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JAPAN: Vulnerability and Uncertainty Prevail In Wake of Nuclear Disaster

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Mar 22 2011 (IPS) - Accidents at four nuclear power reactors hit by the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima have left thousands of residents in the vicinity facing an uncertain future as they prepare for evacuation orders to protect them from dangerous radiation contamination.

Fear and anger at the growing vulnerability of their situation has also hardened public opposition to nuclear power in Japan, with more people calling for a review of Japan’s much touted safety technology and policies supporting alternative energy sources.

Nuclear power from 54 operating reactors provides 30 percent of local energy needs. Coal, oil and other sources provide the rest. Japan, a resource poor country, has staked its economic future on nuclear power. Given its almost negligent carbon dioxide emissions nuclear power is becoming more important in light of climate change as well.

In a blow to Japan’s nuclear industry, Katsutaka Idogawa, mayor of Futabacho, a hamlet that borders the Daicihi Fukushima power plant, told the press Tuesday that it is high time the local population begins to move away from its dependency on the nuclear plant that they host.

“The disaster has shown us we must review our policy of accepting the nuclear power plant. We must develop new ideas to have other industries to bring us a stable economy,” he said in an article published by the ‘Asahi Newspaper’, a leading daily.

The 7,000 people of Futabacho are, however, involved with the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear power plant – employed either as workers or in other operations. The village is located 10 kilometres away from the 20-kilometre exclusion zone demarcated by the government.

The latest count of people leaving Fukushima numbers 25,000, according to local authorities. They join the overall 350,000 evacuees leaving other badly damaged areas to restart their lives in other localities that have begun accepting the disaster displaced populations.

Ayako Ooga, 38, and her husband are one of the affected families. The couple who live in Ookuma-machi, just six kilometres from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, said they left the night of the quake that struck on Mar. 11 – mostly because of fear about radiation contamination. “Our house was damaged but we have always been more concerned about safety of the nuclear plant. With the accident we face a bleak future,” she told IPS.

Ooga, however, says she supports the statements made by Idogawa, mostly because he voiced opposition to supporting nuclear power and illustrated sharply the anxiety and suspicion in the community that is in the process of evacuating.

“I found some hope when Idogawa explained he would lead the evacuation which means so much to us now,” she said. Ooga is from a farming community and had just built a new home which she wonders now whether she will ever be able to visit.

Idogawa said he would lead the first batch of 1,500 people from his village who will settle down in Saitama prefecture, a northern border town of Tokyo. He also said his decision will pave the way for the rest of the community to join them and start their lives again as before till they can return together.

Experts explain the relocation process is always painful for people and is especially so for the thousands who must leave for safety from the threat of radiation contamination and face the probability of not being able to return for a long time.

“The situation is a human tragedy,” said professor Toshikata Katada, a disaster expert at Nagoya University. Katada, who has covered the earthquake prone region to develop hazard maps and other emergency measures for several decades, explained on television the experts had just not been prepared.

“Our preparedness showed us how knowledge is pitted against the vagaries of nature. This time we see how nature won,” he said.

Reports released Tuesday indicate radiation levels are 1,600 times the normal level 20 kilometres from the crippled Fukushima plant, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

IAEA experts arrived in Tokyo Friday after controversy erupted over differing radiation readings released by the Japanese government and foreign counterparts – raising suspicion that authorities may have created panic in some cities where people wiped out food supplies overnight.

Another alarming development was released today when the government said it detected high levels of radioactive material in seawater near the Fukushima power plant fanning concern over fishery products from the area.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, reported radioactive material was detected Monday in the seawater samples at levels 126.7 times higher than the legal concentration limit. Levels of cesium 137, a radioactive material which can be dormant in the air for over 30 years, was 16.5 times higher than the limit, while trace amount of cobalt 58 was detected in a sample of seawater near the plant as well.

Already, spinach and milk from farms in Fukushima are showing high radiation levels and will not be allowed for consumer sale.

The critical situation is causing anxiety in areas where other plants are located as well. Chubu Electrical Power Company that operates the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Omaezaki, Shizuoka prefecture, 150 kilometres south of Tokyo – also identified as a quake prone area – announced Tuesday that it will get an emergency diesel generator in case of power loss due to tsunami.

Meanwhile, local residents express alarm at the situation which is still out of hand in Fukushima more than a week after the earthquake hit. Minoru Ito, a local activist, told IPS that his phone keeps ringing as people keep calling him wondering what they should do now. “The ongoing tragedy in Fukushima sends chills down our spines,” he says.

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