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

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

    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.
    Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Busi
    X
    July 28, 2016 4:16 AM
    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Philadelphia Uses DNC Spotlight to Profile Historic Role in Founding of United States

    The slogan of the Democratic National Convention now underway in Philadelphia is “Let’s Make History Again” which recognizes the role the city played in the foundation of the United States in the 18th century. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, local institutions are opening their doors in an effort to capitalize on the convention spotlight to draw visitors, and to offer more than just a history lesson.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora