Early in the afternoon of 11 March 2011, as the sun gradually gave way to an overcast sky, the people of Fukushima were going about their everyday business. Though this period of the year was a pivotal time with the preparation for the graduation ceremony, which created a festive atmosphere, it was a day like any other until, at 14:46, the ground began to shake. This not an uncommon occurrence, and something for which Japanese people are well-prepared, but the tremors quickly escalated to an unprecedented scale, plunging people’s lives into chaos. The savagery of the earthquake sent furniture and ornaments tumbling to the ground. It stopped traffic, cut the electrical grid, and burst pipes. When night fell, most residents were without water and electricity, and therefore without lighting, heating, phone lines, or TV, as violent aftershocks continued to rock their homes. Due to the unavailability of information means, most people had no overall view of the situation. Thus, most people were unaware of the worst: that a tsunami had broken on the coastal zone, leaving no trace of life in its wake and flooding the emergency cooling systems for the reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Later, they would learn that three nuclear reactors had been destroyed, resulting in major radioactive contamination.

Four years after the worst combination of natural and technological disasters in Japan, the scars of the tragedy are still visible along the coastline flooded by the tsunami and in the no-go zone evacuated by the population. There, abandoned houses, cattle, personal belongings and infrastructure create a ghostly, spine-tingling atmosphere, but outside the zone life seems to go on, almost normally. Here and there, a station monitors the ambient dose rate, displaying microsieverts per hour in real time, and land decontamination crews scrape the soil, filling waste bags to be transported to temporary storage areas pending processing… Life as usual? Not quite!

Though not obvious at first glance, much remains to be tackled, starting with the trauma left by more than four years of struggling with daily difficulties by people anxious to regain control over their lives, some of them still living away from their homes in temporary or rented housing, relying on the evacuation support they receive from the government. The tsunami claimed some 16,000 lives in one moment; nearly five years later, the fallout from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to be perceived as a threat to health and a barrier to returning to normal life.

Some thirty years after Chernobyl, the Fukushima tragedy clearly shows that those in charge of radiation protection must consider every facet of a radiological accident, for life is not just about health. This paradigm shift is the cornerstone of the experience gained from four years of fruitful exchanges – notably through the Fukushima Dialogue initiative – between radiation protection experts and a community of individuals living in Fukushima Prefecture who want above all to regain full control over their lives.

Three shocks in a row

From March 11th to 16th, 2011, the inhabitants of Fukushima Prefecture experienced a mega earthquake, a devastating tsunami and the unprecedented meltdown of three nuclear reactors. The totally unexpected situation left people lost and deeply traumatized.

With a magnitude of 9.0, the Great East Japan earthquake that occurred at 2:46 pm local time on March 11th, 2011 was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded to have hit Japan. The subsequent tsunami flooded more than 500 square kilometers, killing nearly 16,000 people, and wiped out the diesel generators of the Fukushima plant.

The meltdown of the overheated nuclear fuel in three reactor cores released an estimated 520,000 terabecquerels (TBq) of radioactivity into the atmosphere between March 12th and 31st, 2011.

Sources: irsn / meteofrance

The first days after the nuclear accident were particularly stressful, with power and water outages combining with wintry weather conditions to create the feeling of literally « being left out in the cold », as people were trapped at home due to a gasoline shortage and the lack of public transport services.

From bewilderment to anger

For many, the initial trauma gradually turned into desperation as the sense of a complete loss of control took root in their minds. No escape possible, not the slightest clue about what to do, no ability to rely on oneself, no ability to make decisions, even for the most trivial tasks of everyday life: going out, coming back, opening windows to air the house, drinking, eating, sending the kids to school… What was safe and what was not? Over time, home sweet home became a prison besieged by an invisible enemy: radioactivity.

As the days passed without timely support from the public authorities, desperation turned into distrust of their ability to respond to emergencies and, ultimately, wrath.

A stone’s throw from lively Date or Fukushima City, the once busy coastal strip of Tomioka, Namie, Futaba or ookuma became a saddening wasteland, dotted here and there with disemboweled houses, their sagging walls spilling out the heart-wrenching remains of suddenly broken family lives: clothing, books, bedding, toys, kitchenware, TV sets, photos, furniture… things of joy and sorrow littering the ground in unspeakable chaos, rotting in silent despair.

All this time, media coverage of the catastrophe focused on the situation at the plant: the inability to cool down the reactor cores, the dramatic explosions in three units, the radioactive releases, the expanding exclusion zones, the evacuation of people living inside the zones… But what about the pain of those dwelling in the vicinity of the plant, totally unprepared to live in a radioactively contaminated environment? Much has been said about the population as a statistical entity, but very little about the extreme anxiety of individuals who suffered the loss of their freedom.

