Around local hospitals and schools, radiation testing revealed consistent low-level exposure that could still be dangerous—particularly for children and pregnant women. But the government defended their decision, saying it was an important step in returning the region to “normalcy”.
While the national government touted the work they had done to aid and rehabilitate affected communities, city officials in areas close to the disaster claimed most of the progress was due to local efforts. Katsunobu Sakurai, Mayor of the city of Minamisoma, expressed concerns that the government wasn’t doing enough to help.
“We’re the ones who took the lead,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster, NHK. “Now we’d like more assistance from the country.”
With public distrust growing over months of misinformation from the Japanese government, members of parliament started taking drastic steps to soothe citizens’ fears. In a bold move, MP Yasuhiro Sonoda drank a glass of water collected from puddles at the bottom of Fukushima reactors.
Before taking a sip (with shaking hands), the politician explained that even though testing was still required, the water was safe—it had gone through a controversial decontamination process to be used for things like watering plants.
TEPCO started treating water to help deal with the massive amounts of contaminated water collected in areas around the facility. Despite decontamination processes that allow the water to be used in certain ways, the company is running out of storage facilities and new radiation leaks continue to be found.
December 2011: radiation in the ocean waters
Early in December, TEPCO announced that up to 45,000 litres of radioactive water had leaked out of the nuclear station, potentially making it out into the ocean. The incident was said to highlight the difficulty of containing and reusing large amounts of contaminated water.
Just weeks later, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that officials had reached an important stage in controlling the impacts of the disaster. Though they admitted that Fukushima would not be completely safe for decades, the company told citizens that temperatures and radiation inside the damaged reactors had finally reached safe levels—a state called “cold shutdown”.
Despite assurances from TEPCO and the government, public anger and distrust was still at a high point. A new social movement had emerged to oppose nuclear activity in Japan, championed by a number of women and mothers affected by the Fukushima disaster. Over 100 demonstrators took their concerns to the Nuclear Safety Commission to demand an open investigation into the accident, and to push the government to shut down all the country’s nuclear facilities.
Recently, news surfaced that workers had been recruited under falsified labour deals to work inside contaminated buildings at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Labourers from distant regions like Kyushu recounted poor conditions at the facility, low wages and the feeling of being “treated like a slave”.
One worker said he had not only been promised higher pay, but had also been told that he wouldn’t have to go inside the dangerous reactor buildings. According to reports, these workers were recruited by subcontractors in a multi-tier system under TEPCO.
Also this month, officials at the plant reported that temperature readings in the pressure vessel of reactor two reached over 90 degrees Celsius. The high temperature exceeds the standard safe limit of 80 degrees, and was an unexpected jump since the company had claimed in December the facility had reached the safe state of “cold shutdown”. After the scare, TEPCO officials announced that the readings were inaccurate and caused by a faulty thermometer.