Is Japan LOST? (Part 1)

“This city has to survive. It’s beautiful. People have to come back. They’ll come back one day. They have to. It’s a beautiful city. I was just at the stadium. There needs to be children here. There is no life without risks.” *

People who have been following Japan's reaction to its nuclear crisis have had many moments of dumbfounded, slack-jawed amazement as they hear of plans to move people back into the disaster zone, clean up the enormous levels of radioactive fallout and restore life as it was before – all while three nuclear reactor fuel cores lie in a melted heap and tons more of spent fuel lies in a precarious, exposed state.

This situation has started to remind me of the characters in the long-running television drama LOST. They wandered dazed and confused in a surreal paradise for six seasons before they figured out that their lives were over, as they obviously must have been after their airplane crash. Several times over the seasons the lead character, Jack, was knocked unconscious and had to awaken each time and make sense of his surroundings while befuddled by trauma and brain injury. In fact, this was the defining aspect of his character. He was always slow to figure things out, always striving to deny reality, and thus knocking himself out for a lost cause. He would have fit right in during the nuclear disaster aftermath on “the island” that is Honshu.

The Japanese government, and many of the residents of Fukushima who are going along with its plans, seem to be in the same state of traumatized denial. They are like a bloodied driver emerging from a car accident who is oblivious to what has happened. He stumbles around and stammers about being late for work and needing to go, becoming all the more confused by the perplexed looks on people's faces. For the past six months, the trauma victims of Fukushima have lived in denial about what has happened, aided in their delusions by the global nuclear industry, as well as by cynical domestic financial interests and government officials who want to save the economy and the tax base.

The plans so far have all been about cleaning up and restoring the contaminated communities, regardless of how hopeless, expensive and dangerous this will be. These deluded citizens ignore inconvenient facts, such as the fact that the young, educated and wealthy are not coming back, which assures that these communities will be populated only by the elderly, abetted by cynical exploiters in the bureaucracy who want to spend the nation's finances on such an ill-advised “revitalization.”

While there is much evidence that adults may be able to live in low level radiation with an "acceptable" risk of being affected, the risks for embryos are much, much higher. The people who are in a rush to rebuild communities in Fukushima haven't stopped to ponder the futility of resettling in towns where the soil is condemned and procreation involves an unacceptable risk of birth defects and lifelong harm to health.

I could go on at length with a parodic comparison of how the people of Japan are LOST. The cleanup workers at the Daiichi plant resemble the bewildered workmen and the survivors who were enslaved into a legacy of 1970s technology and experimentation gone terribly wrong. They are down in the metaphorical hatch desperately pressing a button to save the world, or maybe just performing a fool’s errand, but they don't dare stop pressing that button. They carry out compartmentalized tasks without knowing who is in charge or what the master plan is, if there ever was one. The survivors fight among each other about whether to leave or stay, while they simultaneously fight and form alliances with various "others" who come from afar with mysterious agendas. There are weird health effects and malevolent, intangible forces. Certain people are deemed expendable for the greater purpose of the opaque goals of these competing groups. One thing they must do to master the power of the island is understand why humans cannot reproduce on it. Whatever the force is, it is, like radiation, particularly dangerous to pregnant women and fetuses, and it is the issue that must be resolved if humans are to have a future on the island.

In these ways the people of Fukushima and the workers at the Daiichi plant are pawns in a game between competing powers that they cannot comprehend, in a battle with technology that is beyond their control. They must look at their various levels of government, the IAEA, the WHO, and corporations like TEPCO, Toshiba, Westinghouse, and Areva as a bewildering parade of suspicious strangers arrived from over the horizon. The similarities between “the island” and Fukushima can be stretched too far, but they illustrate how LOST had its moments of brilliance when it depicted humanity’s tortured relationship with its technology.

Another analogy with LOST is in the way the survivors split over faith and rationalism. An article in the New York Times in December, 2011 (Japan Split on Hope for Vast Radiation Cleanup) illustrated how the Japanese are slowly waking up the extent of the catastrophe that has fallen on them.

