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Three and a half years after a catastrophic meltdown, Fukushima is far from fixed via Time

As we lumber through the plant like clumsy B-movie extras, I’m reminded that our many layers don’t protect against every type of radiation. Not to worry, we are told by officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO). The radiation levels in certain parts of the nuclear complex are actually lower than in some populated swaths of Fuku­shima prefecture. Later, as I sit in a futuristic cubicle in the plant complex, undergoing a full-body internal radiation check, the soundtrack underscores TEPCO’s soothing message. A line from one song’s lyrics, tinkly and sweetened: “You’ve got a friend in Jesus.”
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The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, authorized by Japan’s parliament, was damning in its 2012 report on the nuclear meltdown: “What must be ­admitted—­very ­painfully—is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” The panel, composed of Japanese scientists, doctors and engineers, among others, continued with a candor exceptional for Japan: “The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mind-set that supported it can be found across Japan.”

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Public faith in the government’s ability to ensure safety and respond to crises has eroded because of the nuclear accident, but Fukushima has not inspired new environmental or civil-­society movements that can boast of major accomplishments. “Inertia is still very strong,” says Akihiro Sawa, an executive senior fellow at the Keidanren business federation’s 21st Century Public Policy Institute.
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Despite all this, the Japanese government’s message to the world is, Trust us. Last year Prime Minister Abe visited Fukushima, flashed a grin and bit into a locally grown peach to prove that the area’s ­produce—an economic ­mainstay—was safe to eat. Shortly after his fruit tasting, Abe traveled to Buenos Aires and gave a speech that propelled Tokyo to victory as the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics. “Let me assure you the situation is under control,” he said. But is it?\[...]
Since then, Yukie and her family have moved 10 times, from one set of cramped rooms to another. But the specter of ­radiation—­invisible, odorless, ­tasteless—­follows them. Yukie, 33, and her two small children now live like shut-ins on the outskirts of Iwaki, the biggest city near Fukushima Daiichi, about 25 miles (40 km) away. Earlier this year, her daughter broke out in mysterious ­rashes; one visiting doctor speculated that radiation could have caused the outbreaks. (Other doctors, however, blamed different causes.) Yukie suffers from frequent nosebleeds, which she says she never had before the disaster.

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“There’s so much societal pressure to not even mention the word radiation,” says Sachihiko Fuse, an oncologist who helps run a private medical clinic in Fukushima city. “The national and prefectural governments say, ‘Please, there’s no danger, live as normal.’ But people are concerned.”

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Atomic power is entrenched in the Japanese government. In 2009 more than 70% of individual donations to the now ruling Liberal Democratic Party came from current or former electric-­company executives. The LDP supports restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants, which were idled by a previous government.
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In Fukushima, that starts with mothers, an unlikely demographic that has become politically active and increasingly anti­nuclear. For months after the meltdown, Kayoko Hashimoto’s daughter wore a dosimeter to school, just as authorities urged. The radiation cloud had passed over the region, but locals were told the area was safe. So why was her daughter’s dosimeter recording high levels of radiation? Hashimoto bought a top-of-the-line dosimeter and began testing the route her daughter took to school. To her shock, she discovered tiny hot spots of radiation throughout the community: one by a bakery, another by a dog kennel, still another in the school parking lot. These levels were even higher than in some towns that had limited outdoor playtime because of fears over radiation exposure. The health effects of such small hot spots aren’t clear, but Hashimoto is worried. “People are scared of radioactivity,” she says, “but they don’t want to make a fuss or draw attention to themselves.”

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