Japan Disaster: The Lasting Impact of March 11, 2011

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Hi, I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. A co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. In Japan today, a group of activists filed a law suite. They want to block the reopening of two nuclear power plants near the countries west coast. Nearly all of Japan's 54 nuclear plants have been shut down for safety inspections following last year's disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The two facilities at Fukui Prefecture reportedly were on target to be the first to be restarted, but the activists say that there are active fault lines near by and that the plants may still not be strong enough to survive an earthquake. Fear of a new nuclear incident is wide-spread in Japan. Its just one part of the lasting impact of the massive twin disasters that struck Japan last March 11. Reporter Sam Eaton has been in japan for us, looking closely at the recovery from the tsunami and Fukushima melt downs. Earlier he told me how things are looking in the disaster zone a year later.

Sam Eaton: Well Marco, in the tsunami region there has been some progress. You look around and many of the roads have been rebuilt. The rail lines are running again. The debris, all of those houses, and crushed cars, and boats has been been scraped away, but now you have these mountains of waste on the outskirts of town with nowhere to go. This is a huge problem. Japanese recycling laws actually make it so that all of that trash and waste has to be sorted and recycled. This gives you a sense of the Japanese bureaucracy many believe is hindering the pace of the recovery.

Werman: You know so much of the reporting of the last year has been on the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and less on the disaster from the tsunami. When you're on the ground, does that square up for you?

Eaton: Well these two disasters have very very different circumstances. On the one hand you have this huge loss of life and the destruction of the tsunami. On the other hand you have a nuclear disaster that's yet to claim one life, but has taken an incredible psychological toll on the people that are living with the prospect of contamination for years ahead. And so I think the common thread here is the deep and lasting psychological toll that its taking on the people that are living in these regions. That fear is very palpable in these towns. I talked to an old couple living in a shelter they built on the foundation of their old home. The woman pulled me aside and she told me that every night her husband still screams in his sleep. Even though he says that he is not afraid of the tsunami anymore. And in a country where people don't really show their emotions, they're not known for showing their emotions in Japan. I had a group of dairy farmers I talked to for this story last Friday. They all were crying when they talked about going back to their farms for the first time and seeing the cows that had all died of starvation. And then you have the fears of radiation. Most of the affected area from the Fukushima fall out is an area about the size of New Jersey. So scientists say there is only a slightly elevated risk of cancer for most of that region. But you talk about being exposed to that over the long term and the science is a bit more uncertain. And living there, in that uncertainty has just taken a huge psychological toll on the people.

Werman: It is really hard to get a sense of where the fear really squares with the idle threat of radiation. Where you able to get a sense of that?

Eaton: Well it is confusing. And this is where I think the distrust of the government really confuses the matter even more. People don't trust what the government is telling them. A lot of people are taking independent radiation readings and some of those are much higher than what the government is reporting. And this is, the government reports that the one's informing the scientific findings that talk about the health risks.

Werman: So does this mean that people, especially in the north east of Japan where these disasters have struck. Are they less trusting of their government than a year ago? Was this kind of a Katrina moment?

Eaton: I think it was and I think it will be lasting. I mean, you look at these people and the aide has been slow to come. But at the same time, I think the Fukushima disaster really laid bare these cozy ties between the Tokyo government and big business. And people looking forward feel that's going to continue with the recovery.

Werman: Sam, let's unpack that word recovery just for a moment. When we look at the scale and scope of these events and the toll its taken on so many people, is Japan on a course to recover from these twin disasters and return to normal? Or are these events that sear themselves onto a nation's psyche and have fundamentally changed things forever?

Eaton: You know, I think its hard to tell. One year is kind of this artificial marker in this process of recovery that's going to continue for decades. And this really extends beyond just the tsunami and the nuclear disaster region. Culturally I mean, you really have this dissolution with the idea of nuclear power. In a nation that has no fossil fuels for its energy source I think that's a huge thing going forward as well. People continually are talking about getting back to the basics in this country that went through this rapid industrialization. Its almost like this reality check, that these technologies really aren't invincible anymore.

Werman: Reporter Sam Eaton, who has been reporting for The World in Japan. On the anniversary of last year's tsunami and nuclear disaster. Sam, thanks very much indeed.

Eaton: Thanks so much Marco.

Werman: You can hear the first 2 of Sam's reports on the recovery from the tsunami and the clean up effort around the Fukushima plan at theworld.org.