The Fukushima nuclear disaster's legacy: An inescapable stigma

Commentary: Pockets of innovation, like a drone testing field, have some hoping the region sheds its notoriety. But it's not that simple.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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James Martin/CNET

The J-Village hotel and sports complex in Fukushima was immaculate, its grand lobby welcoming us with bright lights and pristine marble floors. Several furnished conference rooms stood ready to host one event after another.

There' was just one jarring thing: the utter silence throughout the facility.  

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It was our first night in the Fukushima region, and my photographer, James Martin, and my interpreter had arrived a little after 10 p.m. Initially, we weren't sure if this was the right location – we seemingly had the only vehicle in the parking lot, and a quick search of those conference rooms found no staff.

It wasn't until we located the reception desk, tucked out of sight from the main lobby, that we found another human. The employee noted that only 15 guests were staying in the 200-room hotel.

Welcome to Fukushima.

That first night proved to be one of the more memorable moments in a trip that included a visit inside one of the most radioactive hotspots in the world, a look at a massive underground ice wall and a virtual reality experience that took me to places no human could survive. It stood out because it illustrated the long way this area has to go before any semblance of normalcy can return.

When reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down in 2011, the disaster didn't just displace more than 160,000 people -- many of whom have yet to return -- it marked the region with a stigma that may never go away. I'll never forget the scenes of the tsunami wiping away whole cities broadcast on television, or reading about the meltdown. The urge to see just how a country comes back from such devastation drove me to pursue this assignment. 

Eight years on, there's been little progress with the actual cleanup. While three of the six reactors have been safely decommissioned, the remaining three have proven to be such a challenge that Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, just last month finally succeeded in sending a robot down to the Unit 2 reactor to pick up some of debris in the highly radioactive core.


The lobby of the J-Village hotel and sports complex. 

James Martin/CNET

In some ways, it's unfair to place the entire burden of the radiation scare upon Fukushima. One of the most surprising things I learned was just how massive Fukushima actually is. It's the third-largest prefecture in Japan and is split into three regions: the coastal Hamadori, which is where Daiichi lies; the central Nakadori, an agricultural hub and home to the capital, Fukushima City; and a mountainous region in the west known as Aizu. Only Hamadori was affected by the disaster, yet everyone feels the pain.

Still, I witnessed pockets of life return even in the areas close to Daiichi. J-Village, for instance, was once a national training center for the Japan football (soccer) team. But immediately after the earthquake and meltdown, it transformed into a staging area for thousands of workers dealing with the nuclear disaster and the reconstruction of the surrounding area.

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That it's up and running again as a sports complex and hotel is a point of pride for locals.

"For those of us from Fukushima who live here, we try to live as we did before," says Shunsuke Ono, managing director of the facility. "For people outside of Fukushima, there's a feeling that Fukushima is not normal."

Tepco and local government officials are pushing the concept of an "Innovation Coast" in the region through facilities like the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology and the Robot Test Field in nearby Minamisoma. The idea is to tap into the investment already being made in the cleanup effort and create a Silicon Valley of robotics and drone technology.

"What we want to do is turn that on its head and create a positive image of Fukushima around the world," Akifumi Kitashima, director of the robot industry promotion unit for the Fukushima prefectural government, says through an interpreter.

Tepco, meanwhile, has attempted to assuage the concerns of the locals who've returned, including offering free dosimeters and investing in drones to scare away the wild boar that come down from the mountains to inhabit the abandoned houses and buildings.

Tepco has also set up nursing care training facilities, offers home visit inspections and removes the weeds at local cemeteries. Masaaki Hanaoka, executive general manager of international affairs for Tepco's Fukushima Revitalization Headquarters, talks about the festivals it's sponsored and its attempt to promote tourism in the area.

But there are reminders of the disaster everywhere. Drive on the nearby Joban Expressway and you'll periodically run into signs with a readout of the radiation level. The daily weather report on the local evening news contains an update on the radiation in the area. 

I periodically drove past fields containing hundreds of bags of radiated dirt.

At the same time as my tour of Daiichi in November, former Tepco executives were in court to deal with charges of professional negligence. Despite Tepco's efforts to clean the mess up, there continues to be mistrust of the company and of nuclear power.

The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown caused a chilling effect on the use of nuclear power around the world. If it wasn't for stepped-up production in China, the generation of nuclear energy would be down over the last few years.  


The entrance to the J-Village facility.

James Martin/CNET

In Japan, only nine of the 35 nuclear reactors have switched back on, and there remains public concern over the use of nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Industry's 2018 status report. It's unlikely any nuclear reactors in Fukushima will see life again.

But ridding itself of nuclear power isn't going to reverse the damage done to Fukushima -- both to the land and to its reputation. The cleanup effort could take upward of $70 billion and at least 40 years.

Locals hope it doesn't take that long for the reputation to recover.

"Our message is just come and see us," Kitashima says. "What we like them to see is that this area, which was an evacuation area, has recovered and life goes on."