On March 11, 2011, an enormous plate of the Earth's surface plunged more than 160 feet toward the deep-sea Japan Trench -- about the height of a ten-story building -- releasing so much energy that, two years later, scientists could still measure a nearly half-degree centigrade temperature increase along the Tohoku-Oki fault. What had been at "sea level" for millennia was, in an instant, plummeting toward the depths.
On the nearby islands that form the nation of Japan, the massive movement of the Earth's crust caused the fourth largest earthquake ever measured, hitting a magnitude of 9.0 and shaking buildings throughout the entire length of Japan's main island.
The ground shook below Japanese feet for roughly six minutes. Centered off the coastal city of Sendai, 230 miles from Tokyo, the quake would have devastated most nations. But Japan, a nation built on faults and volcanic mountains, has the toughest seismic building codes in the world, and few buildings toppled.
Forty minutes after the earthquake, towers of water slammed Japan's Pacific coastline, with the largest wave reaching the Sendai region at a height of 133 feet. Combined, the earthquake and tsunami claimed about 19,000 lives, destroyed or severely damaged nearly 1 million buildings, left 4.4 million households without electricity, and created the nation's worst catastrophe since World War II.
These events were only the prelude to what has come to be known as the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which ignited a series of radiation horrors that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is still struggling to cope with nearly three years later.
Today -- just a few weeks before the three-year anniversary of the disaster -- the radiation problem is not contained in and around the Fukushima plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). Thousands of gallons of radioactive water have leaked into the Pacific, or have been stored in containers that Japanese authorities know will not survive intact for years -- much less for the decades of their radioactive timeline. But the water-storage challenge is simply the most public struggle the Japanese government and Tepco are confronting.
They now face a series of radiation challenges that no nation in the world is prepared to cope with -- least of all, perhaps, the United States.
In December 2013, I visited Fukushima prefecture, where government-hired contractors were charged with personally bagging 250,000 tons of low-level radioactive topsoil and piling these bags outdoors in 30 locations around the prefecture-- and where local citizens were left to ensure that these bags do not break, leak, or fall over. Stored atop manmade plateaus built on nearby mountains and around people's homes and rice fields, the bags are temporary and designed to withstand the environment for five years.
But, then, after that? Therein, as they say, lies the rub.
During my visit, Tokyo Medical University professor Shinzo Kimura, his associate Yukako Komasa, and I piled into a vehicle and headed into the Iwaki City mountains in Fukushima prefecture. We navigated some rough dirt roads until we encountered a large sign in Japanese that read: "Temporary Disposal Area for Contaminated Soil."
Yoshiro Yanai, whose construction company is under contract with the Japanese government to remove the soil, was ahead of us, leading the way in his truck. Yanai explained that all the soil we drove over was "clean," meaning it was imported from outside the radioactive zones to make the road. About five minutes into the drive, we pulled up to an almost incomprehensible sight: Crews of construction workers manned 18-wheeler diesel flatbeds mounted with four-story tall cranes, which lifted 40,000 tons of radioactive soil. The cranes moved identical blue plastic bags -- each containing one ton of earth -- and neatly stacked them, one by one, along the plateau.
The dirt was extracted from radioactive farms and gardens in an area outside the immediate "hot" zone encircling the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Workers hauled this soil through the sea-level plains and pine-covered Fukushima foothills and up the mountain, where they ultimately sealed it in the blue "weatherproof" bags guaranteed to hold the contents safely inside for five years. Some of the soil was bagged in 2011 -- months after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant -- so the clock is already ticking on bag integrity.
The thousands of bags neatly stacked on this plateau will eventually be loaded back onto the trucks and hauled to a permanent burial place -- that is, as soon as the Tokyo bosses can figure out where that will even be.
In total, 250,000 tons of soil are bagged and stacked in 30 locations throughout Fukushima prefecture. But not all the bags are up on a mountain, conveniently removed from the Japanese population. Thousands of bags are in the middle of communities, waiting to be relocated.
One evening in December 2013, an elderly man named Toshio Okoshi showed me around his village in the Shidamyo district of Fukushima. He took me to a vantage point where I could see piles of thousands of blue bags, from village to village, rice field to rice field, home to home.
Upon taking in the sight, I yelped so loud that Okoshi had to adjust his hearing aid. He explained that the region's village have been abandoned by the young -- with elderly like himself left to farm the rice, hoping its radiation levels will be low enough to allow commercial marketing. "Our only hope," he told me, "is that we will restore farming so that the young will return and bring life back to Shidamyo."
In Shidamyo, about 140 elderly residents are left to manage 45,000 tons of blue-bagged waste, ensuring that the bags don't spill or break before they are trucked up the mountain.
