Center for the Environment

After Japan's 'multifaceted disaster,' Purdue professor sees sobering present, dismaying future

September 30, 2013

Overgrown weeds and tall reeds now tower over the once-manicured two-lane roads leading to Fukushima.

Outside the 20-kilometer exclusion zone set up to protect the public from radiation after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, thousands of temporary homes sit on baseball fields, school grounds and other open spaces to house displaced Japanese.

Miles of rubble. Empty, water-damaged structures. Collapsing local industry.

Those are some of the scenes and realities of life on Japan’s eastern coast that have stuck with Daniel Aldrich since he returned last month from a year in Japan.

“People’s lives have been suspended, basically, for the last two years,” said Aldrich, associate professor of political science at Purdue University. “All of the things we take for granted, all of them are gone now.”

“It’s almost like a movie set, a very tragic movie set.”

Aldrich returned in August from a yearlong Fulbright research fellowship at the University of Tokyo.

He studied the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima — widely considered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl — including the impact on the community and local industry.

“The project for me was understanding what happened to the residents of the community, some of whom will never go home again,” Aldrich said.

March marked the two-year anniversary of the disasters that devastated the eastern coast of Japan, killed nearly 20,000 people and caused nearly $360 billion in losses, according to the Brookings Institute.

Aldrich visited Fukushima in 2002 on another Fulbright fellowship. It was aimed at studying what it was like to live near a nuclear power plant.

“I went from a chance to live among the people who live nearby the plant and interact with them, and now my only contact with them is following them outside the area,” Aldrich said. “No one is living in their homes anymore.”

Another area of Aldrich’s research was the effect of the disasters on local industry and agriculture.

Aldrich remembers going to grocery stores in Tokyo and seeing signs advertising rice harvested outside of Fukushima. He said people are uncomfortable buying products made or produced anywhere near the nuclear plant — even if there is no proven danger whatsoever.

The previously thriving fishing industry in Tohoku that once employed thousands also has shrunk.

“What we’ve seen, unfortunately, is the collapse of an industry,” Aldrich said. “It’s a tragedy. Once people hear the name Fukushima, they don’t want to buy anything (from) there at all.”

The professor also witnessed tension between the Japanese citizens and their government about lax nuclear power plant regulation.

“If you live near a nuclear power plant, you hope the government is regulating it,” Aldrich said. “It turned out a lot of these areas are a lot less safe than the government promised people.”

Despite the ongoing struggle, Aldrich said he has been inspired to see higher levels of civic involvement — from massive demonstrations in Tokyo to the advent of “citizen science,” in which citizens are collecting and publishing their own data about local radiation levels out of distrust of official sources.

“People want to get more involved in politics,” Aldrich said. “You see more citizens getting out of their homes, rallying, voting, getting more involved in public affairs.”

Aldrich and his family are back in West Lafayette; he is teaching classes again and continuing to study the disaster. He is focusing his research on those displaced by the Fukushima disaster.

“We’re trying as much as we can to understand right now, before this fades, what the conditions are in the aftermath of this,” Aldrich said. “For better or for worse … this kind of multifaceted disaster — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown — we think is the future of most disasters.”

Story by Hayleigh Colombo


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