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The Unlearned Lessons of Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster via World Politics Review

Elliot Waldman

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The following day, three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, or TEPCO—which operated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant when it took a direct hit from the tsunami—entered the district courthouse in Tokyo for the final day of their trial. They reiterated pleas of “not guilty” in response to charges of criminal negligence in connection with the disaster at Fukushima. The prosecution is requesting that each defendant serve five years in prison.

The case has garnered attention in Japan partly for the unusual circumstances that led to it. Initially, the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office twice declined to issue indictments. But an inquest panel, a mechanism by which aggrieved plaintiffs can try to force a trial, rejected those decisions, ensuring the case would be heard. At its heart, though, the TEPCO trial is a test of whether the Japanese system of justice can live up to Abe’s lofty exhortation: to preserve the lessons of one of the worst nuclear accidents in modern history by holding accountable those who failed to prevent it.

The case hinges on whether the three former TEPCO officials knew in advance of the possibility that such a large tsunami might hit the plant and could have taken precautions. Key pieces of evidence include a prescient government study from 2002 that found a 20 percent chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake striking along the Japan Trench, off the eastern coast of Japan’s main island, over the following 30 years. Then, in 2008, TEPCO’s senior executives received an in-house report that found that the Fukushima facility could be hit by a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters, or 51.5 feet. But testimony from other TEPCO officials indicates that the company’s top leadership put planned countermeasures on ice once they realized how much they would cost.

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Even for areas outside the initial evacuation zone, fears of radiation persist amid a massive, ongoing cleanup effort. One problem has to do with contaminated soil and debris that has been removed and stored in black bulk container bags across Fukushima. There’s still no set plan for their removal, so in many neighborhoods, the bags simply pile up—an ugly reminder of a tragedy that continues to reverberate through the area. In some cases, storage pits have been created, but they are far from a lasting solution, and not sufficient to hold the massive amounts of contaminated material slated for eventual disposal. The government has also installed monitoring posts throughout the affected area, but these sensors often fail to catch radioactive “hot spots”—concentrations of contaminated particles that accumulate over time due to weather patterns.

Concerns over residual radiation are also hampering the recovery of the largely agriculture-based economy in Tohoku, the region that includes Fukushima. In the weeks and months after the meltdown, as many as 54 of Japan’s trading partners, fearing that radiation would reach their shores via contaminated produce, enacted trade embargoes on agricultural products from the region. Many governments have since removed or relaxed these prohibitions, but 24 countries and territories maintain some form of restriction despite repeated assurances from Tokyo that food products from the region are safe. These include major nearby export markets like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, reports roughly $6 billion worth of exports are affected.

This reality points to the permanent reputational damage to the people of Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures caused by the nuclear meltdown, which is proving just as hard to clean up. Like other sites of major nuclear accidents—Chernobyl, for example, and Three Mile Island—Fukushima is indelibly associated with nuclear fallout and the stigma that comes with it.

For affected citizens, the process of seeking justice has been halting and uncertain, but there has been some progress. The verdict in the Tokyo criminal case is expected in September, though legal experts point out that guilty verdicts in cases that have been forcibly brought to trial by an inquest panel are rare. Meanwhile, roughly 30 class action lawsuits brought by residents of the Fukushima plant’s surrounding area are working their way through Japan’s legal system. A number of courts in those cases have found both TEPCO and the Japanese government liable for the disaster, awarding substantial damages.

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Japan is certainly no exception when it comes to lax and failing government regulation. Nor is it the only country that has prioritized economic growth over safety concerns. But as Japan’s nuclear reactors gradually come back online eight years after the meltdown in Fukushima, the potential costs of failing to learn from its mistakes seem particularly stark.

Read more at The Unlearned Lessons of Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

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