The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami flooded the Fukushima Daiichi power facility, and caused a nuclear meltdown at three of its reactors. Since then workers have been scrambling to store the massive amounts of radioactive water, well over 90 million gallons, and keep it from leaking into the ocean.
At least 18,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami. And more than 270,000 people were displaced by the disaster. Efforts to rebuild homes will take years. That situation is especially complicated in Fukushima, where people have been dealing with damage from the tsunami as well as the effects of the nuclear crisis. And three years later, people in the region are still waiting to learn when and if they'll ever be able to return home to restart their lives. In the meantime, they're stuck in temporary housing. With more on how they're getting by, here's Japan's public broadcaster, NHK.
One of the few pleasures Soiichi Saitou enjoys these days is spending time with his dog.
I walk my dog every morning and evening. That helps me more than anything. I don't have to think about anything when I'm with you right?
Saito tries not to dwell much on how life used to be in his hometown Futaba. His family farmed there for more than 500 years. They were particularly proud of their spinach. It won prizes for its high quality. Saito did worry about one thing, his house and field were about three kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi. He was concerned that an accident could occur at the plant, particularly that it could be hit by a tsunami. His worst fears came true. He remembers the repeated discussions he had with staff from the nuclear plant.
I had asked the plant's operator over the decades to protect the plant against tsunamis. They just laughed and said that kind of accident would never happen.
The nuclear accident forced Saitou and other residents to flee. He now lives in another city about 40 kilometers away.
These temporary houses were built as a quick fix solution, but about three years later, they still serve as the main residence of evacuees. Saitou shares a small unit with his wife and his mother. They say the idleness of living in temporary housing has weakened them physically and mentally. They miss the days when they worked hour after hour in the fields. But their hometown is still off limits because of high radiation. Residents need special permission to go back. This footage was taken when Saitou visited his house about a year after the disaster. He was able to stay for only a few hours. He was devastated by what he saw. His spinach greenhouses were overgrown with weeds. And rats had invaded his home. Still, Saitou did not give up hope that someday he would return. But last year he received another shock. The government announced a plan to build a storage facility for nuclear waste in Saitou's home town. His property is on the proposed site. The facility would hold radioactive soil collected from areas across northeastern Japan for 30 years. Saitou knows if that plan goes through, he'll never return to Futaba.
I remember my hometown and I wonder why were we forced to leave? Why do we have to be here? I want the government to decontaminate our land and save our community no matter how long it takes.
Many evacuees are still living in limbo three years after the disaster. Saitou is still hanging on to the hope that he'll be able to return to his house and farm, a hope that he knows is growing more distant by the day.
In Japan, government officials are moving ahead with plans to revive nuclear power. Prior to the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi meltdown, 30% of the country's electricity was generated by more than 50 commercial reactors. Previous leaders had vowed to phase nuclear out, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a new policy redefining it as an important energy source. Here's NHK with more.
Toshimitsu Motehi, Japanese Industry Minister:
We will figure out how much nuclear power we need and we will secure that amount.
The draft document adopted by a group of cabinet ministers endorses a major change in Japan’s energy policy. The nuclear accident in Fukushima 3 years ago triggered a nationwide debate over nuclear power. The ruling party at that time promises to phase-out nuclear energy within 30 years. Shinzo Abe’s return to power in the December 2012 election changed the situation. The Prime Minister called elimination of nuclear power irresponsible.
The draft energy policy adopted on Tuesday says the government will re-start the reactors once they clear the latest safety regulations.
The document also underlines the need to learn from the nuclear accident and the importance of safety. But some people question whether it is really safe to resumes operations at nuclear power plants.
Among them, the governor of Niigata. His prefecture hosts the world largest nuclear plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company.
Hirohiko Izumida, Niigata Governor:
TEPCO hasn't learned from the Fukushima accident. It's not qualified to operate nuclear plants.
Paul Scalise is an expert on Japan’s energy policy. He explains the rationale behind the government renewed emphasis on nuclear power.
