In March this year, the tragedy at the nuclear power plant celebrated its tenth anniversary. The press center of foreign journalists in Japan, with the support of the Foreign Ministry and the prefecture authorities, planned to carry out a special press tour to the station for a narrow circle of foreign journalists selected as a result of a drawing of lots. However, the coronavirus confused all plans – in Japan in March, the emergency regime was once again extended.
By the fall, thanks to an active campaign to vaccinate the population, the country managed to reduce the daily increase in new cases of infection to minimal levels, and mortality almost completely disappeared. And the Japanese authorities decided to hold a postponed press tour to the emergency station. Once again, I was lucky with the draw, and I was included in the number of six journalists from five foreign media outlets. Correspondents from Reuters, the BBC, the Chinese People’s Daily and a two-person film crew from the South Korean television channel KBS went with me to Fukushima.
The first day. The road to the nuclear power plant
The regime of the object to which we were heading began to be felt one and a half kilometers from the station itself – on the only road leading to the nuclear power plant, a checkpoint was set up at this mark: then only cars with special passes could follow. At the entrance to the territory, a group of specialists from the Tokyo energy company TEPCO was already waiting for us. First of all, we got the passes – the guards took fingerprints, checked the documents and checked whether the camera model I brought with me, which was indicated in the application.
After a preliminary briefing and safety briefing, we were taken to change. Within the framework of this particular press tour, it was not supposed to visit areas with a particularly high level of radiation, so I was not able to try out a full protective suit on myself. Uniforms were limited to special vests, reinforced goggles, masks, helmets and an automatic pocket dosimeter. Also, before heading directly to the station, we all went through a full scan to assess the level of radioactive particles in our bodies – it was a bit surprising how long a minute in motionless waiting can seem.
The main objects of interest of all journalists without exception were, for obvious reasons, four power units, two of which were seriously damaged as a result of hydrogen explosions. Having approached closer, we immediately noticed a sharp jump in the level of radioactive particles in the air – it was still at an acceptable level, but it was growing literally with every step. We stopped on a hill about 100 meters from the power units – it was forbidden to go further.
And although over the years since the tragedy, I have repeatedly seen footage and recordings depicting the twisted buildings of the first and second power units of the station, looking at them with my own eyes left a heavy, oppressive feeling. Looking at the rusted structures sticking out in different directions, you understand that there inside, where melted nuclear fuel has flowed deep into the ground, there is death for all living things that decided to get closer. Invisible, intangible, but inevitable.
Discharge of water into the ocean
However, the main problem today is water, which is poured in huge volumes every day to cool the reactors and which pours out through the gaps in the installations, filling the underground floors of the power units and the drainage system. On an ongoing basis, this water is pumped out, purified using a special ALPS system and stored in huge tanks, the space for which is rapidly running out – now it is about 1.25 million tons. The only solution to the issue at the moment is the controlled discharge of this purified water into the ocean.
However, despite all the arguments put forward by the Japanese side, including the fact that the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, China and South Korea carry out similar discharges of water into the oceans from their nuclear facilities every year, this issue is one of the most acute between Tokyo and Seoul – the latter consistently opposes the intentions of the Japanese side.
The representative of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, who also attended the NPP with us, noted that the Japanese authorities regularly inform and provide detailed explanations on this problem for foreign states through the relevant embassies and consulates, but admitted that in this field it is possible it would be to work more actively.
On the territory of the station, we also examined the ALPS water purification system itself. TEPCO representatives especially emphasized that if the level of radioactive particles in the liquid does not fall below the maximum permissible level the first time, it is driven through the complex of devices again. We were also shown a jar of purified water, clearly demonstrating with the help of a dosimeter that the level of radioactive particles in it is much lower than the established standards.
Before leaving the main site of the station, we again went through a full scan to measure the dose of radiation we received. The general verdict for all was generally the same – each of us received a dose of radiation equal to two X-rays from a dentist during about four hours of stay at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant.
On the way to a hotel in Iwaki (still the same Fukushima Prefecture), I thought about the words of TEPCO representatives, who admitted that if the tsunami countermeasures that are now in place at the nuclear power plant in 2011, it would greatly help to reduce the damage from the accident. In particular, if there were then a 13-meter protective barrier in front of the power units, designed to protect against wave impact, a catastrophe could have been avoided, the consequences of which Japan would have to eliminate for several decades.
Second day. Radiation Research Department
On the second day of our press tour, several visiting points and a meeting with a large number of different people were planned at once.
Our first stop was the Fukushima Fisheries and Oceanic Research Center, where the head of the radiation research department, Tooru Watanabe, talked to us. He detailed how the center tests samples of seafood from local waters every day.
