(MintPress) – This week Japan marked the second anniversary of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed 19,000 people and damaged more than one million homes. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake off the eastern coast of Japan remains the costliest natural disaster in world history, causing an estimated $235 billion in damages, according to the World Bank.
Two years later, 320,000 people remain displaced, living in temporary housing units provided by the government. Victims are demanding immediate compensation and a clear majority of citizens are calling for Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors to be phased out of service following the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine.
Lingering health concerns
“Fukushima is not the worst nuclear accident ever but it is the most complicated and the most dramatic,” said James Acton, associate of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Nuclear experts still rank the 1986 Chernobyl disaster worse in terms of destruction to the environment and the surrounding cities.
Following the earthquake March 11, 2011, a tsunami flooded Fukushima I, a facility that had not been designed for a large tsunami to strike the plant. Emergency generators that were in place to cool nuclear reactors were flooded and incapacitated after tidal waves 43 to 49 feet in height arrived approximately 50 minutes after the initial earthquake, a 9.03 on the Richter scale.
It was the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history and the fourth strongest globally since geologists began studying earthquakes in 1900.
This meltdown released about one tenth the nuclear material released in the Ukrainian Chernobyl meltdown. Nuclear policy experts contend that the meltdown at Fukushima was preventable.
“They had tsunamis on record showing that it could have resulted in a failure,” said Jim Riccio, a Greenpeace USA nuclear policy analyst to Mint Press News.
One hundred sixty thousand people were immediately ordered to evacuate, a large majority of whom remain in temporary houses. Many have been told by the government that they will not be allowed to return to their homes.
The total destruction of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake dwarfed the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, a disaster measuring 7.3 that destroyed large swaths of Kobe, a city with a population of 1.5 million. Additionally, 6,434 people lost their lives and 300,000 were made homeless during that natural disaster.
Although the government has tried to assuage fears, a growing number of Japanese citizens are starting to show early symptoms of radiation poisoning, including lethargy, nausea, hair loss, skin rashes and loss of teeth.
Five months after the meltdowns, physicians at the Funabashi Futawa Hospital located in Chiba Prefecture, 124 miles from Fukushima, were reporting “increased nosebleeds, stubborn cases of diarrhea and flu-like symptoms in children.”
On Feb. 28, 2012, doctors reported that one-third of Fukushima’s children were found to have developed “lumps” in their thyroids.
This contradicts recent reports by top United Nations (U.N.) experts working the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO released a report earlier this month showing that Japanese infants have a small increased risk of contracting cancer during their lifetime.
After studying victims, experts believe that infants have only a 1 percent increased risk of contracting cancer because of Fukushima.
“The additional risk is quite small and will probably be hidden by the noise of other [cancer] risks like people’s lifestyle choices and statistical fluctuations,” said Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester, one of the authors of the report. “It’s more important not to start smoking than having been in Fukushima.”
The search for compensation
The disagreement over the health impact continues as the Japanese government capitulated to survivors’ demands for greater compensation.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December, promised to accelerate the reconstruction efforts by vowing to extend government funding for relief projects to $266 billion in a pledge this month.
“Our ancestors have overcome many difficulties and each time emerged stronger,” Abe said at a ceremony marking the two-year anniversary this week. “I would like to convey my sincerest condolences once again to those who lost their dearest relatives.”
Although Japan has the world’s third largest economy based upon gross domestic product, more than 320,000 people remain displaced, many of them living in temporary housing units provided by the government.
“Some say we can go home after 20 or 40 years,” one displaced resident complained, “but what are we going to live on until then?”
The Abe government has been slow to dispense aid in part because of unresolved claims between victims and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima power facilities.
With nearly two million people demanding compensation, TEPCO offered an initial payment of $1,519 per victim, per month for “mental suffering” but required evacuees to reapply for the payment every three months.
Victims are required to wait six months and fill out a 60-page TEPCO application that comes with 150 pages of instructions, making the process difficult and lengthy for the thousands in need of immediate assistance.
TEPCO also offered the 1.5 million affected people living outside the exclusion zone a lump-sum payment of $1,012, $5,062, for children and pregnant women. These payments were only in effect until Dec. 31, 2011.
Despite large numbers of alleged medical problems caused by the meltdown, TEPCO insisted that anyone accepting payments had to agree to not seek additional compensation in the future.
Some were given an immediate one-time payment of $13,045, ending all right to further compensation or legal recourse. Nuclear experts claim that settling the complicated legal problem is one that shouldn’t fall to TEPCO, but to General Electric (GE) the manufacturing company that is responsible for the design flaws that caused the meltdown.
Japanese legislation currently holds plant operators, not manufacturers, responsible for design flaws, following a legislative model that originated in the United States.
“When they wrote the laws in the states, the U.S. became the model for nuclear power. The liability is on those who operate the plant, not the manufacturer,” added Riccio, a lawyer.
This has forced victims to file a class action lawsuit Monday against TEPCO, the only defendant named in the case. Victims are demanding that the natural environment near the nuclear facility be returned to its pre-disaster state.
“Here we are two years later. Those who caused the accident aren’t being held accountable. The laws in Japan resemble those in the U.S. The people of Japan suffer the fallout,” said Riccio.
One immediate reform recommended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the U.S. is the implementation of “filtered vents” that would better cool nuclear facilities, especially in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Twelve U.S. Senators wrote to the Allison M. MacFarlane, the chairperson of the NRC last month, urging that 31 nuclear facilities in the U.S. with the same design as the Fukushima reactors immediately implement filtered vents.
The push to end nuclear power
For many Japanese, merely reforming existing facilities is inadequate, especially for those who remember the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
The bombings destroyed large swaths of the cities and killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki. Many in Japan look at this experience, and the more recent Fukushima disaster, as reason to ban all nuclear activities.
“I am going to fight against those who act as though Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima never happened,” announced Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe.
Thousands of citizens demonstrated against nuclear power on Saturday in the leadup to the emotional two-year anniversary of the earthquake. Roughly 13,000 people gathered in Tokyo, waving signs that read “Let’s save the children” and “No nukes.” According to recent opinion polling, roughly 70 percent of Japan’s 127 million citizens would like to phase out all 50 nuclear reactors by 2030.
Despite vociferous public opposition, the Abe government appears to be firmly in favor of reopening these facilities.
“It’s a handful of corporations that profit while the people are made to pay. You can see a public revolt growing,” said Riccio.
The ongoing problems in Japan have affected public opinion in neighboring countries as well.
Approximately 220,000 Taiwanese citizens demonstrated in Taiwan’s three biggest cities Tuesday, urging their government not to open a fourth nuclear facility. They were the largest protests since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.