Though Tepco and the Japanese government have been at pains to downplay the ongoing dangers related to the Fukushima power plant, containment water leaks in October and November 2013 doubled, and oceanographic studies showed that cesium-137, which has a 30-year half-life, has leached into the sea and is being carried on Pacific currents.
On Feb. 8, 2014, Tepco conceded it had grossly understated the levels of strontium-90 in emitted water: The radiation is five times higher than previously stated. A variety of laboratories along the California, Oregon, and Washington coastlines have begun routine testing of Pacific and sea-life samples, looking for cesium-137 and strontium-90. So far, the labs have not found anything dangerous.
The Japanese government and Tepco have considered everything from creating a wall of ice to contain the nuclear plant (to stop the flow of contaminated water) to mass burial of gallons of radioactive water -- but concrete plans have yet to be presented that would actually solve the waste problem. In January 2014, Reuters reported that Tepco, desperate to find cleanup workers willing to brave the Fukushima power plant crisis, is recruiting from among the homeless population of Tokyo.
All over the world waste disposal is the primary conundrum facing the nuclear power industry: Though there are more than 400 nuclear plants in some 30 countries, there is no repository anywhere in the world for high-level nuclear waste and few sites or standards apply to lower-level radioactive substances like the soils of Fukushima.
Japan is learning that cleaning up a mess requires moving trash to a dump. But where does a nation dump hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive trash and millions of gallons of isotope-emitting water?
Since March 2011, the Japanese government, along with every local governance sector in the affected region, has struggled to cope with a seemingly unending series of questions and controversies related to the economy, radiation, land use, displaced people, and the overall stability of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Koji Omi, the former Japanese minister of science and technology policy, said that Tepco successfully shut off all its 11 nuclear reactors before the tsunami slammed into them; however, the towering wave destroyed the Fukushima plant's cooling system, causing a nuclear meltdown. After the water receded, clouds of radioactive steam and dust spewed into the air and onto the soil of the Fukushima district. On March 15, just four days after the disaster shook the prefecture, one of the nuclear reactors exploded, raining radioactive iodine and forcing mass evacuations of all 160,000 residents living within a 20-kilometer distance from the plant.
Kimiko and Fumio Iwakura owned a house and garden 10 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and they stayed put through the earthquake and tsunami. Before the government issued local evacuations some 18 days after the meltdown, the Iwakuras had been exposed to 80 millisieverts per hour (mSv) of radiation -- the measure of how the human body absorbs radiation. By comparison, a routine X-ray for a broken bone emits about 3 mSv and the concrete sarcophagus that has encased the storied Chernobyl reactor since its 1986 meltdown emits 5 mSv. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at its worst meltdown point, the Chernobyl reactor emitted 5,000 mSv per hour, causing terminal radiation sickness in all the exposed workers. And what does the WHO deem to be safe exposure? 3 mSv per year -- 2.4 mSv of which is accounted for in the existing radiation found in the environment.
Ultimately, the prefectural government relocated the Iwakura family to a shelter in Nihonmatsu City, high in the mountains of western Fukushima, where they remain still today, three years after the disaster.
The Iwakuras are gray-haired, friendly people in their early 60's who spent six months living a nomadic existence, forced to abandon their ancestral farm for one emergency shelter after another, eventually ending up in a mobile home that is strikingly reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina FEMA housing. They are a jobless, homeless couple with nothing more substantial than their two-room, cramped steel shelter, set alongside identical homes for other evacuees.
As of November 2013, nearly 95,000 evacuees remain displaced, some having managed to establish new jobs, houses, and friendships. But because most of the evacuees were, like the Iwakuras, over 60 or farmers, the majority have had a terrible time rebuilding their lives.
Japanese nuclear authorities say that the area within 30 kilometers of the power plant was showered between March 12 and March 24, 2011 with enough radioactive iodine to deliver a dose as high as 10,000 mSv per hour to every child.
Epidemiologist Eriko Sase, who has appointments with both Harvard and the University of Tokyo, estimates that those who are the most psychologically devastated are the mothers who did not leave the hard-hit areas right after the tsunami, but stayed with their children in Futaba, Iwaki, and other suburbs and towns. The government estimates that these youth will have double the risk of developing thyroid cancer compared to their peers in Tokyo, Sase said.
But people did not understand the gravity of these dangers at the time of the nuclear accident, and Tepco and government authorities were slow to reveal the scale of the radiation devastation.
The Iwakuras were hunkered down in a community center with neighbors long after the power plant exploded, feeling safe until Kimura, the Tokyo Medical University professor, showed up, measured radiation dosimetry in and around their shelter, and told them that they had to leave.
