Fukushima: Five years after Japan’s worst nuclear disaster

Fukushima, Japan (CNN)Soichiro Saito was in hospital when the earthquake hit.

The 65-year old had just undergone surgery for prostate cancer and was recuperating when the walls of his 6th floor room began to shake. Medical equipment came crashing to the floor.

For almost six minutes on March 11, 2011, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake the worst to ever hit Japan rocked the country.

The quake was so strong that it permanently moved Japan’s main island, Honshu, more than two meters to the east. The impact also raised huge waves up to 40 meters high that, as people were still reeling from the aftershocks, began crashing into the country.

More than 20,000 people died or went missing in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, while hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.

The earthquake and tsunami were just the beginning however.

Saito recalls staring helplessly out of his hospital room window as waves inundated the town beneath him. His first thought was of the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

“If the tsunami caused the plant to lose power to cool the reactors, it would be a disaster.”

Back home, Saito’s family received the order to evacuate as fast as they could, abandoning the farm where they grew spinach in tidy rows of greenhouses.

The urgency was such that Saito’s wife left their dog Maru tied to a pole near the home.

    “She thought maybe they’d have to evacuate for a couple days at most.” (Maru was rescued by animal protection workers and, months later, reunited with his family.)

    But what Saito’s family, along with the rest of Japan, didn’t realize, was that the situation in the Fukushima plant was quickly becoming a disaster of its own, one that would shock the country as much as the earthquake itself.

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    On February 26, Kansai Electric restarted a reactor at its Takahama nuclear plant in central Japan, the fourth to resume activity after a country-wide moratorium following the Fukushima meltdown.

    Fukushima shook Japan’s long-stated commitment to nuclear power. Prior to the disaster, the country’s 50 some reactors provided more than 30% of its power, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry body.

    This ended on May 5, 2012, when the country’s last operating reactor, in Hokkaido, shut down for inspection, leaving Japan without nuclear power for the first time in more than 45 years. (Two units of the Oi nuclear power plant were briefly restarted in 2012, but went offline again a year later.)

    Ditching nuclear power wasn’t easy for Japan, forcing the country to import around 80% of its fuel, according to the WNA. Household electricity rates rose 19% between 2011 and 2015, and carbon dioxide emissions spiked.

    The moratorium lasted until August 2015, when a reactor was restarted in Sendai, sparking protests outside the plant and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence in Tokyo.

    After the plant resumed operation, Abe said that it, and others in the process of being restarted, had passed “the world’s toughest safety screening.”

    Public opinion is still firmly against nuclear and many Japanese politicians and commentators have criticized the government’s decision to restart the reactors.

    Prior to the disaster, around 70% of people supported nuclear energy, according to an official poll. That level dropped to below 36% after the Fukushima meltdown, with opposition to nuclear energy growing to up to 50 or even 70%, according to polls by Japanese media.

    Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in office during the crisis, is one of the highest-profile voices to come out against nuclear power, calling repeatedly on the government to change its course.

    “The safest nuclear policy is not to have any plants at all,” he told a parliamentary panel in 2012.

    While the move back towards nuclear power has been justified on the grounds of the huge cost of importing fossil fuel energy, campaigners expressed disappointment that alternative options weren’t explored.

    “Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and thermal have so much potential here,” said Ai Kashiwagi, of Greenpeace Japan, after the Sendai plant was restarted.

    Outside of the National Diet, opposition to nuclear power remains high. A February poll by broadcaster NHK found that only 20% thought the reactors should be restarted. Before the disaster, a majority of the country supported the nuclear industry.

    Greenpeace’s Vande Putte said that Japan hasn’t “learned the lesson of Fukushima.” He pointed to the reactors built in seismic zones, as well as the Sendai plant, which lies 30 kilometers from an active volcano.

    “In Japan, there’s no safe place for nuclear reactors. What we have seen at Fukushima Daiichi can happen at another reactor.”

    “The government should shut down all the nuclear reactors,” said Fukushima survivor Toshiki Aso.

    “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through the same suffering we did.”

    Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/08/asia/fukushima-five-year-anniversary/index.html