TEPCO continues to evade responsibility and nuclear liability laws are not changed. The reason Tokyo’s legal elite have travelled two hours north on a freezing Sunday is to try and solve the current acrimony. The farmers of the region haven’t been able to claim compensation from TEPCO because, according to the company, “the damage is still ongoing.”

Bureaucratic Nightmare

An old flower farmer, barely the better side of 80, is one of hundreds battered by governmental and corporate bureaucracy. Speaking at the beginning of the meeting in Koriyama, she says the uncertainty of contamination and the lack of information from TEPCO have ended visits from her grandchildren. Neither she nor they feel confident eating from her crop of garden vegetables, once a permanent fixture of her table. She’s adamant that while her farm lacks the size of agricultural behemoths in Australia, Europe and America, its smallness garners more attention and care. It’s exactly the right size for her. Its meaning is perhaps far greater than the company can – or will have to legally – compensate.
This very problem is what makes Fukushima the definition of ‘bureaucratic nightmare’. In a very large nutshell, Article 3 of Japan’s Nuclear Damages Act exempts the operator from liability “in case of extraordinary natural catastrophe.” Debates are ongoing as to whether the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami were ‘extraordinary’ in comparison to other disasters that have scarred the country’s history, but it’s certainly a clause TEPCO is attempting to hide behind.

Further constraining compensation efforts is – unsurprisingly – the paperwork. As if the disaster had not taken enough of a toll on the environment, TEPCO has produced a 60 page claim form – with over 1500 entry fields to fill out, and accompanied by a 100 page explanatory booklet – and distributed it to more than 100, 000 applicants. Claimants are expected to produce records of loans, bank statements, property ownership
– much of which was lost in the tsunami or is inaccessible in the exclusion zone.

It’s part of the reason the Tokyo lawyers have volunteered in the region. Fukushima Prefecture has around 27 registered lawyers. Many residents cannot navigate the large amounts of legal jargon on their own, and are also reluctant to complete the form at all. By submitting a claim for compensation, TEPCO has ensured they immediately waive the right to any other claims against the company in the future.

A report in The Economist late last year notes that “The nuclear industry is deeply incestuous. Not only do bureaucrats parachute from their ministries into the utilities, but their sons and daughters occasionally marry each other too.” The literal nuptials now spill over into a corporate marriage of convenience, with the central government providing aid to TEPCO to help pay the bills.

This has been done by setting up a separate bailout institution, which will be filled with money from the coffers of other nuclear plant operators, government fiscal aid and the country’s banks.  “The burden is removed from the power plants, and instead placed on the treasury,” says Julius Wietzdoerfer, an academic from the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law. Toshiaki Otsuka, a local produce wholesaler and organiser of the meeting, brings the compensation saga back down to reality. “In Koriyama, people have stopped buying things,” he says simply. “So the farmers bring less to sell, and it has meant they’ve had to reduce the size of their crops. The customers are worried [about contamination].”
It’s a reminder that loss of customers is just a blip on the damages radar, filled with a host of non-physical injuries for which TEPCO does not legally have to provide compensation.

A Renewed Japan

There’s hope yet, though. While the compensation minefield appears impossible to negotiate, the disaster may signal a dramatic change in power relations between the Japanese people and nuclear energy. “It’s been a big wake-up call”, says Richard Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat to Japan. “What Fukushima has done is refocus on the dangers of nuclear power, and a lot of that middle ground [of public opinion about nuclear energy] – the quiescent segment of the population – are becoming more anti-nuclear.”

Broinowski has recently returned from the Fukushima region and is about to complete his book examining the consequences of the meltdowns.  “You’ve got the beginning of what I think is a very strong public revulsion toward nuclear power,” he says. “It’s going to lead to pressure against [the government and  nuclear industry]. My guess is that nuclear power only has about another 10 years in Japan.”

In the meantime, Japan will have the opportunity to tap into the renewables technology and market – an area previously suppressed by the unquestioned nuclear mura. It’s too early to tell whether developing alternative energy sources – at a time when almost the entire fleet of reactors is offline and huge economic burdens call for more tax burdens – will be economically viable or sustainable. What’s guaranteed though, is that the mura inhabitants will go “kicking and screaming” toward such a future, believes Broinowski.

So passes a hellish year. As the anniversary approaches, the fallout from the natural disasters has been challenged only by the harm caused by the subsequent man-made disaster.

Madeleine King is on Twitter: @maddyking_