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One Month After Tsunami, What Are Japan’s Biggest Needs?

April 11, 2011 at 6:21 PM EDT
A month after an earthquake and tsunami killed tens of thousands and touched off a nuclear crisis, Japan struggles to cope with the aftermath. Jeffrey Brown talks with the Stimson Center's Yuki Tatsumi, the American Red Cross's Nan Buzard and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's James Acton.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For a closer look at the situation, we turn to Yuki Tatsumi, senior analyst on U.S.-Japanese relations at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international research group. She’s a native of Tokyo. Nan Buzard is senior director of international response for the American Red Cross, which is working directly with the Japanese Red Cross. She spent time there after the tsunami. And James Acton, a physicist in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

I got it out, right, the — International Peace.

James Acton, let me start with you, the latest on the expansion that we just heard about, the evacuations. What’s going on as they expand it?

JAMES ACTON, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, these — Jeff, these reactors were very highly damaged by the earthquake and by the tsunami.

And there’s been extensive releases of radiation into the environment, and there’s been extensive releases of radiation due to this very large quantity of contaminated water.

So because of that, the Japanese government has felt the need in certain hot spots, where higher levels of radiation has been detected, to ask people, actually over a fairly long time, over the course of about a month, to pack up their stuff and leave, because there would be potential long-term health effects by staying.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, when you are looking at that, does it sound precautionary, or does it up the ante of warning and danger? Or what — what is the assessment?

JAMES ACTON: Well, radiation at low levels can lead to an increased rate of cancer. So, what this really represents is a precaution, because the longer you are exposed to radiation for, the worse the effects are. So, ensuring that people are only exposed to still very low levels of radiation, but for — not for a prolonged time, is a precaution.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you assess the continued challenges with the water, the water in and around the plant, which is — we talked about a few weeks ago here? What is the latest?

JAMES ACTON: Well, Jeff, we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. The situation is much better than it was two or three weeks ago, but it remains volatile.

And in particular, this very large quantity of radioactive water that was necessary to pump into the reactor cores, because you want to keep them cool, has to be kept somewhere. But finding the space for that large quantity of radioactive water and doing that safely in a way that doesn’t put the plant workers in — in excess danger, really remains a very significant challenge for the operators.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me turn to the humanitarian challenges, because, amid all the talk about nuclear fears, it has gotten less attention, I think.

What is going on in these towns that were essentially flattened by the tsunami?

NAN BUZARD, American Red Cross: Well, you know, hundreds of miles of coastline was just obliterated by the tsunami. It takes everything. It’s not like an earthquake that happens on land, where you have crush injuries, but here, either, you survived or you didn’t. And it is just a line right there that you could stand on, which I did when I was there.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean literally…

NAN BUZARD: Literally.

JEFFREY BROWN: … on a line, yes.

NAN BUZARD: One foot in the mud with collapsed vehicles around you, and the next on clean pavement. I mean, there’s nothing like it…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Right.

NAN BUZARD: … and everything just completely taken away. You see the search for still 15,000 people.

It’s true that, almost from the beginning, the nuclear situation has, in some ways, eclipsed the humanitarian situation of the people that were affected on the coast. But there has been a huge relief operation, not only search-and-rescue, but supporting tens of thousands of people in hundreds and hundreds of centers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where are the biggest needs and what are the biggest needs right now? And how much is getting — you know, you have these huge infrastructure challenges of moving things in that local area, as well as getting to the areas.

NAN BUZARD: Well, in the first few weeks, you are correct that, not only did we have roads and bridges that were down, but we also had fuel, electricity, water lines. Everything was broken. A lot of that has been reestablished, though there are still some significant gaps.

The real focus in recovery is going to be where to put people who have not been able to return either to their home, because it was destroyed, or they don’t have family or family is not close by. We have got 160,000 people inside these collective centers. Most of them are schools. Kids need to go back to school. And the big issue is how quickly can you build transitional shelter, where is it safe and how to move them out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Yuki Tatsumi, we talked a few days after this happened about the political structure. Now, you’re listening to the continuing problems here.

What is the situation now in terms of the government’s ability to act and how it is seen by people in Japan?

YUKI TATSUMI, Stimson Center: I think, like Nan suggested, the government’s reaction to the humanitarian needs of those who were affected were very much eclipsed by their urgent need to attend to the nuclear power plant accident.

And then I think that still remains the case. But as the day goes on, I think there is a growing frustration amongst the public, certainly for those who have been displaced from their homes, about their instability in their lives. They — like Nan suggested, kids need to go back to school. School has already started.