Paul Scalise/ Research Fellow, Temple University:
You have Japan's very precarious lack of natural resources and the hope that by moving away from fossil fuels like imported gas, oil, and coal, you can avoid very disrupted shocks to both electricity prices as well as gas prices that took place in the 1970s.
Scalise said the energy policy will be welcomed by the business community. But he adds the utilities and the government needs to display more transparency in order to convince the general public.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is nearing the end of his first year in office. Following a landslide victory in 2012, Abe launched a number of policies to promote economic recovery. He also moved to revise the country's pacifist constitution to allow the military use of force. And the recent passage of a secrecy bill is Abe's latest move to boost Japan's defense capabilities. But do Japanese approve of this direction? A recent NHK poll suggests his popularity is the lowest it's been since he was elected.
Our interviewers spoke to more than 1,000 people by phone. Fifty percent said they support Abe's cabinet, a drop of 10 percentage points from last month. Thirty-five percent said they don't. Our poll asked for feedback on the new secrecy law. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner approved last. The law gives the government more power to decide what people can and can't know. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they disapprove of the law. Thirty-two percent said they approve of it. Fifty-nine percent said the discussion over the bill by Diet members wasn't sufficient. Eight percent said lawmakers had a thorough discussion. Seventy-four percent of respondents said they are worried the law may infringe on the public's right to know. Abe spoke on Monday and addressed the criticism over the new law.
I sincerely recognize the citizens' severe criticism as a reprimand. I should have taken more time to explain the bill. But the problem lies in the fact that we lack rules to decide what constitutes a secret and how to keep secrets classified.
Despite his poor poll numbers, Abe's going ahead with plans to strengthen Japan's military. His cabinet is expected to approve a plan to deploy more war planes and unmanned drones in the country's southwest. They'd be stationed closer to the islands that Japan's disputing with China. The defense review also calls for setting up an amphibious force to take back any islands occupied by a foreign country. The review makes no secret that the build-up is designed to counter China's growing presence in the East China Sea. Abe's cabinet is expected to approve the defense review in a few days.
And three years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster people in the area still fear the risk of cancer and other illnesses caused by consuming contaminated radioactive food and drink. Produce, meat, milk and fish from the affected areas are known to be contaminated. Since 2011, more than 300,000 people in the prefecture have been tested for internal contamination using a device called the whole body counter. But until recently, the scanning machine was too large for infants, who are the most vulnerable to radiation exposure. In response to this problem, scientists developed a new testing device for babies. Once again, here's NHK.
Tests for radiation exposure for infants began at a hospital in Hirata village. Over 30 families showed up for the test.
I have been so worried. I've been waiting a long time for my baby to be checked.
I don't know what will happen when my baby grows up. So I'd like this checkup.
Yumi Takahara lives 80 kilometers from the nuclear plant. She has long been worried about the effects of the radiation on her three daughters. Manami, the youngest, is six months old.
I'd feel safer if my baby were checked at a younger age.
This new device is called Baby Scan. It measures the internal radiation level of an infant placed inside it. Infants undergoing the radiation check are placed in this compartment where they remain for four minutes. The machine has a relatively wide opening and children can watch their parents during the checkup, which helps them stay relaxed. Professor Ryugo Hayano of the University of Tokyo headed the research team that developed the scanner. He says the main challenge was to make it as precise as possible.
Professor Ryugo Hayano:
Even though the baby, or the children, are eating the same amount of radioactive cesium as compared to parents, the amount of radioactive cesium accumulated in the body will be much less. In order to quantify the amount of radioactive cesium in the body, it doesn't make sense to measure with the same detection limit that is used for adults.
The machine makes meticulous calculations and is designed to block as much external radiation as possible. It has four radiation sensors, twice as many as previous models. Takahara was anxious to hear the results of the scan. Manami was put into the machine. She cried a bit because she had to be away from her mother for several minutes. But her body was successfully measured and the examination was completed. The results came in minutes later.
No cesium is detected.
We have been eating a variety of foods, so that was my main concern. I am very relieved to hear this positive result.
A thousand people have already made appointments to have their children examined. Thanks to this machine, those most vulnerable to radiation, infants, are finally beginning to get the protection they need.