Looking back at the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident

Fukushima Today

Ten years have passed since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, followed by the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. But the accident is still happening. The damage is extensive and complex. Due to widespread radioactive contamination, people have lost their ways of life that were so closely tied to nature, and many areas have been changed considerably. 

The nuclear accident took away so many things from people. Livelihoods, meaning in life, precious time with friends, peaceful day-to-day living … Families and communities have been ripped apart. People have been overwhelmed with concern about their health and their own future. But all the fanfare about reconstruction and the 2020 Olympics created an atmosphere where people could not talk about the state of radioactive contamination or damage to health and other concerns. 

Here we look back at the situation at the time of the nuclear accident, particularly policies relating to evacuation.

The accident and evacuation orders

On the night of the nuclear accident on March 11, 2011, the government issued evacuation orders at 8:50 p.m. to residents within a radius of 3 km of reactor Unit 1. The next day, March 12, at 3:36 p.m., there was a hydrogen-air explosion in Unit 1. At 6:25 p.m. that day, evacuation orders were issued to residents within 20 km, and at 11 a.m. on March 14th, there was a hydrogen-air explosion in Unit 3.  On March 15, the containment vessel of Unit 2 was damaged, and there was a hydrogen-air explosion in Unit 4. 

That day, a radioactive plume carrying large amounts of radioactive material was released over a wide area. The plume passed over places including Iitate Village, Date City, Fukushima City, and Koriyama City, and radioactive substances fell to the ground with rain and snow. This resulted in persistent radioactive contamination. 

Radiation levels skyrocketed as a result in many places. In Fukushima City, 60 km from the nuclear plant, levels of up to 24 microseiverts per hour were measured on this evening. This was higher than the level designated for temporary relocation within one week (20 microseiverts per hour)  under the new Nuclear Emergency Preparedness and Response Guidelines that had been established by the Nuclear Regulation Authority after the Fukushima accident.

Despite this, no evacuation orders were issued in the Nakadori district of Fukushima Prefecture, which includes cities such as Fukushima, Date, Nihonmatsu, and Koriyama.  

On April 22 the government designated “Deliberate Evacuation Areas” where exposure could reach 20 millisieverts per year in “Restricted Areas” within a radius of 20 km of the plant, and in “Evacuation-Prepared Areas in Case of Emergency” within about 30 km of the plant, in Iitate Village, part of Kawamata Town, part of Minamisoma City, and Katsurao Village. 

Campaign to repeal the 20 millisievert/year limit

From late March until early April 2011, parents used Geiger counters to measure radiation levels at Fukushima City schools and found that the majority of schoolyards had higher radiation readings than in “radiation control areas.” A radiation control area is defined as an area that only trained personnel are allowed to enter, such as nuclear plants, hospital facilities and research institutes that use radioactive materials. 

Parents requested the postponement of ceremonies to mark the start of the school year (every April in Japan), but their requests were ignored and the ceremonies went ahead anyway. Later, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology issued a notification to school boards that the yardstick to permit school use would be a maximum radiation level of 20 millisieverts per year. 

However, that level is twenty times the 1 millisievert per year that is recommended internationally as the maximum exposure for members of the public. It is significantly higher than the 5 millisieverts per year level used for radiation control areas. This situation led a major public outcry. On May 23, angry parents and citizens encircled the Ministry and demanded a repeal of the 20 millisievert per year limit. Media gave this major coverage and due to high level of public concern, the Ministry issued a statement that “it would “aim for 1 millisievert per year in the long term.”

Advocating for the “right to evacuate”

Many residents who lived outside the areas designated for evacuation decided to evacuate anyway, in order to protect their children and families. This they did even though they knew they would receive no compensation or assistance. Some of residents were unable to evacuate even if they wanted to, due to economic reasons or family circumstances. FoE Japan advocated for compensation for evacuees who had lived outside the areas covered by evacuation orders (the so-called “voluntary evacuees”), holding a number of local events to appeal for the “right to evacuate.” We also gathered testimonies from evacuees and delivered them to a government council. In addition, we measured radioactive contamination levels in Fukushima and conducted questionnaire surveys. 

We also conducted research and study sessions jointly with residents in areas where exposure was particularly high in Fukushima City, and advocated for the government to designate “evacuation optional areas” where people who had chosen to evacuate would be able to obtain compensation, but we were not able to achieve our goals. 

These efforts bore fruit, as we were able to speak to the evacuee council. Thanks to the increase in of public support for assistance to evacuees, in December 2011, the government recognized that it was reasonable for evacuees from outside designated areas to have made the choice to evacuate, so compensation was given, even though it was limited in scope and not a large amount of money.

We also worked with residents in areas where dosages were particularly high by advocating for the government to designate “evacuation optional areas” (where people who had chosen to evacuate would be able to obtain compensation), but these efforts were unsuccessful.

Testimonies of evacuees 

* Just over the hill, there is an evacuation zone. I can’t let my small child live in such a place. As a parent I have to protect my child. I did not really want to evacuate. Do people realize how difficult it was to make the choice? I actually evacuated to escape from worrying about the likelihood of a disaster and wondering if I could protect my child.  
* For some reason we are called “voluntary evacuees,” but please understand that evacuating was a heartbreaking choice, but a justifiable thing to do to protect our loved ones. We did not abandon Fukushima. We just wanted to protect those we must protect.
* Radiation levels are high. Radiation levels indoors are over 1 microsievert per hour. I have huge concerns about forcing our children to live in such an environment.

(Fukushima Today and Japan’s Energy Future 2021, original article published in March 2021)