Almost three weeks after a horrific earthquake and tsunami struck northern provinces of Japan, there were both amazing highs and devastating lows.
An 80-year-old grandmother and her teenaged grandson were rescued beyond all expectations. Nine days after the devastation, when the world had begun to think of ‘rescue operations’ as ‘recovery operations’, the discovery of the survivors in Ishinomaki City both excited and enlivened searchers. The pair was among the xxx survivors rescued from March 11, 2011 thru March 20. It was a thrilling and hopeful moment,
On the other hand, tolls of the dead and missing were alarmingy high, already totaling over 27,000. Entire coastal villages had been erased from the face of the Earth but the tsunami, making years of earthquake-proofing seem like an exercise in futility. Damage estimates neared $300 billion, and those numbers could easily rise.
A new threat loomed on the horizon. Of the 52 nuclear power plants scattered across the country, the six-reactor Fukushima complex
suffered damage during the dual natural disasters and threatened a catastrophe of their own. With electricity disrupted, the cooling systems of the plants failed, sending radiation readings in the area dangerously high. News of a partial melt down was confirmed, along with news that TEPCo, Japan’s nuclear regulations commission, had failed to inspect reactors on a regular basis. They were also accused of being slow to respond to the disaster due to a visit by a government official on March 12. By day ten, radiation levels had forced the closure of 19 dairy farms in the northern region of the country where radiation levels in milk were five times legal limits. Spinach production was halted when wide-spread field tests revealed the green leafy vegetable had more than seven times the legal limit of radiation. Radiation levels also threatened the production of beef and beef products, chicken, eggs and fish.. With tap water suspect and much local food supply contaminated, and with farm land infected with radiation for potentially several decades to come, people wondered where they might find safe food and water sources.
Relief stepped in q quickly. During the first few days, medical supplies and food and water were scarse, leading to the deaths of several elderly people, but that didn’t last long. Aid poured in from other countries and relief organizations.
Still, concerns about radiation are long term. At the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986), hundreds of people died not from the radiation in the air, but from food grown in contaminated soil around the plant. For this reason, field tests are being conduced 90 miles from the plant, in five provinces. What experts learned in the years after the worst nuclear accident in history will help in Japan. We now know that once radiation enters the food chain, it is eventually lethal for those who consume it. And enter, it has. Radiation levels around the crippled Japanese plant registered 100,000 times normal at 17 days, and the readings in the protion of the Pacific that borders that area of the coast were more than 1800 times normal.
Even in this nightmarish reality there was a bright, if somewhat sad focus. A group of 450 dedicated engineers at the nuclear plant most in danger of destruction stayed behind to make sure the facility stayed functional until the electricity could be restored. With media and locals calling their job a “suicide mission” and hailing them as “heroes”, all thoughts turned toward the small group, who made the decision to possibly offer their lives in an attempt to save others. The crew was a source of pride for a nation much in need of encouragement, where any good news was a spark of light in a sea of darkness.