A year after the earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant that followed, the crisis is most definitely not over. With almost 16,000 people dead, and almost 4,000 still missing, and many people still living in shelters, the victims and the problems extend far beyond those counted in these already staggering statistics.
First, despite the government’s claims, many people still question whether the nuclear reactor at Fukushima, and the leakages from it, are really yet under control. Second, the cleanup of the radiated area is barely beginning, relative to the size of the job.
Beyond all this there is the economic toll on the country as a whole. Think of the fisher people who can’t make a livelihood because waters are contaminated, the farmers who can’t sell their livestock (and in some cases have unfortunately resorted to duplicitous tactics to sell food products that don’t meet the government’s already weak standards anyway). And then there are the many farmers who are not even in affected areas of the country who nevertheless are suffering enormous losses because foreign consumers refuse to buy their products thinking that anything from Japan must be dangerous. There is no plan for compensation for this latter group at all yet, as far as I know.
And the economic effects go far further. Think of the consequences of mandatory reductions in energy usage by factories all over the country. Think of the financial hit that the holders of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric and Power Co, the company that owns Fukushima Daichi) bonds have taken–and these bond holders, by the way, are everyone: TEPCO had special dispensations to issue large numbers of bonds, and at the informal urging of government, all the big banks, many corporations, many private individuals bought them, and bought shares in the company which are even more worthless than the bonds. And then there is the effect of a crisis like this on consumer confidence and spending. We could go on and on.
But one cost that has not been adequately discussed in my view is the human psychological cost of all of this uncertainty. Imagine what it is like to be a mother, buying vegetables every day at the grocery store and asking yourself, “are these really safe for my child to eat?” and the answer is always the same–who really knows? It depends on which expert you ask. Imagine the exhaustion older people experienced, coping without electricity at unpredictable times of day due to rolling blackouts mismanaged by the company, or the stress of office-workers stuck on unthinkably crowded train platforms (or worse yet, inside unthinkably crowded trains) as due to reductions in train service to conserve energy. All these anxieties, these new forms of stress on a population already stretched to its psychological limits has had its toll–a 20% increase in the suicide rate in the last year, an increase in divorces, in behavioral and developmental problems among children and even physical illness linked to psychological causes.
If there is a sad lesson to be gained from this situation, it is that even in a comparatively rich country like Japan, there is no easy solution to this kind of crisis, no matter what the experts tell us. I wonder if those of us with similar nuclear power plants sitting on earthquake fault lines in our own countries have fully considered the bargain we have made: do we really understand what the costs of a disaster would be? And do we really have a good reason to believe our own experts when they tell us, just as the same experts told the Japanese public, trust us, the unthinkable will never happen?