Initially, the government set in motion an evacuation process:

  • Within a 3-kilometer radius on March 11th
  • Within a 10 and then 20-kilometer radius on March 12th

On March 15th the government instructed people living in the 20 to 30-kilometer radius to shelter at home. Ten days later, this instruction was lifted and people who could not evacuate in case of a further emergency were encouraged to leave the zone as soon as possible.
Altogether, it is estimated that nearly 150,000 people left the 30-kilometer radius, during this period, either by evacuation or voluntarily. These zones have been later renamed by the government as: zone in preparation for the lifting of the evacuation order, restricted residence zone, and difficult-to-return zone.

(Sources: Reconstruction Agency of Japan / www.reconstruction.go.jp – Nuclear Section, French Embassy in Tokyo).

Evolution of evacuation zones in the wake of the Fukushima accident

Craving for control

Everyone was concerned about exposure to radioactive contamination, but many dared not talk about it, either with relatives or with neighbors. How could they possibly do so, given their complete lack of knowledge about radioactivity and how to cope with it? Many villagers resigned themselves to staying indoors, entertaining vague hopes of external support. Still, as time passed, some individuals decided to seek out knowledge and guidance, as they knew that this was the only way to regain control of their daily lives and, someday, return to some extent to a ‘normal’ life. Their commitment, resilience and search for empowerment are at the heart of this story.

Learning from Chernobyl Click to find out more

A groundbreaking radiation protection approach

A peaceful lady, age 34 at the time of the accident, living close to Iwaki, a town next to the exclusion zone, Ryoko Ando is one of those who decided to confront the situation without further ado. Totally unable to ascertain whether it was risky to stay in her village, she started tweeting and searching for information on the web in an attempt to understand the radiological situation. Via the social networks, Mrs. Ando got in touch with individuals, in the Prefecture and across Japan, who were concerned by the situation in Fukushima and ready to start supporting her efforts.
By chance, her web search led to a report published by the International Commission on Radiological Protection – ICRP Publication 111 – and indirectly to the Belarus and Norwegian experience in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, which inspired that publication. Could there be lessons to be learned, she wondered, from the experience of people who had to face the consequences of a severe nuclear accident with massive radioactive releases?
Instantly, she realized the significance of this groundbreaking approach for the people of Fukushima and the importance of giving more people access to it. Among other points, the ICRP Publication 111 emphasizes the importance of measurements to assessing the radiological risks in all aspects of everyday life and to a discussion of the results with other “sensor citizens”.
It is a key step towards the empowerment of individuals and, ultimately, recovery.

From ethos in belarus to ‘ethos in fukushima’

A pilot project supported by the European Commission in the late nineties, ETHOS  sought to provide a new, inclusive approach to the rehabilitation of living conditions in the contaminated territories of Belarus in the post-accident context of Chernobyl.
One thing in particular caught Mrs. Ando’s attention: the ETHOS approach relies on strong involvement by the local population in the rehabilitation process to create conditions enabling inhabitants to reconstruct their quality of life in all the day-to-day aspects that were affected or threatened by the contamination… Given the confusion prevailing in the contaminated territories of Fukushima, she saw the applicability of this approach in the communities of the Prefecture.

This inspired Mrs. Ando to undertake a collaborative initiative: the creation of a blog called ‘ETHOS in Fukushima’ . The blog is a focal point for people who are looking for information to gain a better understanding of the situation in the contaminated territories. With time, the blog grew to report extensively on local initiatives and the outcomes of each meeting of the Fukushima Dialogue initiative in which ‘ETHOS in Fukushima’ participated, from the second seminar onwards. It also reported on visits to Belarus and Norway to share experiences with local farmers and reindeer herders they had met during previous Dialogue seminars. Today, it encompasses a variety of written and video sources, making it an unrivalled database on living conditions in Fukushima following the nuclear accident.
Ryoko Ando summarizes the spirit of the blog on the homepage: « This is about living in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster. More, it is about our ability to pass on a better future, as living here is a wonderful thing. In measuring, learning, thinking for ourselves, in finding a common language between you and me, we are slowly moving forward in Iwaki », she writes.

The web: an unmatched tool to reachand coalesce committed individuals

The swiftness with which contacts were made between Fukushima residents and Japanese experts in nuclear physics and radiation protection is a largely positive aspect of new communications technology. Social media such as Twitter played a major role in simplifying identification and fostering contact among individuals, wherever they are physically located. Ryugo Hayano, a world-renowned physicist specializing in antimatter, splits his time between his professorship at the University of Tokyo and his research work at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN ) near Geneva, Switzerland. Deeply concerned by the anxiety of Fukushima residents regarding exposure to ionizing radiation, Professor Hayano used his Twitter account to synthetize and disseminate information on the radiological situation in the Fukushima Prefecture.

