For almost three years, Fukushima has been in the throes of an ongoing nuclear disaster. In March 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami triggered one of the worst nuclear meltdowns the world has ever known, which then morphed into the most ambitious radiation cleanup in history. It has been an effort of extraordinary manpower, technical gymnastics, human heartbreak, political strife and mind-melting expense.
The scale of it all is difficult to swallow. But America Tonight traveled to the region and met some of the individuals who are most affected by, and affecting, the aftermath. Meet the people fighting to rebuild, the workers decontaminating the land, the families too terrified to return home, the advocates chanting “never again” and the people who have profited off it all.
The ones who left
Kaori Saito lived in Fukushima city with her husband and two young children. After the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, the government ordered people closest to the plant to evacuate and others just outside of that zone to stay inside. When her husband ignored refused to leave Fukushima, she filed for divorce. This type of marital discord is now so common that the Japanese call it “Genpatsu rikon,” or nuclear divorce.
Kaori constantly bathed her children, washed their clothes and took trips outside of Fukushima whenever possible. Divorcing her husband was difficult, she says. “I felt like that if I stayed with him, I wouldn’t be able to keep my children from harm,” says Kaori, who now lives in Matsumoto City, far from Fukushima, “and that’s how I got here.”
Tens of thousands who evacuated towns near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have yet to return home. These "nuclear refugees" are scattered throughout Japan, living in temporary facilities. One of those is Ichiro Kazawa, who fled his house when he saw the tide rushing out to sea – a sign of an incoming tsunami.
The tsunami destroyed Ichiro's home and forced him to live with and care for his mother. “I want to go home,” he said, “but I can’t because of fears of radiation from the nuclear accident."
The ones who stayed
Masami Yoshizawa is an exception. When explosions at the Fukushima plant blanketed his farm with cesium and other radioactive particles, he chose not to obey the government’s evacuation orders and stayed in the town of Namie. “I had 330 cows to care for. I couldn't flee,” the lifelong cattle rancher told America Tonight.
After testing positive for internal exposure to cesium 134 and 137, Masami has undergone careful monitoring at a radiation research hospital. His levels have since dropped. “Of course I was worried,” he said about his exposure. “But I am not going to get hysterical or have a mental breakdown from it.”
Almost everyone in the town of Namie heeded the evacuation orders. Masami is one of the few people still living there today. Although he made the decision to stay, he doubts that many of his neighbors will return. “How do you change this most contaminated area into towns where people can live?” he asked. “Our towns have turned into Chernobyl. …And if people return, what will they do? They won’t return.”
Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisōma, one of the affected cities in Fukushima Prefecture, is trying to convince displaced residents to return. Before the disaster, 71,000 people lived there. “When our population dropped to 10,000, there wasn’t a soul in the streets,” he said. “That’s when I wondered what would become of us.”
But Katsunobu, who said he never considered leaving, believes no good comes from agonizing over the past. “I just focused on how to move the city forward into the future.” The mayor devoted himself to making sure the city had a future. His quest to rebuild his town has been helped by a massive, government-led effort to decontaminate the prefecture.
For Katsunobu, convincing his city’s residents that it is safe to return has been a tough sell. Despite decontamination efforts, radiation remained high in many parts, and a third of the population has yet to return to Minamisōma. Many remain skeptical that the government’s plan will actually work and are distrustful of its promises.
The ones doing the dirty work
There are about 50,000 itinerant laborers – or “nuclear gypsies” – doing the dirty work of decontamination. Most of them are subcontractors, unskilled and poorly paid. Many of these workers were lured into these undesirable jobs by the promise of a $100 a day extra in government-funded disaster pay, but the subcontracting company often pockets that money and charges extra for equipment and lodging. Once these workers reach their radiation limit for the year, they’re “thrown away.”
The ones who are swindling
The Japanese mafia, known as the Yakuza, is one of the largest criminal organizations in the world, and has craftily infiltrated the Fukushima cleanup industry. With hundreds of subcontractors that make it hard to monitor the money trail, most of the estimated 50 Yakuza gangs in Fukushima leapt to the task of recruiting workers – sometimes through unseemly means, like rounding up the homeless. They can then skim their wages, keep the profits and even violently retaliate against those who object.
The ones stopping nuclear
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s advisers were telling him that 50 million people might have to evacuate if the situation at Fukushima Daiichi further deteriorated. The nuclear disaster forced Japan’s then-prime minister to reconsider his stance on the energy source. After leaving office, he made it his mission to rid Japan of nuclear energy.
Four more former prime ministers joined Naoto's cause – and their mission has been successful so far. All of Japan’s nuclear reactors have been forced offline, but that has driven up energy prices. Paul Scalise, a University of Tokyo energy policy expert, says Japan’s national security is at stake and predicts that at least some of the nuclear reactors will come back online in the next few years.
The ones backing nuclear
Japan’s nuclear industry has mounted a drive to bring their reactors back online. Current Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has joined forces with them, reversing the preceding administration’s efforts to rid the country of nuclear power by 2030.
“Based upon the lessons of the nuclear accident, we must create a new culture to improve safety,” the prime minister said. “And in addition, after making sure that it is safe, we must restart nuclear energy.” Abe is aggressively promoting Japanese technology abroad, recently signing agreements to sell nuclear reactors to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and India.
Tune into America Tonight’s four-part investigative series about Fukushima's continuing fallout, this week at 9 p.m. ET.