‘Nuclear Nation’: Surviving Fukushima. A Review
Although Nuclear Nation has been described as a hard hitting expose of the nuclear power industry, to my mind the overwhelming feeling is much more subtle. The film creates melancholy and sadness, which deepen to unease and then to fear in the viewer.
The movie laments the death of the small Fukushima town of Futaba, whose citizens have been driven into exile as refugees. It chronicles the destruction of Fukushima province, blasted by the earthquake-generated giant tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown of Japan’s March 11, 2011 (“3/11”) disasters.
The film’s hero, Mayor Idogawa (former mayor of Futaba), once a huge fan of nuclear power, comes to present a kind of loyal municipal opposition to Japan’s central government and to TEPCO. He is forced to learn first-hand the dangers of nuclear power, struggles to share his knowledge with those who ought to care and to help, and attempts, vainly to get justice from the government for his town. He grieves for his own part in bringing disaster to his town and warns the world to take note of Futaba’s experience.
The mayor notes Futaba’s place in Japan’s unique and terrible nuclear history. No other country in the world has survived a world war-driven nuclear holocaust as well as a “domestic” nuclear meltdown of its own power plants. “People in Hiroshima and Nagasaki [bombed by the US in World War II] are still living there, [but Futaba’s citizens are scattered across Japan as refugees.]” The mayor vows: “I won’t let Futaba get wiped off the face of the earth!”
How did this happen? A sign at the entry to the town of Futaba in Fukushima summarizes Futaba’s upbeat mood from the 70’s to the late 80’s when “nuclear money” enriched town coffers: “Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous.”
Pointing to a photograph album chronicling Futaba’s prosperity, the mayor reflects: “Futaba was a great town. Compact. Not wealthy, but if you needed anything it was in reach. It was comfortable. We were self-sufficient. It was a perfect little town! And for work there was always the nuclear power plant and everybody thought the plant was great!”
In addition to jobs, the mayor explains, the plant brought much needed revenues. Over 50% of town revenues came from TEPCO, the power plant, “nuclear money.” “Nuclear money” made it possible to build a fine town library flanked by a grove of flowering cherry trees. Electricity was installed. Farming was mechanized. A railway station for Futaba was constructed and maintained. Villagers built larger more modern houses and drove cars rather than riding on motorbikes.
But this atomic energy booster sign is also ironic to the point of tragedy as it stands directly in front of the post 3/11 devastated rubble-strewn fields of Futaba. The ultimate legacy of TEPCO and the nuclear power plant and of nuclear energy as a whole. It has created a ghost town and a possibly permanent refugee population. And there is no resolution in sight.
The three part disasters of 3/11 caused hundreds of deaths and 160,000 Fukushima residents were also displaced. 1,400 people from Futaba were dispatched to live as a densely packed multiple family refugee camp in a Tokyo suburban high school gymnasium. Five years later many families are still packed in the gym, unable to return to their homes in the prohibited “exclusion zone.”
They are safe but despondent to the point of depression – they can’t carry out their usual work in the fields or on the sea. And they have to eat the same fried chicken lunch boxes every day and listen to politicians on TV offering empty apologies for their lot. They read letters from TEPCO offering some small individual compensation: “Dear Victims: we have inconvenienced you greatly. We apologize deeply. We offer individual compensation…” The victims shout back at the TV: “You are not sincere!”
The film even records a visit to the refugee camp by the Emperor and Empress of Japan. They are warmly welcomed by the villagers. But no official action resulting from the visit is recorded.
The villagers brood: “This is our destiny. We worked hard. We built. And now it is all washed away.” Worst of all, no one will give them accurate information as to when they might be able to go home.
The refugees are shown visiting their homes in the Exclusion Zone, inside of which exposure to radiation would exceed the maximum allowed by TEPCO for one year.
Their first sight of the town, flattened by the tsunami, is a shock: “There’s nothing left! I can’t stop the tears.” All is disorder. At a cemetery, the head of the Buddha neatly lopped off lies below the tablet. Hungry or ailing cows wander all over the area, living proof of what has happened.
Farmer Masami Yoshizawa cares for abandoned animals, saying that they like him are living protests of nuclear accidents too and that despite his own exposure to radiation, he is committed to caring for these animals. “My destiny is linked to theirs.”
The people of Futaba learn to be skeptical of the government and TEPCO’s empty apologies and reassurances. And they have become very angry- and vocal about their anger in a very untraditional Japanese way. “Let us go home!” they shout in demonstrations and “You’re the [LDP] loyal opposition! – Give us back our Futaba! Please make the radiation disappear! Or make them [TEPCO, government] apologize! Sincerely! Or make them give us real compensation for our losses! If you can’t do this, quit your jobs and get out of politics!” LDP party members listen impassively, shake hands but offer no wisdom or sympathy, certainly not the kind of reassurances the villagers are seeking.
How did this happen?
Futaba’s “nuclear money” prosperity from the 80’s was short lived. By 2007 the town’s economy had spiraled out of control towards bankruptcy, becoming one of the poorest towns in Japan. Faced with a financial crisis, and unwilling to raise taxes, the mayor says he remembered a proposal to build two additional reactors. This plan would guarantee $13 million dollars a year for the town for four years, totaling $52 million dollars over four years. “I thought our lives depended on that money.” The mayor pushed for two additional reactors to be built in Futaba. Further construction was slated for April 2011.
And then came 3/11
The film effectively presents the facts of the disasters and excels at highlighting responses.
Futaba’s mayor’s is portrayed as making futile but gallant efforts to present a clear picture of Futaba’s difficulties and a warning of the effects of nuclear disasters to an all-Japan group of mayors of towns which house nuclear power plants. His warnings about the need for guarantees of safety and monitoring are continually shouted down by the pro-nuclear village mayors, who say that a shut-down of their reactors will cause the public to lose their trust in Japan’s entire energy policy. At meetings of the nuclear power municipalities’ mayors, ministers from MITI offer brief canned statements of apology and then leave with speed, heads down and averted, driven by “official duties.” It’s clear that nothing further will be done.
Individual responses – Futaba/Fukushima villagers.
- One of the “nuclear gypsies,” a nuclear decontamination worker at Dai Ichi Kangyo, who says that “it’s the last place in the world he wants to be.” The work is very tough. It is hard to breathe, he has to take frequent breaks; “sometimes he can’t even make it up the stairs.” But it is hard to find another job.
- A former “nuclear gypsy” retired after he has reached his legal limit of radiation exposure, who says wistfully that he wishes he could go back down into the reactors. At least it would be work.
- A little boy at the dinner table, one of the refugee families in Tokyo, who says that he feels lonely because nobody from Fukushima is in his class. He also says that no one is allowed to discuss the disasters with him. The school is fearful he might cry.
- The father and son who lost a wife and mother in their flight from Futaba; who have designated an area on the tsunami-blasted heath as her grave, leaving flowers, where they can pray when allowed back in the Exclusion Zone.
- A feisty 90-year-old lady in the refugee camp, who says she has a few good years left in her and doesn’t want to spend them packed like a sardine with all her neighbors in a foreign high-school gymnasium- she just wants to go home to Futaba!
The film concludes with a speech by the mayor thanking the world at large for its kind concern for the people of Futaba and asking it to take note of Futaba’s experiences – and to be warned. There are no answers, only questions. The movie engenders fear in viewers for Japan’s future. And, a profound fear for the fate of our entire planet.
The movie lingers long in the mind.