In the early afternoon of March 11, 2011, as the sun was slowly being covered by a cloudy sky, the residents of the prefecture of Fukushima were going about their normal business.
Though this period of the year is pivotal, with the festive atmosphere of the approach of graduation ceremonies, the day was seemingly ordinary, when, at 2:46 p.m., the ground began to shake. The Japanese are well prepared for this common occurrence, but the tremors quickly grew to an unprecedented strength, plunging residents’ lives into chaos. The brutal earthquake threw furniture and household items to the ground, interrupted traffic, cut off the electrical grid, and ruptured pipes. By nightfall, many were without water and power, thus without light, heating, phone lines, and TV, as violent aftershocks continued to shake their homes.
Without any means of information, most residents of the prefecture had no overall view of what had happened.
They were thus unaware of what had happened on the coast:
a tsunami had swept through, leaving no trace of life in its wake and flooding the emergency cooling systems of the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. They would later learn that three of the nuclear reactors were destroyed, resulting in major radioactive contamination.
In 2015, four years after the worst succession of natural and technological disasters Japan has ever experienced, the traces were still visible along the coast devastated by the tsunami and in the exclusion zone evacuated by the population.
The abandoned houses, animals, personal belongings, and infrastructure create a chilling and ghost town-like atmosphere, while outside the zone life seems to go on nearly as usual. Here, a measurement station indicates the dose rate of the ambient air in microsieverts per hour in real time. Over there, a decontamination team is tearing up the top layer of soil, filling large bags to be transported to temporary storage until disposal... Life as usual? Hardly!
Even if it may go unnoticed at first, countless issues remained to be addressed, starting with the trauma of the residents who for more than four years had been constantly faced with difficulties, trying to regain control of their lives.
Residents who in many cases were still living far from home, often in temporary housing, depending on subsidies provided by the State to those who had to evacuate.
Whereas the tsunami took the life of nearly 16,000 people in just moments, the fallout from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were still a threat to health and an obstacle to a return to normal life, nearly five years later.
Occurring nearly thirty years after Chernobyl, the Fukushima tragedy is a clear reminder to those in charge of radiation protection of how important it is to take into account all aspects of a radiological accident, in addition to those related to health. Life is not only about health.
This paradigm shift is the result of experience gained over four years of fruitful discussions between 2011 and 2015 - in particular as part of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative - between radiation protection experts and the community of residents of the Fukushima prefecture wanting above all else to regain control of their lives. The following pages tell the story of these dialogues' origins and progress.
1. A population in distress, in search of meaning
From March 11 to 16, 2011, the residents of the Fukushima prefecture suffered an earthquake of rare intensity, a devastating tsunami, and the unprecedented core meltdown of three nuclear reactors, one after the other. This unanticipated situation left the country's population in turmoil and deeply traumatized.
2. Trying to find one's bearings to regain control of life
While everyone was worried about being exposed to radioactive contamination, no one dared speak of it, among themselves or with neighbors. Moreover, how could it have been any different, since no one knew anything about radioactivity or how to protect themselves?
3. Living in a contaminated area: building a new way of life in Fukushima
Living in an area contaminated by radioactive fallout does not mean saying goodbye to life, but it is also not possible to deny that the accident happened by trying to go back to how things were before. This means finding new ways to regain control of everyday life, to make and share calm decisions.
4. Thinking of the future again
What does the future hold for Fukushima's residents? Returning to life before March 2011 is simply unthinkable, with vast sections of the coast swept away by the tsunami and/or contaminated by radioactivity... this burden will be felt for decades.
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