I asked to talk about the center’s relationship with the fishing community and the local population – do fishermen, retailers and ordinary residents trust the data of inspections and tests? “All these ten years that have passed since the accident, we have been working very closely with the fishing community, which is primarily interested in ensuring that the products they catch are safe. Retailers, for whom the safety of goods is directly related to their reputation. They fully trust the data of the regular research, “- said Watanabe. He also stressed that local concerns about the safety of fish products have almost completely disappeared by now.
“An error or, moreover, falsification of data is simply impossible – before publication, all data undergo a multi-stage check in various, unrelated departments and research centers,” the head of the radiation research department explained, adding that it takes time and consistent, conscientious and transparent work.
Private sector representatives, unlike officials, were not in the least optimistic about the impending water discharge. They can be understood, because this is another reputational blow, which, due to the emergence of a new wave of gossip about the possible harm to health of products from Fukushima, will directly hit the demand and, as a result, their profits.
At the end of the meeting, we were offered to taste these “nashi”, and I must say that the fruits were incredibly tasty. After what we saw and heard, none of us had the idea of giving up a treat from Fukushima Prefecture.
Agriculture Technology Center
Within the walls of the center, samples of all agricultural products produced in the prefecture are checked for the presence of radioactive particles five days a week. Can you imagine the scale of the work done by the Japanese specialists? For days, they have to manually cut various products into very small pieces, which are then placed in a special system. In half an hour, the device gives out a complete calculation of the data on the content of certain elements in the products.
At the time of our arrival, the laboratory staff were preparing to test the local beef – with dexterous movements, two women turned the pieces of meat into practically minced meat and sent them for research. The received data are then transferred to various ministries and departments, where they are to be rechecked.
The era of mistrust
The last item on the program of the press tour was a meeting with the prefectural government. Four rows of tables, at which sat strictly dressed officials, a harmonious stream of statistical information – most of which we have already heard during our press tour, carefully chosen words and expressions. Japanese officials are always correct and careful, they rarely say something superfluous. They acknowledged that they were aware of the concerns associated with the planned dumping of the once radioactive water. At the same time, they noted that they are striving to do everything possible to achieve understanding among both the local population and foreign states.
When it was my turn to ask a question, I understood that I could not get a concrete answer to it. Probably because it simply does not exist yet. “We all live in an era of digitalization. Thanks to the Internet, or rather, through its fault, any information, even the most erroneous, is easily disseminated. from scientists, from specialists. It doesn’t matter how much you say to a person – now, we have checked this apple ten times, it is completely safe and harmless, we guarantee that it will not harm your health. There will certainly be a person who will say – I don’t believe you , you are lying, falsifying data, and he will sincerely think so, sincerely be afraid. And his fears in the era of social media and digitalization will easily spread more and more, further and further. And more and more people will pick up these fears and carry on. After the accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, something similar has already happened – but ten years ago we lived in a completely different world, then, in general, verified information from professionals, official information defeated fakes.
Things are different now. And the [COVID-19] pandemic has exacerbated the trend of distrust of information as much as possible and has accelerated it as much as possible. Around the world, movements of mistrust of vaccines against coronavirus, mistrust of official information are growing. Distrust, which has dire consequences – only in the case of the coronavirus, not only for those who do not believe themselves, but for everyone in general. In two years, it is planned to discharge water from the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant – in a new digital reality, in a new reality of distrust of everything, how to make people believe that it is safe? What needs to be done to make science and professionalism prevail over mistrust, hype and prejudice? “
By the end of my question, I realized that it had turned into a speech, but none of the representatives of the Japanese regional government ever tried to interrupt me. They listened attentively, occasionally nodding and somehow sighing doom. As a result, the minister for the protection of local industry from reputational damage tried to answer my question (in my opinion, the presence of such a department in the prefecture government already speaks volumes). She acknowledged that there is no concrete solution to this problem. “We will continue to politely, consistently and proactively deliver relevant, verified and accurate information. We will do everything so that people can believe us,” she said. Such perseverance could only be envied, but in the current situation, it seems that there is simply no other choice left.
Ten years that cannot be returned
My first trip to the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant left mixed feelings. On the one hand, over the ten years since the accident, the consciousness has already become so accustomed to the fact that there is an emergency nuclear power plant in Japan, it was a terrible disaster, but now everything in general has improved and somehow settled down – experts are consistently working on eliminating the consequences, life for most of the people are already back on track. But once you find yourself directly close to the eerie-looking reactors, you instantly understand how much more terrible everything could be and how much more work the Japanese liquidators have ahead of.
Behind ten years that cannot be returned. Ten years in which the country could live in a completely different way, developing safely and carefree. And although the damage from the accident itself at the station is incomparably lower than the losses (both financial and human) that Japan suffered as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the name “Fukushima-1” was forever inscribed in world history with a negative connotation.