Critics of the revitalization effort are growing more vocal. They believe it “… could end up as perhaps the biggest of Japan’s white-elephant public works projects — and yet another example of post-disaster Japan reverting to the wasteful ways that have crippled economic growth for two decades.” The trial cleanups have stalled because there is no place to put the removed soil, and even after “decontamination,” more radioactive particles blow down from the forests and hillsides. Levels remain above international safety standards for long-term habitation.

The director of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo, Tatsuhiko Kodama, said, “I believe it is possible to save Fukushima, but many evacuated residents must accept that it won’t happen in their lifetimes.” Thousands of buildings have to be scrubbed and people will have to wait while “… the topsoil from an area the size of Connecticut is replaced. Even forested mountains will probably need to be decontaminated, which might necessitate clear-cutting and literally scraping them clean.

Japanese officials said that they don’t have the luxury of evacuating a wider area as was done in Chernobyl because the area covers 3 per cent of the land mass of Japan. My reaction to that was: only 3 per cent!? If that’s all, get the people out and move them to the remaining 97%! Japan is a densely populated country, but its rural areas have been depopulated in recent decades. There is a lot of unused real estate, in big cities and rural areas, and room for the affected 2 per cent of the population to move elsewhere. Besides, the decision to evacuate should be decided by the level of contamination, not the availability of land. If land were really that scarce, there are friendly nations that would take refugees, if Japan could swallow its pride and ask for help.

This pride was on display in one quote that showed what will probably prove to be a fatal arrogance in the Japanese mindset. One man seems to suggest that those backward and impoverished Ukrainians and Russians just were not up to the task. “We are different from Chernobyl,” said Toshitsuna Watanabe, 64, the mayor of Okuma, one of the towns that was evacuated. “We are determined to go back. Japan has the will and the technology to do this.” 

It is stunning that this senior citizen and community leader sees only his own need to return to his home, while he ignores the interests of young people who wisely choose to stay away. The young are expected to go along with the elders so that they can spend their old age on their native, radioactive soil.

The article mentions the long roots of local families to the land, and the sympathy they have gained throughout Japan, but now “… quiet resistance has begun to grow, both among those who were displaced and those who fear the country will need to sacrifice too much without guarantees that a multi-billion-dollar cleanup will provide enough protection. Soothing pronouncements by local governments and academics about the eventual ability to live safely near the ruined plant can seem to be based on little more than hope.

In one town visited by the NYT writer, there was an obvious split in opinion between the old and the young, especially the young families with children. One old-timer said, “Smoking cigarettes is more dangerous than radiation. We can make Okuma a model to the world of how to restore a community after a nuclear accident.” As if that would be something to be proud of? One might argue that the best demonstration of what happens after a nuclear accident of this scale is an evacuation zone that cannot be inhabited for 100,000 years. One does not want to create the moral hazard of an impression that a nuclear disaster is a casual thing that can be cleaned up easily.

To conclude, the article quoted Professor Kodama saying, “… victory would be hollow, and short-lived if young people did not return… Saving Fukushima requires not just money and effort, but also faith. There is no point if only older people go back.”

To me, it has become pretty obvious that young people are not going to go back. In addition, not only young people, but intelligent people, and people with any option to live elsewhere, will not go back. There was one memorable scene in an early episode of LOST when Jack is desperately trying to save a patient who has been killed during a surgery botched by his drunken father. He labors over the patient long past the point when it has become obvious that she is gone. His father stands behind him insisting repeatedly, “It’s over, Jack. Call it.”

Yes, as Professor Kodama says, it’s a matter of faith, and I am losing faith that the Japanese people have the collective intelligence to save themselves. Wake up, and give up on this notion that the contaminated regions of Fukushima can be restored. Accept the reality of what happens when you lose control of a nuclear power plant.

It’s over, Jack. When is someone going to call it?

“This city has to survive. It’s beautiful. People have to come back. They’ll come back one day. They have to. It’s a beautiful city. I was just at the stadium. There needs to be children here. There is no life without risks.” Words spoken by an senior citizen of Pripyat, USSR, during the evacuation of the area around Chernobyl. No one ever came back. Source: The True Battle of Chernobyl. Dir. Thomas Johnson, Produced by Play Films for Discovery Networks, 16:00 ~.

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