After the Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Learning to live in contaminated territories

In its recommendations for the protection of people living in the long term in contaminated territories after a nuclear accident, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICPR) underlines the effectiveness of the direct involvement of the affected population and local professionals in the management of the situation, and the responsibility of the authorities, at both national and local level, to create the conditions and provide the means favoring the involvement and empowerment of the population.

To this end, in autumn 2011 the ICRP initiated a dialogue between representatives of Fukushima prefecture, local professionals, local communities, and representatives of Belarusian, Norwegian and French organizations. Until 2015, a series of "dialogue" meetings were held to find ways of addressing the day-to-day challenges of long-term rehabilitation of living conditions in the areas affected by the accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant. IRSN supported this initiative, and many of its experts took part in these meetings.

This page highlights the main lessons that can be learnt - both in France and internationally - in terms of post-accident management in the event of a nuclear accident. It provides evidence of this experience in restoring living conditions in areas contaminated by the Fukushima accident by giving the Japanese a voice, and tells the story of four years of dialogue between radiation protection experts and a community of residents of the prefecture (parents, farmers, teachers, doctors, elected representatives, etc.) eager, more than anything else, to regain control of their lives.

In the early afternoon of March 11, 2011, as the sun gradually gave way to overcast skies, the inhabitants of Fukushima prefecture were going about their daily business when, at 2.46pm, the earth began to shake. A common phenomenon for which the Japanese are well-prepared, but the tremors soon took on a new dimension, plunging the lives of the inhabitants into chaos. The brutality of the quake sent furniture and contents tumbling to the ground, interrupted traffic, disrupted the power grid and broke pipes...

By nightfall, many were left without water and electricity, with no lighting, heating, telephone or television, while violent aftershocks continued to shake homes. Due to the lack of information resources, most of the prefecture's inhabitants have no overview of the situation, and are therefore unaware of what has happened in the coastal zone.

At magnitude 9, the earthquake on the Pacific coast of Tohoku, north of Tokyo, was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. The resulting tsunami flooded more than 500 km2, killing almost 16,000 people, and drowned the emergency generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Between March 12 and 31, 2011, the melting of superheated fuel in the cores of three of the plant's reactors will release an estimated 520,000 terabecquerels (TBq) of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

From bewilderment to anger

The first few days after the accident proved particularly trying, with power and water outages, as well as winter conditions, giving many residents a real sense of abandonment. Most of them were in effect under house arrest, with no fuel or public transport to get around. 

For many, the initial trauma turned to despair as the sense of total loss of control over their daily lives grew in their minds. No way out, no idea what to do, a complete inability to act on their own, to make decisions, even about the most mundane things in everyday life: going out, coming home, opening the windows to air the house, drinking, eating, sending the kids to school... Where were they taking a risk? Or did we not?

As the days went by, with no help from the public authorities, despair gave way to doubt about their ability to manage the emergency, and ultimately to anger.


Leave, stay, come back?

In the days following the accident, the Japanese authorities took steps to protect the population, firstly from the immediate consequences of the radioactive releases, and then from the radioactive deposits formed when the releases were dispersed in the atmosphere. 

Given the region's radiological situation, these protective measures have had to evolve several times in the months and years since the accident. It's a difficult situation to live with and to understand for the populations concerned, who lack knowledge and reference points on the radiological risk, and yet have to decide whether to stay in their homes, move elsewhere or return once the evacuation measures have been lifted.

For all those living within a 20 km radius of the damaged nuclear power plant (almost 90,000 people), the question of a return hardly arises: due to a government decision, they had no choice but to leave the zone and move to temporary housing further away from the plant. 

But for those living outside the forbidden zone, the situation is very different: it's up to them to decide. To stay or to go? Staying means facing an intrusive, invisible and permanent enemy, finding oneself separated from those - family and neighbors - who have chosen to leave. But it also means keeping one's landmarks, one's job, one's means of subsistence.

Leaving means putting some space between yourself and the danger of radioactivity, being able to trust what you eat, regaining control over your life, finding refuge. But the downside is that you have to leave behind your loved ones, your neighbors, your friends and your own history. It's the feeling of having abandoned those who stayed behind, while at the same time appearing as a stranger to those who live in this "host country". It's sometimes - quite simply - finding where to go!

For Japanese citizens, accustomed to flawless products and impeccable service, the difficulties encountered by public authorities and their experts in managing the aftermath of the accident are incomprehensible. Public resentment towards those who are supposed to provide help and advice, and fail to do so, is fuelled by a feeling of helplessness among people who were unprepared to face, from one day to the next, a totally new dimension of existence: having to protect themselves from radioactivity.

Faced with the difficulties of dialogue between citizens, authorities and experts, Junichiro Tada, a radiation protection expert who moved to Fukushima after the accident, called on Ohtsura Niwa, a Japanese member of the ICRP, and Jacques Lochard, vice-president of the ICRP. Lochard proposed a tried-and-tested method: sit all the stakeholders around a table so that everyone can hear what they have to say, until the unspoken is expressed, thus easing tensions and facilitating mutual understanding. Thus was born the Dialogues Initiative for the rehabilitation of living conditions after the Fukushima accident.

A new way of choosing food, raising children, producing and selling, enjoying culture... Living in an area contaminated by radioactive fallout means finding new ways to regain control of one's daily life, and to make and share peaceful decisions.

Neither sight, nor smell, nor touch betray its presence, and yet radioactivity is there. Day and night, everywhere, inside and out, taking control of your life and dictating the rules of a game you don't want to play, but can't escape. How do you tackle this insidious, faceless enemy? How do you tame and subdue this invisible force? By giving it a face. And you can do this by measuring everything, everywhere.