March 12, 2011 14:22: Ryugo Hayano’s first “Fukushima NPP” tweet

March 13, 2011: his graph displaying the peak of dose rate subsequent to the explosion of unit 1 on March 12 at 15:36 was immediately shared with 90,000 followers.

The number of his followers increased from 2,500 to 150,000 within a few days and today stands at around 130,000.

Among them was Doctor Makoto Miyazaki, a radiologist from the Fukushima Medical University involved in deploying whole-body counts in the Fukushima prefecture. In parallel, through his exchanges with mothers worried about their children’s health, Professor Hayano realized that the lack of whole-body counters adapted to the measurement of infants – of little use from a sanitary perspective – was a source of concern. He therefore decided to launch the development of a bespoke whole-body counter, the BabyScan . His participation in the 5th and subsequent Dialogue seminars also prompted his involvement in joint work with Fukushima high school students regarding measurements and the acquisition of knowledge about radiation and radiation protection.
The Internet is another responsive tool for networking between individuals in Japan and abroad. Taking advantage of the web, the volume of day-to-day exchanges has increased rapidly among members of a new virtual community coalesced around one common objective: contributing actively to the rehabilitation of living conditions after the Fukushima accident.

Torn by a dilemma

For those who lived within a 20-kilometer radius of the damaged nuclear power plant, it was a moot question: by governmental decision, they had no choice but to leave for temporary housing further away from the plant. Nearly 90,000 inhabitants were concerned by this forced evacuation.

To return or not to return?
Among the 2,024,401 inhabitants of the Fukushima Prefecture (as of 1st March 2011), some 150,000 were evacuated after the mega quake, the tsunami and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The six cities and villages above belong to the zones totally evacuated. A survey conducted between August 2013 and January 2015 provides indications on the evacuees’ readiness to return home.

Source: Nuclear Department, French Embassy in Japan.

But for those who live outside the no-go zone, the situation was quite different: the decision was theirs to make. Stay or go? How can a sound decision be made when there is no way to deem whether it is safe or not? Staying means facing an invasive, invisible and ever-present enemy; it means being separated from relatives and neighbors who decide to leave. But staying also means a familiar setting, keeping one’s job, ensuring one’s livelihood. Going puts more distance between oneself and the radioactive hazard; it means having more confidence in food, regaining control over one’s life, finding a safe haven. But it also means leaving relatives, neighbors, friends and one’s entire history behind; it means feeling as though one has abandoned those who have stayed and being a stranger to those who already live in the “shelter territory”. It can also mean just finding a place to stay!

Wrenching decisions about children

Some stay, some go, but for all of them the decision is a heartbreaker. This is even truer when children are at stake. Mayumi Ootsuki, 39 at the time of the accident, lives in Ryozen, a rural area of Date City. Together with her husband and parents, she decided to stay in the family home with her two sons, Seiya, 8, a primary school pupil, and Shunya, 6, a kindergartner.
A member of the local Parent-Teacher Association, Mrs. Ootsuki is deeply committed to keeping the school and kindergarten running, which she regards as key to the future of her village: “The people from the district of Ishida, where our primary school is located, have long been committed to keeping customs alive, they care a lot about culture, they care a lot about our small school. It is the countryside here, the school has only a few pupils; the same goes for our kindergarten. Our customs are those of a hamlet, a little district, not of a city,” she explains.

Sanae Ito, 50 at the time of the accident, used to live in Minamisoma/Haranachi. Immediately after the accident, she decided to hit the road with her mother and daughter. “The accident occurred on the day my daughter graduated from junior high school,” she says. “The only thing I could think of was to protect her!” Following a nerve-racking car ride from Minamisoma with temporary stays in the Tokyo area, she finally arrived in Kyoto, where she still lives today. Her daughter, who did not share her views on the merits of leaving her hometown and classmates, showed her frustration through daily arguments with her mother and obstinate refusal to work at school. With time, things began to get better as she socialized with her new classmates and displayed a growing interest in foreign languages.

Back home

Whereas Sanae Ito is considering staying in her new home, Maiko Momma, age 33 at the time of the accident, is now back in Yotsukura, a district of Iwaki City. Her house, just 300 meters from the coast, was fortunately spared by the tsunami. But the overpowering rage of the ocean invading the countryside as she and her children raced to high land remains etched in their memories, a vision of horror.
The mother of a then 11-month-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, Mrs. Momma, made the decision to evacuate Yotsukura with her children, leaving her husband behind, as evacuating would have meant giving up his occupation as the manager of a pharmacy and laying off his staff.

