[Book review] Documenting the tragic aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

Posted on : 2022-05-05 17:48 KST Modified on : 2022-05-05 17:48 KST
Natsuko Katayama kept fastidious notes on what she saw – and the people she spoke to – on the grounds of the Fukushima nuclear site
Workers retrieve unspent nuclear fuel from reactor No. 4 at Fukushima in July of 2012. (provided by Prunsoop)
Workers retrieve unspent nuclear fuel from reactor No. 4 at Fukushima in July of 2012. (provided by Prunsoop)
The cover of “People on the Front Lines”
The cover of “People on the Front Lines”

“People on the Front Lines: A Record of Nine Years of Disaster Relief by Workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant”

Written by Natsuko Katayama, translated by Lee Eon-suk, published by Prunsoop, sold for 23,000 won

We have already forgotten about Fukushima. Hardly anyone remembers what happened there 11 years ago.

People seemed apathetic when the incoming administration’s transition team announced that it will be extending the operational life of 18 nuclear reactors. There’s little sign of public pushback or opposition. Short-term profit is regarded as more important and precious than human lives and the environment, as greed erodes fear.

I try to imagine the 179 notebooks that reporter Natsuko Katayama kept over nine years at Fukushima. Those tattered notebooks must contain not only the blood, sweat and tears of those years, but also pain, anger and sadness. Disaster, sacrifice, suffering, frustration, tenacity, hope and sadness arise amid unfamiliar words such as Fukushima, nuclear power, workers, contaminated water, nuclear meltdown, protective equipment, radiation exposure, risk, and subcontractors and then grow dim amid imaginary shouts and groans.

Katayama, a reporter on the city desk at the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, went undercover at Fukushima after the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011 and continued digging for the truth there through 2019. She recorded her struggle in 179 notebooks which serve as the basis for “People on the Front Lines.” The “people on the front lines” that she met at Fukushima during those nine years can be seen as “minor characters.”

According to Osamu Aoki, a freelance journalist whose commentary appears at the end of the book, this book represents “reportage that insists on covering minor characters.”

“There are too many major characters in the world of journalism, including newspapers. [. . .] But there are many voices that are omitted in that process. Unknown people have feelings that contain facts we need to savor, ponder, contemplate and ruminate over,” Aoki wrote in the essay.

In reality, this book is a treasure trove of those minor characters. Katayama’s reporting is raw and intimate precisely because it is so plain and unadorned. Nine years of reporting is divided into nine chapters, which are summarized in a table of contents that runs for six pages.

Randomly sampling the table of contents feels as if you’ve already read the whole book.

“Fighting with sweat under the masks.” “Home before winter?” “Please tell them what’s happening here.” “Heading into the reactor with a son’s encouragement.” “Drilling into the containment vessel despite the radiation.” “Families scattered to the winds.” “Let’s live here.” “They do want to work until the reactor is decommissioned.” “Enough with these pointless inspections.” “Nothing has changed since the accident.” “How long will the contaminated water keep leaking?” “The scariest thing is being forgotten.” “A colleague died, but the work resumes.” “Are they just going to throw it away in the end?” “Someone’s got to do the work.” “We face the radiation, but the company keeps the money.” And so on.

Sei (55, a pseudonym) had been working with nuclear reactors since getting a part-time job at one in high school, at the age of 16. He fled Fukushima with his family three days after the nuclear accident, but came back four months later.

Sei firmly believed in the safety of the reactor. That was partly because he’d been working at nuclear reactors for four decades. His confidence in the five-fold barrier that was supposed to keep the radiation out was shattered into pieces.

A technician goes to work without a tungsten vest, due to a shortage in February 2013. (provided by Prunsoop)
A technician goes to work without a tungsten vest, due to a shortage in February 2013. (provided by Prunsoop)

This is what he told Katayama: “We didn’t take any precautions after the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the US because we saw those as being other countries’ problems. There was too much arrogance in the government and the power company. I felt betrayed because I’d believed it was absolutely safe.”

Sei was the technician who “drilled into the containment vessel despite the radiation.” He knew it was risky but thought that someone had to do it.

Compensation from the government made things harder for the victims. They had to deal with resentment from those around them, who thought they didn’t have to work anymore.

Katayama recorded what she was told about the suffering of scattered families who were shuffled from one shelter to another, suffering that they were reluctant to talk about. The victims were shunned in other areas, and their children were treated as refugees and “contaminants” at nurseries and schools.

Parents felt they had to dress their children in plain clothes to keep a low profile. Family breakdowns were common, including separations and divorces. With so many people separated from their families, some were even driven to suicide.

Workers went about their duties in the wrecked reactor despite radiation so heavy that not even robots could operate. That raises many questions. For example, why did they work there? Was it because of the money?

The only way to learn how those workers truly felt was to rub shoulders with them in the field. The stories that Katayama tells so plainly present us with the complex interiority of people facing an unheard-of disaster.

Do people carry the genes of hope that allow them to overcome extreme discouragement when they are pushed to the brink? Their desire to return home and remake it into a place where children can live in peace through their own strength could be seen as foolish bravado. But that conceals their heavy responsibility as members of society — the notion of “if not us, then who?”

In July 2011, a 56-year-old worker was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder, large intestine and stomach after just four months at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The cancer hadn’t metastasized, but had occurred separately in those organs.

But the government didn’t recognize the cancers as being job-related. Too little time had elapsed between the radiation exposure and the occurrence of cancer for a causal relationship to be established, the government said.

That worker had gone to Fukushima not because he wanted to, but because he didn’t want to lose his job. He had been more afraid of being terminated than being exposed to radiation, but now he regrets that decision.

The workers who combated the disaster at Fukushima were given unreasonable duties without receiving decent pay in a network of subcontractors that were often seven or eight times removed from the prime contractor.

Any incident, no matter how horrific, is forgotten with time. But Katayama had been meticulously investigating, listening, and recording what had happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant with the conviction that it must not be forgotten. In the eighth year after the accident, she started coughing up blood and was diagnosed with cancer of the throat.

The workers that Katayama had gotten to know during her long reportage were worried about her. “How did you come down with cancer before we did?”

One worker who was already racked with illness offered her comfort. “When one door closes, another opens.”

Katayama maintains her journalistic interest in Fukushima. She’s now in her 11th year reporting there, and on her 220th notebook.

By Kim Jin-cheol, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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