At this point, a week and a half after the earthquake and tsunami, and with the government and thousands of volunteers rapidly restoring power and water and municipal services to the affected area, Japan — and the world — is anxiously awaiting the resolution of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima.
What is clear to nearly everyone in Japan, and to many outside the country who have a stake in the problem, is that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which already did not have a stellar reputation for ethical behavior and honesty, has — despite the unquestionable bravery of individual employees on the ground — continued to let its customers, and the country, down.
The company threw up its hands three days after the quake, unable to get its nuclear material under control, and decided to pull all of its employees out of the crippled facility, which was at that point leaking radiation. Prime Minister Naoto Kan reportedly called Tepco President Masataka Shimizu into his office at 4 a.m. on March 15 to say in no uncertain terms that pulling out was not an option.
On March 16, according to the Mainichi Shimbun, Kan told Kiyoshi Sasamori, the special adviser to the Cabinet: “In the worst case scenario, we have to assume that all of eastern Japan would be wrecked. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. has almost no sense of urgency whatsoever.”
Those of us outside the tiny bubble of Tepco executives and senior Japanese government officials have had to parse official statements and news footage and the musings of media-sourced “experts” in order to try to figure out what has really been going on.
What’s clear is that nothing is clear. In the worst case — a case Tepco and the government have studiously avoided discussing — the nuclear fuel in the reactor cores and storage facilities could melt down, and melt through the radiation-proof containment domes, significantly contaminating the environment. There are differences with Chernobyl, thankfully, most of which are positive for Japan. But the situation, Kan said last week on national television, is “very grave.”
From what I’ve read, even in that worst-case scenario, the health risks in Tokyo would not be high, but more important for Japan, a good-size exclusion zone would almost certainly have to be permanently established around the plant, and that exclusion zone would very possibly require the rerouting of major transportation links serving the east coast of Japan north of Tokyo.
In that light, many people in the Tokyo area, though almost certainly safe from the radiation that is currently leaking from the reactors, have made plans to leave the city, or have left already. Many of those people have young children, who are far more vulnerable to radiation sickness than adults; many have done so at the urging of their embassies or companies. And while many are foreigners, who have been described by foreign media as “fleeing,” many more are Japanese.
I have seen some nasty stuff written by some (foreigners) who stayed about those (foreigners) who have left, and though I haven’t taken any of that invective personally (I don’t care what you think about me — you don’t know me), I have spent some time defending others.
Everyone’s case is different, and everyone’s perception of and strategy for dealing with risk is different. When the president of Tepco is ordering (unsuccessfully) the evacuation of his entire workforce, abandoning a handful of nuclear reactors to certain catastrophic meltdown, you can very legitimately ask questions about your own safety, even if you are 225 km away (and of course Tokyo-area residents in Chiba, Saitama and Ibaraki prefectures can be much closer).
As for others, many who have left have done so on the advice of their embassies and/or companies. Others who have done so (including me, writing this from Kyoto) have done so because their circumstances permit them to play things as safe as possible while the situation is so uncertain, and because power shortages caused by earthquake and tsunami damage have made life somewhat less comfortable. I am fortunate enough to be able to work from virtually anywhere, and with plenty of offers of hospitality coming in from friends all over the world, my wife and I decided it would be better to keep our kids (aged 3 and 5) as safe and comfortable as possible until things are more clear.
Do I have any concerns at all about my own personal safety? I was in the quake/tsunami zone on March 14, one of the first reporters there. I’ve traveled to and worked in some of the dodgiest countries on Earth, countries where guns outnumber light bulbs. I am operating here as I operate in those places: by making the smartest decisions I can with the information I have.
And though the invective I have seen leveled at those who have “fled” has been aimed at foreigners by foreigners, I know many Japanese who have left the Tokyo area. They’ve left for the same reasons foreigners have, i.e. their circumstances permit it, or their companies have enabled it. Why? Why not, if you can do it? Why not relocate people, when you have facilities there from which they can work?
The only thing that is really clear in the current situation in Fukushima is that the outcome is extremely uncertain. What’s also clear is that Tepco is making public less than all of what they know, with the same true of the government of Japan. A lot of people have been and are unhappy with that, including Japan’s Self-Defense Forces chief, who threatened to pull his troops out because he apparently did not trust Tepco. A New York Times reporter wrote on Twitter Saturday that the paper has reason to believe the Japanese government is holding back information about Fukushima. And who holds back good news?
As I wrote above, everyone’s case is different, and everyone’s perception of and strategy for dealing with risk is different. Who am I to judge you? Who are you to judge me? We all want the same things: that the brave workers battling to get the situation at Fukushima under control will succeed, that Japan will avoid the crippling economic blow that would result from a worst-case outcome to the crisis, and that Japan can quickly begin rebuilding, with renewed vigor.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived for 22 years in Asia, the last nine of them in Japan. He plans to return to his home in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, once the Fukushima crisis is resolved. For a counterargument on why it is safe to stay in Tokyo, see the HESO Magazine article “Cool heads must prevail to help cool the rods” by Sophie Knight, accessible on the HESO website. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.