Measuring is not just a possibility, it's an absolute necessity, the starting point for assessing the situation, moving from perception to reality, making radioactivity tangible.

Gaining new bearings by measuring radioactivity

Measurements help identify sources of exposure and begin to manage the situation, helping to alleviate distress. And there's no choice but to take measurements yourself, individually, as there's no such thing as a "typical person". Measuring allows you to build up a personal database day after day, to observe variations in radioactivity levels and to discuss the results with relatives, neighbors, experts... thus re-establishing dialogue within the community.

Day after day, recording measurement results becomes as routine for motivated people as checking the use-by date on food packaging. From the youngest to the oldest, from the kitchen to the bedroom, from rice to fish, everything has to be measured: mountains, fields, gardens, roads, parking lots, buildings, schoolyards, kindergartens, tap water, meals... This is how the people of Fukushima are gradually becoming familiar with measurement techniques and equipment.

Measuring is one thing, interpreting the results quite another. In addition to learning how to use measurement equipment, residents need to acquire a minimum knowledge of measurement units, the notion of detection thresholds and the mechanisms by which radioactivity is transferred to the environment. Indeed, measurement results must be interpreted with care, firstly because they depend on the context, and secondly because there is no clear dividing line between what is safe and what is dangerous. 

However, the development of a radiation protection culture, if it enables everyone to know where, when and how they have been exposed, and to act in such a way as to best control their exposure, is not just a matter of acquiring knowledge. It also involves weighing up lifestyle considerations, so as to make reasonable decisions about daily exposure and regain control of one's destiny.

The experience of those who take measurements shows that the levels of radioactivity they find are often lower than they had anticipated, much to their relief. Although measurement results cannot completely eliminate doubt and anxiety, they do help to alleviate them. They won't make people forget the nuclear power plant accident, but they will help them turn their gaze back to the future by enabling them to sort out the radiological good from the bad, irrespective of the authorities' binary instructions, such as: "Below such and such a level you can, above such and such a level you can't." Among those who take measurements, some have reached a stage where they can say: what's the point of worrying about consuming a product above the prescribed limit, if it's only two or three times a year?

In the space of four years, from 2011 to 2015, residents of Fukushima Prefecture and a handful of radiation protection experts created a practical radiation protection culture, building expertise together.

In the city of Date, located some 50 km northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the mayor Shoji Nishida and the entire municipal staff launched a decontamination program, starting with the school playgrounds and extending to the most contaminated land within the city limits.

Since the disaster, more and more Fukushima residents have been working together to improve their living environment, with the support of the community, and to share their experience with others. This, of course, requires recognizing differences in values and approaches - the very basis of mutual understanding - as well as each person's temperament, whether optimistic or pessimistic, noisy or quiet, and also respecting each person's free will.

​​The Fukushima Dialogue Initiative is a unique example of democracy in action, where a community is no longer a herd of passive followers, but a group of individuals capable of making decisions, for themselves by their own free will and for others based on respect and mutual trust.​​​

Boiling down four years of discussions and experience to a few lessons learned is not easy. In any case, the human adventure shared throughout the 12 meetings of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative was a confirmation of some majors lessons learned from the work performed in the contaminated territories after the Chernobyl accident, in particular in Belarus and Norway. 

First and foremost among them was that it is essential for residents to be able to measure, by themselves and for themselves, the presence of radioactivity in their immediate environment​. Sharing the results of these measurements in a public setting - a space where residents could ​express their concerns and reactions, worries and hopes - gradually led to the establishment of local initiatives, allowing people to regain some control over their daily lives and freeing them to make decisions according to their own wants and desires. 

In the long run, this interaction, this cooperation in local initiatives and sharing of expertise by experts and the communities themselves, made it possible to implement radiation protection measures to improve residents’ living conditions and, ultimately, to restore their dignity and sense of wellbeing. 

Finally, these invaluable lessons must be preserved and disseminated both within the prefecture and beyond, to be called upon if a comparable situation occurs elsewhere in the world. ​

More than 10 years after the accident, the Dialogues continue

The Fukushima dialogues initiative initiated by the ICRP officially concluded in December 2015 with an international seminar held in Date, Japan. With the theme "Rehabilitation of living conditions after the nuclear accident", it aimed to share experiences and key lessons from this initiative (more information on the ICRP website).

The end of this action did not, however, mark the end of the dialogues. Between 2016 and 2018, a group of local players took up the torch and organized eight new meetings. This second initiative was financially supported by the Nippon Foundation, with the CIPR retaining an advisory role and organizing local logistics and the participation of its members and foreign guests.

Towards the end of this new series of dialogues, a strategy meeting organized in the city of Fukushima brought together around 30 participants representing the various parties involved in organizing the dialogues: Ethos in Fukushima (EiF) and other local players, foreign experts (ICRP, AEN, IRSN, NRPA and CEPN), as well as a representative of the Japanese Ministry of the Environment.

All participants confirmed the importance of dialogues in fostering exchanges and discussions, and more generally in establishing links between communities that didn't speak or know each other, at local, national and international levels. In particular, the participation of foreign organizations and experts was identified as an essential factor in building confidence in the information provided on radiological risks, and an effective means of dispelling mistrust of scientists, experts and authorities. In conclusion, participants at the meeting expressed a strong desire to continue dialogue until all evacuees wishing to return home are able to do so. 

This desire took concrete form in 2019 with the creation of the Fukushima Dialogue association, which continues its work to this day.