LOST After an Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Meltdown Catastrophe

LOST After an Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Meltdown Catastrophe

“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.” [1]

 (first posted in 2011, revised on March 30, 2017)

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 is enough to make a person feel like she has awoken in an episode of the sci-fi drama LOST (2004-2010).  In that story, the traumatized victims walked dazed and confused in an island paradise that had been uncannily transformed by various technological interventions imposed by previous human intruders. They were slow to figure 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 each knock on the head. 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 and making poor decisions. 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 reactions on people’s faces. For the first months, the trauma victims of Japan and Fukushima lived in denial about what had happened, aided in their delusions by the global nuclear industry, as well as by cynical financial interests and government officials who want to save the economy and the tax base. The pressure came from overseas as well, as the United States and other nuclearized nations needed Japan to continue with its nuclear program in order to sustain the international nuclear program.

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 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. They are abetted by cynical exploiters in the bureaucracy who want to spend the nation’s finances on such an ill-advised “revitalization” that is most concerned with saving the corporations that build nuclear plants or sell electricity from them.
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 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.
One can go on at length with a comparison of how the people of Japan are like the lost souls in 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 their 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, who to trust, 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 “others” and “other others” who come from afar with mysterious agendas. There are weird health effects and malevolent, intangible forces. Like radiation, the mysterious force on the island can heal or kill, but most crucially, it puts a stop to procreation by killing all pregnant women. There is a 19th century shipwreck in the middle of the jungle named the Black Rock, which, incidentally, is what Dene elders in northern Canada warned their people to stay away from. Their black rock is the black ore which the outsiders found was rich in uranium.
Alliances in LOST shift from day to day. Certain people are deemed expendable for the greater purpose of achieving the opaque goals of the competing groups. The original motivation for humans coming to the island was to master the limitless energy supply hidden within it, but one thing the inhabitants must do first is understand why humans cannot reproduce on the island. Whatever the secret of the energy source is, the problem must be resolved if humans are to have a future on the island. As the story proceeds, the survivors learn that in the 1950s the American military brought a hydrogen bomb to test on the island, but they were chased off, with their undetonated bomb left behind to cause future problems. They also learn in the final episodes that the island is a battleground between God and the Devil. God works on the island to contain the Devil on it, to keep him from breaking free to roam the world. He has his chosen representatives to intervene on his behalf and guide others, but God himself cannot intervene for the humans he has given free will. By the end of the tale, God is “very disappointed” in mankind. The intrusions by outsiders, who have come in pursuit of the island’s energy supply, have threatened to give the final victory to the Devil, now poised to finally get off the island. What started off looking like science fiction is now a religious parable as well.
In similar ways the people of Japan 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 has escaped human 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 the island where Fukushima is located can be stretched too far, but they illustrate how LOST was more than just the usual light entertainment offered up on prime time television. It had moments of brilliance when, between advertisements for technological gadgets, it subverted the institutions that produce entertainment, depicting humanity’s tortured relationship with its technology.
LOST also managed to reflect the horrible direction of American foreign policy at the time in a way that mainstream television news wouldn’t. When the cunning Benjamin Linus, leader of “the Others” in the island’s multi-sided civil war, liked to declare, “We’re the good guys,” the allusion to President Bush’s use of the same phrase was clear to all. In several episodes, the characters resort to terror and torture to manipulate the behavior of their enemies. The debates held among them were a reflection of what was happening for real in American society.
Another analogy with LOST is in the way the survivors split over having false hope and blind faith or making rational choices to cut losses. An article in the New York Times in December, 2011 illustrated how the Japanese are slowly waking up the extent of the catastrophe that has fallen on them.
Critics of the revitalization effort were growing more vocal. They believed 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.” [2] The trial cleanups had stalled because there was 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% of the land mass of Japan. A reasonable question to ask here is “Only 3%?” If that’s all, people could easily move 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% 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 really is so scarce, the logical next question is whether Japan can continue with the risks of nuclear energy.
Pride was on display in one quote in the NYT article 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 were just not up to the task of dealing with Chernobyl. “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 made an unfounded claim about the nation’s technological capacities and saw 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 in 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 the establishment of an evacuation zone that cannot be inhabited for 10,000 years. One does not want to create a moral hazard or 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.”
As time has passed, it has become more obvious that young people are not going to go back. Rural communities struggle to retain the younger generation even under normal conditions. In addition, not only young people, but intelligent people, and people with any options 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.” In all other disasters, there comes a time to 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 and call it for what it is. Wake up, and give up on this notion that the contaminated regions of Fukushima can be restored or that this island nation can continue with its nuclear program. Accept the reality of what happens when you lose control of a nuclear power plant. As a foreigner watching on the sidelines, with a passport I can use to go live somewhere else, that is a harsh judgment to make, but Japanese critics have come to a similar conclusion. The long-time anti-nuclear critic Takashi Hirose wrote after the disaster:

When politicians come from abroad with the intention of helping, the result is no more than a revolting solidarity among politicians and a string of falsehoods tossed off to the media. If the Japanese people continue to believe this kind of low-level news reporting and keep their mouths shut, the world will pass on by and leave the country and its industry behind and isolated. If the people don’t come to grips with the seriousness of the danger of the ongoing nuclear disaster and show the decisiveness to put an end to the nation’s nuclear power program immediately, the world will have no reason to believe in Japanese intelligence. [3]

That was written in 2011. It’s over, Jack. When is someone going to call it?


[1] Thomas Johnson (Director), The True Battle of Chernobyl, (M Way Films / Discovery Communications, 2006), 16:00 ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBAT13Bt9Ic or http://www.mwayfilms.com/en/films/the-battle-of-chernobyl . These words were spoken by one of the elderly evacuees from Pripyat on the day of departure. No one ever came back.

[2] Martin Fackler, “Japan Split on Hope for Vast Radiation Cleanup,” New York Times, December 6, 2011.

[3] Takashi Hirose, Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster (fukushima genpatsu merutodaun) (Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2011). The English translation was published independently and sold only as an e-book, with permission of the original publisher.

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