Guided by a sense of duty to protect her children, she headed for Koriyama, some 60 kilometers away, for a one-month stay with her husband’s parents. Urged by her own parents to put more distance between themselves and the damaged reactors, she continued to Sendai, the city of her birth. Located some 110 kilometers from Koriyama in the Prefecture of Miyagi, Sendai was a safe and familiar place where Mrs. Momma’s parents and younger sister live.
Life there might have seemed almost normal if Mr. Momma were staying with his wife and children. Their separation became increasingly painful, as they could not meet as often as they would like – far from it – due to the 3- to 4-hour detour between Minamisoma and Iwaki caused by the accident at the plant. “In the spring of 2013, I heard from an acquaintance that special permits could be obtained to drive directly from Minamisoma to Iwaki on Route 6. Well, if things have reached this point I thought, why not go back home? That is how I decided to return, in August,” Maiko Momma recalls.

From a dialogue of the deaf...

In a country used to planning every aspect of life minutely, down to the tiniest details, there is practically no room for the unexpected. When the unexpected nonetheless arises, planners are helpless. The aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster is an eloquent example of public authorities being overwhelmed by the complex and simultaneous challenges resulting from the accident.
For the Japanese citizen, used to flawless products and impeccable service, the perceived shortcomings and inability to cope with the emergency was a source of profound incomprehension which translated over days into pervasive suspicion and strong disapproval of the officials and experts in charge. Citizen resentment towards those who are expected to provide support and guidance and fail to do so was sharpened by a sense of lost control resulting from their lack of preparedness to deal, overnight, with a radically new aspect of their lives: protecting oneself against radioactivity.
Against such a backdrop, any attempt at discussion between citizens, experts and authorities was doomed to be a dialogue of the deaf.

...to a dialogue of the brave

As a radiation protection expert who moved to Fukushima to volunteer his time and experience, Junichiro Tada was especially worried by the growing gap and tensions between the stakeholders. A blend of unspoken anguish, doubts, misunderstandings, suspicions and desperation poisoned interpersonal relationships, hampering the action of those who were ready to help.
In the fall of 2011, he shared his concern with Ohtsura Niwa, a Japanese member of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and Jacques Lochard, Vice Chair of the Commission, who brought his experience with dialogue between Belarusian stakeholders as part of the ETHOS project, in which he actively participated. Then, Mr. Lochard recommended a field-proven approach: sitting all of the parties involved around a table to listen to each other until the unspoken is exposed, releasing tension and facilitating mutual understanding.

Breaking the ice

A couple of weeks after this conversation, the first Dialogue on the Rehabilitation of Living Conditions after the Fukushima Accident was held in Fukushima on the topic of Lessons from Chernobyl and ICRP Recommendations. It was organized under the aegis of the ICRP and supported by OECD-NEA , ASN , IRSN and NRPA . During four years, experts from these organizations participated actively in this seminar and the eleven following ones.

The atmosphere at the first seminar was tense and heavy. Anger and tears often erupted around the room during the two-day Dialogue held on November 26th and 27th, 2011. Then, suddenly, eight months of restrained fear and frustration were released. The exercise was particularly challenging for the experts, as they were no longer expected to dispense knowledge by virtue of their positions. Slowly but steadily, Dialogue after Dialogue – some twelve in all between November 2011 and September 2015 – they had to listen to hurting individuals and try their best to put their knowledge and experience to work to answer their concerns. The process had been completely reversed. Jean-Christophe Gariel, head of the Environment Division at IRSN, the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, described it later as “a change of glasses”, when he participated in the 5th Dialogue seminar in Date City in March 2013.

Over time, an atmosphere of mutual understanding took hold, with everyone around the table feeling empowered, able to share their own experience and benefit from the input of the other participants. The table was no longer populated with people in the know on one side and laymen on the other, but with equals driven by the common desire to rehabilitate the living conditions of people in Fukushima, and to restore the tarnished image of their beloved region.

The six principles
of the Fukushima Dialogue

  1. Invited participants
  2. Local and international observers (the audience)
  3. ICRP members as facilitators
  4. Use of common language
  5. Use of dialogue techniques:
    • 1st step: in turn, stakeholders give their views for 5 minutes each. Interruptions are not allowed.
    • 2nd step: after listening to his/her counterparts, each stakeholder gives his/her views in 3 minutes. The aim is to give everyone the opportunity to deepen his thinking, or even change his/her position in the light of that of others.
    • 3rd step: the main lessons are summarized by a rapporteur followed by a general discussion.
  6. all Sessions open to media


a new way of life
in Fukushima