By Engelbertus Wendratama
Today the way most Japanese people see nuclear energy is different from how they did before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. There are wide public protests against nuclear power, calling for it to be abandoned. This radical change of attitude occurred in many Japanese journalists, including Rie Yamada, who has been reporting for the Asahi Shimbun for ten years.
It is one of her biggest regrets that she didn’t start writing about the downsides of nuclear power in 2008 when she had an opportunity.
That year she met Professor Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear scholar who has been opposed to nuclear energy for decades. Yamada interviewed him, but she dropped the story. Like her fellow journalists and the Japanese people in general, she was surrounded by the “nuclear energy renaissance” mentality, suggesting nuclear power is very advanced, sophisticatedly safe technology, and therefore excellent for the country. Another opinion was simply unacceptable.
Rie Yamada, 35, said, “At that time, I kept asking myself, ‘What if I am wrong? What if Koide is wrong?’ because all people seemed to support nuclear power. Almost all nuclear experts supported nuclear energy. My senior said, ‘Even Germany now uses nuclear power’. All these factors and my lack of understanding of the energy led me to drop the idea.”
Now Yamada is in the U.S. studying the closures of American nuclear reactors and how they affect their host communities. As a country with the most nuclear power plants in the world — now 100 active reactors — the U.S. has a wide range of nuclear-related experiences that Yamada believes to be important for her country. She is determined to let Japanese people know various effects of the energy, which she thinks should have been learned by the public many years ago.
“Before 3/11, people didn’t know much about nuclear energy. We just believed what experts and the government said. It’s also journalists’ fault because journalists didn’t really know about the energy,” Yamada said in Cambridge, her base for her year-long research.
Her reporting experience in Fukui, and then Fukushima, is what encouraged Yamada to do the research. In March 2011, she was based in Fukui Prefecture, reporting challenges faced by Fukushima refugees. These people used to live in coastal areas of Fukushima, and most were fishermen — the poorest people in Japan.
“Basically these refugees became jobless because all they know is fishing. Local people in Fukui also lost their jobs because most of them worked for nuclear power plants in Fukui. When reactors stopped operating, there’s a big number of unemployment. Electricity shortages also created problems for businesses. People were just waiting, some of them found seasonal jobs. There’s a lot of social economic problems in Fukui after 3/11,” she recalled.
The refugees were allowed to visit their hometowns for the first time in November 2011, for only four hours, to collect their belongings after evacuating. Yamada went to the affected areas for the first time with the residents of Futaba, the host town of the Fukushima power plants.
“It was like a ghost town. Time stopped in March 2011. Animals are everywhere — pigs, cows, rats. It’s a scary place,” she said.
Yamada said the earthquake followed by the meltdowns really devastated local people. They lost almost everything in their lives. She thinks that the nuclear operator, Tepco, should have done more to prevent this all from happening. “Tepco really didn’t anticipate this. For example, when it happened, the emergency centers in Fukushima couldn’t be used because they’re too close to the reactors. This is unacceptable,” she said.
Various negative aspects about nuclear plants only came up in the mainstream media weeks after 3/11. Previously the media was a big supporter of the nuclear companies, together with government officials and nuclear scholars. Whenever people raised opposing voices, they were easily regarded as just “protesters or activists who were not experts, so we didn’t need to listen to them,” she said.
As a research fellow at Harvard University, she visits active and non-active nuclear plants in New York, Vermont and San Diego, California. She wants to learn how things could possibly be handled better since the Japanese government plans to reactivate some of the 50 currently-offline nuclear reactors. When companies restart their reactors, she will do her best to make sure that more related aspects are under consideration, mainly safety issues and socioeconomic concerns for host communities.
Yamada is also concerned with what she saw during her two visits to Fukushima. Although the affected areas are closed for human beings due to the radioactive contamination, birds and other animals still go in and out of the areas, carrying hazardous substances. She agrees with what Professor Koide told her: once nuclear reaction happens, no human being can control the energy.