April 26, 2017
Fukushima is no longer a story of disaster. Now, six years after the nuclear meltdown, Fukushima is a story about building back the fundamentals of a society. It is about how quickly disasters can deteriorate trust in institutions and how laborious it is to gain that trust back. And about how misinformation is a hardy foe against fact. At least those are the lessons I learned when I visited Fukushima with Sasakawa USA’s Emerging Experts delegation on the day before the 6th anniversary of the nuclear accident.
One person who helped me understand these lessons was a reporter at Fukushima TV who was in charge of telling the public what was happening as the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown unfolded. Many things about this duty were difficult, but he recounted that one of his biggest struggles was to ditch a singular notion that he thought was true - that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were completely safe. His trust in the safety of the nuclear power plant ran so deep that when the first reactor exploded he did not believe the news. Rather, he thought about all the times the government, utilities, and nuclear engineers assured him it was safe, that nothing would or could ever happen to the plant - until it did.
Once the second, then third reactor exploded, he accepted that the worst had happened, but it caused his faith in the institutions that fed him that false sense of security to shatter. He was not alone in his loss of trust and it left many people to wonder if they could still believe the information coming from the government, utilities, engineers, media, neighbors - all the information purveyors they used to trust, but now questioned. And as is the case in many unthinkable disasters come-to-life, the foundation of trust continued to erode as speculation, rumors, and general misinformation spilled in the space where the truth was lacking. Unfortunately, the rumor mill has not stopped since and continues to hurt Fukushima’s residents.
I witnessed a sliver of this misinformation and the distorting effects it can stir the week before I left for the trip. As a delegation of energy and environment experts, we were eager to visit Fukushima and began reading and passing around news articles in a chain of emails, but amid ten level-headed articles, one sensational article immediately gained the most attention. The article spoke of a sudden record high radiation at the Daiichi nuclear power plant due to a “gaping hole” found in a reactor that was leaking. It said the levels were fatal, unprecedented since the day of the meltdown in 2011, and that the consequences were still unknown. The article said TEPCO - the utility company who controlled the Fukushima Daiichi power plant - would give more details soon, but “it remains to be seen if they can be taken at their word.”
The spike in radiation was shocking information to read six years after the disaster and right before we would travel to Fukushima. Naturally, it left many of us with questions. Should we be concerned for our health? Is it safe? Is it true? Fortunately, we were able to quickly stamp out our concern after emailing a nuclear and radiation expert in the US government who assured us that the radiation levels in Fukushima prefecture were no higher than natural levels of radiation found in some other cities throughout the world. He himself had gone to areas near the Daiichi site in 2012 and he said he did not feel like he was putting his health at risk. This quick exchange was able to put our worst fears to rest, but I could not help realizing that, ironically, our resulting security was derived from the trust we had in an institution – a luxury Fukushima residents no longer took for granted.
However, I use this comparison with American trust lightly as it was quickly used against us in our meeting with TEPCO. During this meeting we talked about how TEPCO is trying to overcome issues of trust in the community, partly through cooperation efforts to decontaminate the prefecture and bring families back to a safe home. But we also wanted to know their take on the news story we read that caused our initial concern. In good humor, their response was to call the radiation spike “fake news” - an all too timely phrase that made the Americans cringe, reminding us of our own troubles with deteriorating trust in institutions.
But for Fukushima the consequences of misinformation cut deeper because the stories concern matters of public safety and health. Misinformation can be downright dangerous if non-experts exaggerate or downplay the seriousness of a health concern. It can also cripple an economy as it did in Fukushima. Before the accident, agriculture was one of Fukushima’s largest sectors where they held local stardom for their peaches, apples, and rice. This quickly changed once news spread throughout the country and the world that food from Fukushima was poisoned from the radiation. Some of this, especially directly after the meltdown, held truth, but not anymore though the rumors still persist.
To combat the spread of misinformation, locals have tried to use facts to overpower the fiction. With help from the Japanese government, strict regulations were put in place to ensure the safety of food coming out of Fukushima. Farmers were given tools to test radiation levels in every single crop they grew so consumers could buy the peaches, rice, and apples they loved without feeling like they were threatening their health. This joint-effort between the government and Fukushima locals has slowly helped build back Fukushima’s reputation, but even with extremely rigorous agricultural regulations and testing the sector has still not rebounded, largely as a result of the negative stigma.
This final lesson about the hardiness of misinformation, even among substantial evidence and data, was driven home for me by a conversation with a local resident. A middle-aged Fukushima local who has lived in the same town her entire life, she recounted her daily struggle with ongoing stigma. She smiled and laughed through our conversation as she told me that people throughout Japan still fear Fukushima and the people from there. They have become outcasts in the country where some will go so far as to avoid touching or speaking to someone from Fukushima for fear that they will catch radiation from them. One student who moved to a university outside of Fukushima committed suicide because of the isolation brought by the other students’ misunderstanding. She told me how angry she is about this while still keeping her sunny disposition, seeming to cope internally while trying to give a hopeful impression to an outsider.
At first pass it seems foolish that people could be influenced by misinformation that seems obviously false or easily researchable like whether you can “catch” radiation from talking to a person. But time and again the experiences in Fukushima have proven how long it takes for an area to heal from a disaster in terms of trust in institutions and information. It is a slow process, but they are healing by creating data, creating opportunities for cooperation between locals and their government, and sharing their experiences with people throughout the world – like myself and our delegation. Six years later and Fukushima is trying to rebrand itself, against significant adversity, in hope that someday soon “Fukushima” will fade from being synonymous with “disaster”.