In one of the largest environmental catastrophes in the history of mankind, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant suffered a meltdown of three of its reactors on April 19, 2011. The area surrounding the plant was immediately rendered uninhabitable, and radiation released during the incident was detected thousands of miles away. Making the effects of this disaster even worse is the fact that cleanup efforts by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) haven’t progressed as quickly as they should have. Film director Atsushi Funahashi explored these topics in his award-winning 2012 documentary, Nuclear Nation, and he followed up with Nuclear Nation II in 2014.
These films follow the journey of the more than 100,000 people who were evacuated from the contaminated areas. In almost all cases, their homes were destroyed completely or rendered unfit for human use for hundreds of years due to the presence of radiation. These evacuees were set up in temporary housing, where many of them still remain four years later. There have been complaints about the quality of the accommodations arranged for them by the government as well as the compensation to be paid to them by TEPCO for the loss of their properties, many of which had been continuously occupied for generations.
By focusing on the actual people made homeless by the meltdowns, Funahashi brings home the effects of the disaster in a way that mere lists of dry statistics can’t. While his two films occasionally get bogged down in the trivial minutia of refugees’ daily lives, this might actually be a strength; many other movies about this topic ignore the human realities of the problem in favor of a too-broad overview. Nuclear Nation was produced little more than a year after the events depicted, so some of the editing and post-production was rushed, but Nuclear Nation II shows improvements in these departments as the filmmakers had more time to work with. Nuclear Nation can currently be viewed on DirecTV‘s Audience channel.
While those in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima plant were the hardest-hit by the accident, the environmental consequences are still being felt very far away. TEPCO is having difficulties dealing with contaminated water from the plant, and it has released millions of gallons of this irradiated water into the Pacific Ocean, where it can affect the wildlife and work its way up the food chain to harm humans. Radioactive isotope cesium-134 has even been detected as distantly as 100 miles offshore of Eureka, California.
Though the death toll of Fukushima, estimated at several hundred, pales in comparison to the Chernobyl disaster and the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the long-term environmental consequences may be similar. More than 300 square miles around the site have been declared a “permanent exclusion zone,” and the total economic loss has been estimated as running into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Although the meltdowns were triggered by a tsunami created by an earthquake, the catastrophe cannot in all honesty be described as purely a natural phenomenon. A parliamentary commission said about a year after the incident that it was “a profoundly manmade disaster … the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO.” The investigators found that the parties involved in building and operating the nuclear plant ignored recommendations by experts and prioritized cost reductions over safety concerns. Despite what happened, the Tokyo government remains committed to the nuclear power industry in Japan, which generated around a third of Japan’s total energy requirements prior to the meltdowns.
Among the most worrisome attributes of nuclear power plants is the fact that the consequences of an accident aren’t limited to the immediate vicinity but instead can spread around the world, as happened with the Fukushima tragedy. After the events of April 2011, many stakeholders in governments and private institutions around the world have elected to limit their exposure to the hazards of this dangerous form of power generation. As solar, wind, hydroelectric and other types of clean energy are further developed, we could see the world weaning itself completely off of nuclear technology, which in many cases uses outdated designs first developed in the ’50s.
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