Japan: nuclear worries persist despite progress


A Japanese girl stands amongst the rubble where her home had been, while visiting it for the first time on March 18, 2011 in Kesennuma, Japan.


Paula Bronstein

TOKYO, Japan — Despite claims of limited success in cooling one of Japan's crippled nuclear reactors on Sunday and restoring power to two others, lack of confidence in the government's ability to contain the nuclear crisis remained high.

“I'm afraid,” said Masahige Sugiyama, a former factory worker sitting in a public park in northern Tokyo. “The nuclear problem can occur any time. The government failed to act right away.”

Sugiyama was a small boy when his parents were radiated in the atom-bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. “They had already sent me to the countryside,” he said Sunday. “I never saw them again.”

Now Sugyiyama fears radiation will spread again — this time from any of the three most crippled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which was hit by the tsunami on March 11. The tsunami was caused by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that preceded it and in turn triggered several explosions at the nuclear plant.

Some 300 workers have been braving high levels of radiation inside the plant in an effort to prevent nuclear meltdown. On Sunday, they managed to connect power to the No. 2 reactor, crucial to their attempts to cool it down and limit the spread of radiation.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of Japan's nuclear safety agency, cautioned that no one be “too optimistic” on Sunday, though he said “progress” was being made in cooling down the reactors.

In a seemingly coordinated chorus of upbeat statements, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama told a news conference that “the situation is improving step by step.”

But despite the good news, the Japanese public has lost a certain amount of faith in the government's pronouncements.

After official assurances that Tokyo, which lies 150 miles south of the power plant, was relatively unaffected by radiation, the public was left skeptical after traces of radiation were found in milk and spinach 20 miles from the plant.

The overall death toll from the disaster rose above 8,000 on Sunday, with more than 12,000 missing. Some 390,000 people remain homeless and are living in shelters with short supplies of food, water, medicine and heating fuel, according to Reuters.

In a Tokyo coffee shop, a waitress who asked to go by her first name, Machiko, said the discrepancy between what the U.S. government was saying about the crisis and what the Japanese government was saying, worried her.

“Why is the American government saying people within 40 miles of the plant should leave and our own government is saying only people within 20 miles should leave?” she asked, adding that she believed the Americans' version. “The Japanese government cannot tell the truth. They are afraid if they do people will get panicked.”

Azusa Imamura, a volunteer who assists the elderly and indigent in northern Tokyo, was even more skeptical about government assurances. She wanted to know why the reports carried by Japan's government broadcaster, NHK, were so different from what she was seeing on CNN and BBC.

“NHK is for ordinary people with no news from foreign networks,” she said. “BBC and CNN say the news is more serious. Our government is afraid many people will panic. Then it will be hard to calm them down. I don't like the way the government is acting. I'm afraid the contamination will get worse.”

The government has conceded that it was too slow in responding to the nuclear situation. "In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told the BBC.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the Fukushima plant, issued a ritualistic apology for having caused “great concern and nuisance.”

Fumiyo Hicuchi, who makes a living selling empty soft-drink and beer cans to recycling companies out of his canvas-roofed hut along the banks of the Sumida River, had another fear. He is worried that another tsunami will wash away all he's got in the world.

On the day the tsunami flooded cities in northeast Japan, Hicuchi said the river crested high above the banks three times. From a walkway above the river, he watched as his makeshift quarters were flooded but remained firm against the current.

“I could see the river bottom as the water drained out,” he said. “Then suddenly the water came up.”

See GlobalPost's complete coverage of the tsunami and earthquake in Japan.