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The case for Mark Willacy’s Fukushima

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (red helmet) is briefed about tanks containing radioactive water by Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant chief Akira Ono. EPA/Sankei Shimbun Pool

Many readers will know the name Mark Willacy, an Australian journalist who was the ABC’s North Asian correspondent for five years. On March 11, 2011, he would witness events that would redefine Japan as a nation and resonate across the globe.

Less than a month after the earthquake that levelled parts of Christchurch, New Zealand, massive tectonic plates shifted off the Pacific coast of Tohoku in Japan, causing a once-in-200-year seismic event. The magnitude 9 earthquake, the fifth largest ever recorded, was large enough to move Honshu Island physically closer to the United States and shift the Earth on its axis.

While Willacy was on assignment in Fukuoka, his wife and infant daughter took shelter under a table in their Tokyo apartment, massive tsunami waves struck the east coast of the country, breaching containment sea walls and destroying or washing away entire towns.

After a night, when parts of Japan lay in darkness and infrastructure was severely disrupted, the country and the world would wake to news of the extent of the devastation.

The tsunami left more than 22,000 people dead or missing.

But the third act of Japan’s triple disaster was still unfolding. As the earthquake struck and tsunami waves breached the sea walls protecting Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors, main power was lost and the backup batteries and diesel engines that should have maintained the cooling water pumps, were drowned.

Exposed nuclear fuel rods melted as the systems and safety mechanisms of the flawed and ageing Mark I containment boiling water reactors designed and supplied by General Electric in the 1970s, failed. The nuclear meltdown and hydrogen explosions would release radioactive isotopes necessitating a 20-kilometre nuclear fall-out exclusion zone and lead to the evacuation over 150,000 people.

I remember watching these extraordinary events unfold in real time on my Twitter feed. As reports rolled in, the sheer magnitude of the disaster became overwhelming.

Of course, it’s one thing to safely observe these events thousands of kilometres away. It is quite another to enter into areas of devastation and report on human tragedy of this scale.

Having previously served as a Middle-East correspondent covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Willacy was no stranger to difficult assignments. While covering the war in Iraq, he held with cameraman Louie Eroglu, the dubious ABC record for the longest off-base on the road assignment.

Those skills were undoubtedly called upon again in Japan. Together with the ABC Tokyo crew, Willacy’s radio and television reports from the tsunami and nuclear zones, each delivered in his distinctly measured style, brought the human aspects of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami to light. It is from these reports that the driving narratives of Fukushima, his book, are derived.

Willacy has described these ordinary people as Japan’s finest people for “their determination, their dignity, and their spirit”. Their stories make compelling and harrowing reading.

The events at Fukushima also brought a different form of trauma to the Japanese psyche. Paranoia swept across the country as the radiation fall-out zone expanded and engineers struggled to bring Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors under control.

During this time, information and advice from the Tokyo Electric Power Company TEPCO and other government agencies was confused and conflicted. The extraordinary accounts documented in Fukushima suggest that early fears were not misplaced. These include those of Fukushima’s late former plant manager Masao Yoshida, whose leadership and improvisational skills, along with the engineers of the “Fukushima 50”, eventually brought the reactors under control.

Willacy is a meticulous investigative journalist. Invariably questions would arise as to whether the disasters of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami could have been mitigated or, in the case of the Fukushima disaster, prevented.

Willacy distilled hundreds of hours of interviews from ordinary people to the ex-Prime Minister which, together with official reports, provide compelling arguments that this indeed could have been the case at every level. Such is the benefit of hindsight.

Fukushima underscores the importance of Australia’s correspondents for bringing veracity to the reporting of events affecting our region. Perhaps with the exception of a cadre of Japanese freelance journalists, Willacy outlines why the Japanese kisha kurabu press clubs, formed from the dominant Japanese news organisations, would not have subjected Japan’s power companies and government officials to the same degree of relentless scrutiny leading up to and following March 11, 2011.

Willacy’s Fukushima stands as a strong historical document. But like the ancient granite stones that warned generations of Japanese of the dangers of tsunamis of times past, the lessons contained within the book’s pages are perhaps at risk of being ignored at peril.

The distaste for the Japanese nuclear industry has receded. In 2012, the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party was swept back into power and plans to restart nuclear power plants across the country have commenced. Notably, this includes the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, which sits directly above a fault line in a region where a large undersea earthquake is expected within the next 30 years.

This reason alone makes Willacy’s Fukushima essential reading.

Read more articles in The Case For series.

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