News

VOA Reporter Reflects on Devastation of Japan's Major Earthquake

VOA correspondent Steve Herman videotaping on the perimeter of the 20km radiation exclusion zone in Fukushima prefecture, Kawauchi Japan, March 6, 2012.
VOA correspondent Steve Herman videotaping on the perimeter of the 20km radiation exclusion zone in Fukushima prefecture, Kawauchi Japan, March 6, 2012.

VOA Northeast Asia Correspondent Steve Herman began reporting online and on-air moments after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan one year ago on March 11.  He and John Glionna of The Los Angeles Times were among the first journalists to go into the exclusion zone and to reach the gates of the Fukushima-1 nuclear plant.  In subsequent days and weeks, Herman's on-scene reporting - on the web, on radio and television and via Twitter and other social media - earned him a global reputation as a quick, reliable and dispassionate first-hand observer of the ongoing disaster.  In this essay he reflects on the significance of the event and the long-lasting problems created by the Earth's undersea upheaval last year.

It is still difficult to grasp the enormity of Japan's disastrous 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami and to realize how close the nation came to an unimaginable evacuation of Tokyo.

The overall tally from the natural disaster is sobering: 20,000 people killed - most by the tsunami - more than a quarter of a million buildings destroyed, and nearly 400,000 people made homeless.

The human tragedy has been heartrending.  Some parents are still hunting for the bodies of their children.  More than 1,500 children have lost at least one of their parents.

The unprecedented physical destruction has also left Japan with piles of debris, known as gareki.  What to do with all of that gareki is still a question the country is grappling with.

Some rebuilding has commenced, but a major frustration is that too many people are languishing in temporary housing.

There is also concern about some coastal communities that were losing young people through migration to urban areas even before the disaster.  Those communities may never recover.

Here in Fukushima prefecture there are many people who desire to return home, but a lack of adequate infrastructure and fears of radiation poisoning are compelling them to stay away.

Awareness of radiation levels has become the norm for people in Fukushima.  Every community in the prefecture is dotted with solar-powered radiation monitoring posts, displaying in large numbers on-the-spot data, measured in microsieverts per hour.  Some businessmen and housewives can be seen discreetly checking pocket geiger counters.

The radiation fears can be irrational; some Japanese have even left Tokyo, although background radiation levels are lower there than in some other cities around the world.

Some scientists and government officials assure the public that radiation levels are safe, even close to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  But since the disaster, the Japanese people have displayed a growing distrust in authority figures.

That, in great part, stems from the little accurate information during the early days of the crisis from the government, the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the media.  The overriding concern among bureaucrats and media editors in Japan seemed to have been avoiding general panic, rather than full transparency.  (The Kyodo news service has reported that as early as six hours after the earthquake hit, the Japanese government was aware of the possibility of a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, but "was reluctant to actively disclose information to the public.")

Despite several reports blaming the government and industry for improper safeguards, poor planning and non-disclosure of vital information, no one has been charged with a crime. Japan's prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan, said no single person or entity is wholly to blame, and many must share responsibility for what happened, including himself.

I was among those near the atomic power facility on the 15th of March when, unknown to the public, an estimated 10 million becquerels per hour of radioactive substances spewed from the three crippled reactors.  For days, I and millions of people in Japan absorbed significantly higher doses of radiation than we normally would have been exposed to.

Subsequent testing has shown no levels on my body or clothing that required decontamination, and I have suffered no ill effects I can even remotely attribute to radiation.

No one has died from radiation as a result of the accident, but delayed and poorly arranged evacuations of some Fukushima hospitals and other care facilities are blamed for scores of patient deaths.

The reactor meltdowns have destroyed many livelihoods.  They have also diminished confidence in Fukushima's agriculture sector, one of Japan's most prosperous areas for rice and produce.

Some predict the accident will ultimately end Japan's nuclear power industry, which has met 30 percent of the nation's energy needs.  That is not a good prospect for a highly industrious but resource-poor nation.  Going back to the days when Japan relied more heavily on imported and expensive fossil fuels could further damage its efforts to reverse a decades-long economic slide.

The country also finds itself facing a huge bill for cleaning up after the nuclear disaster and for paying compensation to victims.  That is estimated to be more than $250 billion.  Even for the world's third-largest economy, that is a staggering sum.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs