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Japan marks 10th anniversary of Fukushima nuclear disaster

Japan on Thursday marked another grim anniversary: 10 years since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the nation's coast triggered a 130-foot-high tsunami that crashed ashore at more than 500 miles per hour. It killed thousands and triggered a nuclear disaster at a plant in Fukushima. Nick Schifrin looks at that nuclear explosion in detail, and Grace Lee reports from Tokyo on the quake's aftermath.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Japan and another solemn anniversary.

    It's been a decade since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit off Japan, triggering a tsunami. Waves crashed ashore at more than 500 miles per hour, killing thousands and setting off a nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

    Nick Schifrin will look at that nuclear explosion and fallout in a moment.

    But, first, special correspondent Grace Lee reports that those events are still fresh in the minds of the Japanese as they prepare for the next quake.

  • Grace Lee:

    This is what coming home looks like 10 years on from the Great East Japan Earthquake.

    Hisae Unuma remembers being evacuated from her Fukushima home when disaster struck on March 11, 2011.

  • Hisae Unuma (through translator):

    I'm almost 70 years old now. I don't think it's possible for me to rebuild my life here.

  • Grace Lee:

    A magnitude 9.1 earthquake, followed by a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.

    More than 20,000 people were killed or reported missing. Hundreds of thousands more lost their homes. And to this day, parts of several towns near the nuclear plant remain uninhabitable. The meltdown caused radioactive damage, second only to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

  • Hisae Unuma (through translator):

    The government still hasn't decommissioned the nuclear power plant, and yet they claim everything's OK, and tell us we can return here. What if another disaster strikes?

  • Grace Lee:

    That disaster may not be far off in the future for the most populous city on Earth just 160 miles away. Tokyo is due for an earthquake of the century.

  • Kazunori Kawamura (through translator):

    It could happen at any moment. But there is about a 70 percent possibility of it happening in the next 30 years. And the government is preparing on the premise that it will happen.

  • Grace Lee:

    Tokyo's metropolitan government calls it Tokyo X-Day. A comic on its Web site illustrates a magnitude-7 earthquake hitting the city, and ends with a bleak message: It's not if, but when.

  • Maki Saito (through translator):

    We are yet to have a clear plan for that specific situation.

  • Grace Lee:

    Maki Saito is a disaster risk reduction adviser at Japan Platform, a nonprofit that specializes in emergency aid. When the earthquake hit Fukushima 10 years ago, the organization dispatched a team there within three hours.

  • Maki Saito (through translator):

    We're still dealing with the aftermath of that earthquake. We estimate the region will need our help for the next 30 years.

  • Grace Lee:

    If an earthquake like this were to strike Tokyo, a government estimate predicts the death toll could go as high as 230,000. A sobering warning came just four weeks ago, when another 7.1-magnitude quake shook Fukushima.

  • Kazunori Kawamura (through translator):

    If a tsunami were to hit Tokyo, the damage would be quite serious, since the city is on low ground. But the tall buildings will allow people to evacuate.

  • Grace Lee:

    Preparations to minimize damages in the event of a disaster are under way. Tokyo's buildings are famously shake-proof, and 3,000 evacuation sites are sprinkled across the city. The government also holds regular drills, as do schools across Japan.

    But the big question remains: Is Tokyo ready for X-Day?

  • Maki Saito (through translator):

    No, I don't think we are ready. What's crucial is to make sure people have as much information as possible for every scenario.

  • Grace Lee:

    Major international events, like the Olympics, have been cause for concern too.

    In two weeks' time, the Tokyo Olympic torch relay is set to start in Fukushima, a symbol of the region's recovery since 2011. Like the Games themselves, the relay had to be rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic, a reminder that even best-laid plans may not pan out.

    Different torches were lit today, candles across Tokyo, and at 2:46 p.m., the exact time the earthquake struck, a moment of silence to remember the last and all the pain suffered since.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Grace Lee in Tokyo.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now we turn to Thomas Bass, the author of seven books, currently working on a book about nuclear exclusion zones, including Fukushima. He's a professor of English and journalism at the State University of New York in Albany.

    Thomas Bass, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We just heard from a resident from Fukushima who pointed out that the government claims it's safe, but she doesn't feel safe. There will be Olympic matches held in Fukushima City this year. Do you believe it's safe?

  • Thomas Bass:

    Well, it still is a nuclear exclusion zone. So, it actually is a zone that excludes people from living in it.

    So, certainly, those areas are not safe to return to. And other areas are contaminated with nuclear particles and not safe to return to. You just saw a woman who's facing a village that's been completely devastated and is no longer habitable, has — no longer has any stores, any services. Even if it were considered — quote, unquote — "safe to return to," one couldn't return to it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Japan's government has long acknowledged some of its very early mistakes. And, politically, the party who was in charge paid very dearly for those mistake.

    And it points out today that it set a level of acceptable toxicity in the area and that the IAEA has accepted that level. Do you believe that argument?

  • Thomas Bass:

    Well, no, I certainly do not.

    The government raised the so-called allowable level of contamination 20-fold. They raised the allowable level to that that is usually limited for full-time workers in nuclear factories. So, it was only by raising the so-called level of toxicity that they were able to claim that the area was safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And let's zoom out a little bit for the whole country.

    Japan has kept offline more than 30 reactors. It rewrote the rules for its nuclear regulatory agency, much like the U.S. rewrote its rules after the Three Mile Island accident. Do you believe the Japanese government has done enough?

  • Thomas Bass:

    Well, first of all, they shut down all 54 of their nuclear reactors, and only a handful of those had been given clearance to reopen.

    Let's face it. Japan is a geologically unstable part of the world. I mean, it suffers — there was just an earthquake recently, a couple of weeks ago. So, Japan has geological problems that are far greater than most of the United States and its nuclear reactors.

    So, the Japanese government can claim that it's made its reactors safe and toughened up — toughened up its regulations, but the simple fact of the matter is that Japan never should have built nuclear reactors along it's incredibly unstable shores.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Japanese government says that it acknowledges that radiation is a long-term problem and is trying its best to manage the risks inside Fukushima, which are still there.

    Do you believe that they are managing the risks well enough?

  • Thomas Bass:

    No, I certainly do not.

    I mean, the reactors are still uncovered. There has not been a concrete sarcophagus built over them, as was the case with Chernobyl. They're still massively hot, still leaking large amounts of radiation, still having groundwater flowing through the reactors that has not been controlled.

    They — the plan to decommission them stretches out 40 years, because it requires technology that has not yet been invented and technology that has not yet been proven to work. So, in terms of managing the disaster, I would not give the Japanese government high marks on that front.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thomas Bass, thank you very much.

  • Thomas Bass:

    Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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