"Kimura-san was our lifesaver," Kimiko insisted. Fumio added that, "After the incident we didn't have any communication: No TV, no Internet. So we hadn't imagined that we were in a dense radiation level." After they were tested the following day, on March 30, 2011, they were forced to evacuate.
Fumio Iwakura calls the suburb they came from Namie-machi (or Namie-town), and says some 21,000 people inhabited the area. "My own house is solid, it's strong. But we cannot return," he said, fighting tears. "That feeling I cannot express -- it's difficult to say... . We are just having a temporary rest now," he said, forcing a joke. Fumio's livelihood was in his suburb. A handyman by trade, his clients and his business were both in Namie. Now, he has nothing.
Last December I sat with the Iwakuras in their home, where we gathered around the kotatsu table that stood just inches from the ground, while Kimiko prepared something of a feast on a propane stovetop. After eating, Fumio rose from the floor, where he had been sitting, his legs folded beneath the low table, and pointed to his Japanese maps taped across the wall.
These renderings tracked the vast 13,800-square-kilometer region of Fukushima, which included the now-abandoned Futaba zone closest to the power plant and the Iwaki City area -- 350,000 people live in this 1,200-square-kilometer tract of land, which includes a dense urban core, rings of village-like suburbs, and the mountain forest in which we were perched at that very moment. He had spent many hours staring at these maps, writing down radiation-detection levels, and dragging his finger gently over the place he once called home.
"That map contains many mixed feelings," Kimiko said. "All the feelings we have are concentrated in those maps. Now we can go back to Namie-town for very short periods of time. It's abandoned. We have to cut all the weeds and deal with the mice and other animals." The duo grew agitated describing how all sort of rodents, feral cats, snakes, and birds have invaded homes across Namie.
For the time being, however, the Iwakuras showed no signs of radiation-related illness. And for that, they said, they have Kimura to thank.
Today, Kimura runs a small clinic in Iwaki City dedicated to monitoring radiation and teaching people how to test their food, water, housing, and land. He has invented a device called "Food Light" for cooks, which measures the radiation levels of all ingredients before preparing meals.
The young bespectacled physician estimates that much of the land within 20 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi plant cannot safely be reoccupied for at least 165 years -- a bleak future the Abe government has never shared with the evacuees.
Now working with Kimura is Yukako Komasa, a petite former NHK broadcast journalist who saw the tsunami devastation, quit her job, and enrolled in public-health training at the University of Tokyo. Kimura was formerly an official with the Ministry of Health. Now an independent academic, Kimura splits his time between Tokyo, Fukushima, and Chernobyl in faraway Ukraine. There is a tinge of zealotry in Kimura. Since the Fukushima explosion, his research and clinical pace have accelerated so that his wife has filed for divorce, separating him from their children. Though there are other researchers concentrating on the site, his decisions have left him to feel as if he is the only one. Kimura has chosen to live on the edges of the forbidden zone, "so I am able to share the pain," of the locals. "Why am I so desperate?" he asked. "Because I am all alone -- the only researcher here to help Fukushima -- so I can't rest."
One of the most stunning parts of this trip was that -- upon seeing these blue bags piled high and wide -- I realized that no country would do better than Japan. And, in fact, many might perform worse. No nation is equipped to handle the human displacement, anxiety, and waste-disposal crisis Japan now faces.
Where in the United States of America would a power company or government authority safely bury 250,000 tons of radioactive soil, millions of gallons of high-radiation water, and the detritus of abandoned homes and farms across thousands of acres of land? How would the U.S. government alert families like the Iwakuras, hunkered down after an earthquake and tsunami without electricity or any connection to the outside world? How would it compassionately relocate 160,000 people and help them rebuild their lives?
The United States has one deep cavern site outside Carlsbad, N.M., which houses highly radioactive waste from weapons programs. And in parched clay land near Andrews, Texas, a private company buries very low-level waste, such as the uniforms worn by lab technicians. There is no location in America designated to handle the sorts of water, soil, and radioactive detritus that Japan is now struggling to cope with.
After the Fukushima Daiichi explosion, all the country's nuclear plants were shut down, returning the nation to its pre-2002 state of near total dependence on fuels purchased from outside the country -- a tremendous burden on the national commodity exchange rate and trade balance. In 2013 Japan imported nearly $80 billion worth of fossil fuels, more than double the pre-tsunami level.
As the third anniversary of Japan's greatest post-WWII catastrophe looms, it behooves Americans to pay close attention: Consider the questions that now stymie scientists and government authorities, and think about just how ready and wise we are in the good old USA.