And then, not only that. They just need to know when or whether they can return to their homes, and about when and how they can collect themselves, and going back to the life they are hoping to get back. And government has not been responding to the needs from those people for those answers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you say government, are you talking about both local and the national government at this point?

YUKI TATSUMI: Actually, I’m mostly talking about central government.

Unlike central government falling behind the curve in terms of providing assistance to those who were affected, I think that local governments throughout Japan really stepped up to the plate, opening up their public facilities for evacuees, allowing them to be — you know, be the temporary shelter for those residents.

But that still doesn’t solve the situation. And ultimately, central government has to move pretty quickly to build the — whether that’s temporary shelter or permanently replace — you know, relocate those people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, James Acton, you told a reporter earlier today that this has become the most complicated nuclear accident in history, not the worst, but the most complicated.

Now, explain what you mean by that, and put it in the context that we’re just hearing about the demands on the political culture, the technology, the scientific community.

JAMES ACTON: I think it’s very important to remember when assessing this nuclear disaster that it was caused by the biggest earthquake in Japan’s history and by the biggest tsunami in Japan’s history.

So, the authorities were always going to be incredibly stretched, even if there hadn’t been a nuclear accident. The nuclear accident itself is incredibly complicated, because, you know, four reactors in a very serious way are involved in this. There were three reactors that were operating where there still remains a significant chance of a core melting, even more core melting than we have already seen, and four spent fuel pools involved in this.

So, that combination of the cause of the accident, plus the nature of four reactors involved into it, has turned it into what I believe, by quite some way, is the complicated nuclear accident in history.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and what do you see happening? I mean, early on, remember, we were talking a lot about the lack of information coming out.

Is there more coordination now? Is there more information? Or is there still a lot of confusion, necessarily so, about what is actually happening inside those plants?

JAMES ACTON: There is still significant confusion. And part of that is because of the stress the authorities are under. Part of it is because the authorities themselves don’t necessarily know what is going on in the cores of these reactors, because a lot of the equipment they would use is damaged.

And there has to be an investigation afterwards to find out whether or not information has been deliberately withheld. But, I mean, I think it’s too early to be making accusations at this stage.

And as to the future, I think — I think this is — this crisis is likely, in the best case, to drag on for a number of months still.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I just wanted to ask you briefly about the fears, the threat to the U.S., to the West Coast, the threats around the world. Any changes there?

JAMES ACTON: No. I think the analysis there hasn’t changed. The chances of significant radiation injury to people in the rest of Japan, let alone foreign countries, is still very slim.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nan Buzard, let me ask you the same question. When you put — you listen to the talk about the political situation, and you look at the humanitarian crisis, what does the Japanese government have to do now, and in terms by itself and reaching out to other countries, to get a grip on this and to perhaps at some point move to a new phase, right, of recovery?

NAN BUZARD: Well, I think they actually are.

And, in fact, the international community, both the humanitarian community and the other governments around the world, gave a huge amount of support and offered support, much of it which was accepted, which was rare for Japan, who doesn’t normally accept it.

There has been a lot of good work done in the relief. And I think we just need to note that, not only the Red Cross, but others, particularly local communities, really stood up and took care of their own when the government was stretched.

The big issue now is going to be land, just like Haiti, a very different country, but issues of where do you build back? Who owns that land? I think you’re going to see in Japan a much more decisive government that’s going to take eminent domain, take up a lot of the land that was destroyed by the tsunami, and decide what kind of housing to build back for whom.

But that’s going to be a big issue, which is, do you build it back on the coast? Do you bring people in? What do you do with an elderly population that is going to need quite a bit of medical care? These are the kinds of issues that are going to face our country, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there an ethos that allows for a discussion like that or movement like that to deal with these kinds of problems?

YUKI TATSUMI: I think it’s going to be a significant challenge. This is a very emotional issue, especially for those who are displaced from their original homes.

And it’s normal for them to hope for the return to the home that they — they were living. And depending on what the government decides in terms of their re-buildup plan, they — their hopes may not come to fruition.

So how to balance that, in terms of meeting their — meeting the resident’s needs and desire to return to where they originally were living, and while relocating them to a safe enough place, so that they won’t be exposed to this kind of a calamity again, I think it is a quite difficult challenge, not — let alone how to finance those projects is going to be a huge challenge for government.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Yuki Tatsumi, Nan Buzard, and James Acton, thank you all very much.

JAMES ACTON: Thank you.

YUKI TATSUMI: Thank you.

NAN BUZARD: Thank you.