The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex pictured before and just after 2011's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Pic: AP.

Three years ago an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale struck off the east coast of Japan. The Tōhoku quake was the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded and the strongest ever to hit Japan. The resultant tsunami triggered the world’s most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Powerplant experienced level 7 meltdowns, “major incidents” according to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES).

Three years on and the extent of the environmental, human and economic repercussions of the Fukushima incident continue to reveal themselves. Fukushima “fallout” is both literal in terms of radioactive materials, and figurative on a global scale. The politics and opinions around the nuclear issue are far from settled.

In Japan anti-nuclear sentiment runs high, with protesters recently marking the anniversary of Fukushima with demonstrations on Sunday across the country. A rally in Tokyo featured solar-powered music and a performance by internationally famous composer Ryuchi Sakamoto.

Costumed protesters beat drum cans during an anti-nuclear plant demonstration in Tokyo, Sunday. Pic: AP.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to switch the reactors back on and repatriate some 30,000 residents within two years has come under fire from an industry insider and two former prime ministers.

The insider, a senior TEPCO employee who wishes to remain nameless, is quoted in a piece from ABC Australia’s News:

There are too many systems and they all have problems. For example, too many water tanks with too many lines – it’s very difficult to operate. It’s made worse because all the experienced workers have reached their radiation limits, so TEPCO has to rely on staff that don’t know the site and who aren’t trained.

The other day when contaminated water overflowed from a tank, an alarm was ringing but they didn’t go and check. I couldn’t believe it. It was ringing for nine hours and they thought the alarm was out of order.

The employee considers the Fukushima plant to be unfixable, while former Prime Ministers Morihiro Hosokawa and Naoto Kan believe that turning the reactors back on would be too risky. Most residents reportedly do not wish to return to their homes in the contaminated area.

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant from the sea, Feb, 2014. Pic: raneko (Flickr CC)

So far 1,656 deaths have been attributed to the Fukushima disaster, though none were direct results of the nuclear accident. Increased thyroid cancer rates among Fukushima’s children and young people are also cause for debate and concern. While the spike in rates is alarming, it may also be attributed to advance screening techniques and a large increase in testing.

Despite the fact that the plant continues to leak radioactive water, some local doctors claim the actual radiation levels around Fukushima are very low and attribute most health problems to stress rather than contamination. Yet public trust in the government and TEPCO is also understandably low, with many questioning the information coming from official sources.

A special Euronews report on the residents of Fukushima quotes one man who has remained in the contaminated zone in order to look after the many abandoned cats and dogs:

I thought Japanese nuclear power was 100 percent safe. The United States, Chernobyl and Japan have all suffered nuclear accidents. After the explosion nobody knew what to do. Tepco and the government didn’t know how to deal with it. Yet the world still wants nuclear energy, this is ridiculous. The next nuclear disaster will happen in Europe. A clean up cannot be done. Tepco lied from the start. Tepco is a den of iniquity.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, low-level radiation is expected to “wash up” on the West Coast of the United States next month. Although scientists predict that the levels shouldn’t be enough to cause harm to the environment or humans, no one likes to read about atomic radiation of any sort coming their way.