When major disasters strike, not knowing or understanding the long-term consequences can be just as terrifying for affected communities as is the destruction and loss of life. Matters are made even worse when corporations and government agencies attempt to shield themselves from legal recourse by deflecting blame and even spreading misinformation. Affected residents are left feeling unsafe and hopeless, not knowing whom they can really trust in their greatest time of need. To restore the sense of safety and normalcy necessary to clean up and move on from earthquakes, oil spills and other such disasters, confidence must be restored.
Perhaps more so than any other catastrophe, in the wake of a nuclear meltdown affected communities are left with seemingly unanswerable questions about their long-term welfare. Such was the case in 1979 and the years following the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, and it’s happening again in the areas affected by the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Conflicting reports from the Japanese government and officials at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. have left residents questioning the safety of their food supply and the air they breathe, not to mention their worries over the loss of their homes, families and livelihoods.
Among the millions of Japanese looking for answers is acclaimed Japanese designer Satoshi Nakagawa. While researching ways to help Japan move on from the tsunami and nuclear meltdown brought on by a powerful earthquake on March 11, 2011, Nakagawa came across research conducted by Barbara Gray, professor of organizational behavior at the Penn State Smeal College of Business, and Anthony Baratta, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering. Nakagawa, founder of Hug Japan, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping those affected by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, invited Gray and Baratta to Japan to share the insights they gained helping the communities surrounding Three Mile Island following that disaster more than 30 years ago.
Following the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, poor communication from federal and state agencies and the utility company that owned the nuclear power plant left local residents distrusting of officials in charge. When the decision was made as part of the cleanup efforts in 1980 to release the radiation into the atmosphere, the local community was in an uproar. Most of them had little knowledge of the effects of radiation and they would not simply take the government’s word that they would be safe. Gray, Baratta, and other Penn State colleagues teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (now the Department of Environmental Protection) to restore public trust in the recovery efforts.
Baratta, now with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and his Penn State nuclear engineering colleagues created a new device to measure beta radiation, the type released at Three Mile Island. The team placed these devices in communities around the reactor, setting them up to constantly print out radiation levels. Rather than leaving the communities to trust government or utility officials to report and explain the readings, Gray and her colleagues trained 50 residents of local communities on how to use the devices, interpret the results, and communicate the radiation levels. The readings were reported daily in local newspapers beginning the week before the radiation purge and continuing during the five-week release, and in some cases, for years afterward.
“These reports were coming from the people who the community trusted,” Gray says. “They were neighbors who were being just as affected by the tragedy as everyone else. They restored the confidence in the information being reported.”
The initiative, called the Citizen Radiation Monitoring Program, got the community involved in its design and operation and addressed emotional as well as technical issues associated with the release of the radiation. It helped to give local residents back their sense of trust, understanding and confidence.
This is exactly what Hug Japan’s Nakagawa wants to restore in the affected areas on Japan’s coast. In early November, he hosted Gray and Baratta as well as other thought leaders from around the world at a symposium in Tokyo. While in Japan, the contingent visited Kitaibaraki, a coastal city of about 46,000 residents approximately 50 miles south of the Fukushima plant.
According to Gray, the situation in Kitaibaraki is much worse than what faced the people living near Three Mile Island.
“They don’t know if they can eat the food that is grown near the reactor. There are questions about whether the fish are safe to consume,” she says. “Plus, they are dealing with the cleanup from the tsunami, which wiped out their homes and businesses.”
Kitaibaraki’s many fishermen have been left without work. Their boats were destroyed and Otsu harbor was left nearly unusable by the tsunami. And even if they could fish, there’s no market for their product because of the large amounts of radioactive iodine that have poured into the Pacific Ocean.
Gray’s visit to Kitaibaraki started with a gathering of children at a local school. The children shared pictures they drew reflecting how the tsunami and fear of radiation has affected them and their families. Hug Japan is exhibiting this artwork at shows around the world to raise funds and awareness for the victims on the coast of Japan.
The trip also included a tour of the destruction resulting from tsunami both in the city of Kitaibaraki and in the waters of the Pacific just off the coast. Their boats took them as close as safely possible to the Fukushima plant.
The Kitaibaraki trip concluded with a meeting of about 300 local residents during which Gray and Baratta explained their Three Mile Island project and its positive effect on the psyches of devastated communities. Kitaibaraki’s mayor expressed a desire to initiate a similar course of action in his town.
Back at the symposium in Tokyo, Gray, Baratta, and representatives from consulting firms, NGOs, and corporations shared their ideas on recovery, including ways to get the people of coastal Japan back to work and some sense of normalcy.
Gray says she was surprised at how far the cleanup has progressed since the earthquake and tsunami struck nine months ago. In Kitaibaraki, there were pristine, empty lots where homes once stood, right next to other homes suffering little enough damage to be repaired. The pictures from the news coverage of rubble littering the streets and boats sitting atop buildings were no more, at least in Kitaibaraki.
“These people are so resilient,” Gray says. “They will be dealing with the aftermath of this disaster for decades, but they have already begun the process of moving on. Many feel that their government has failed them, and they just need someone they can trust to tell them that they’re going to be OK.”
For more information on Hug Japan or to make a donation to the recovery efforts, visit hugjapan.jp.