Three years ago the second biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl occurred. An undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 struck off the coast of Japan triggering a 14 meter tsunami that marked the beginning of the end for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Since then a dangerous and laborious cleanup effort has been in progress to try and control the damaging effects from unleashed radiation. This effort is largely undertaken by two significant bodies; TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company in charge of the plant and a group of about 6,000 workers, comprising engineers, builders, technicians and truck drivers who have stoically remained after the mass evacuations from the area.

As time passes however it becomes increasingly evident that the quick solutions employed at the beginning of the catastrophe cannot be relied on indefinitely. In August 2013 TEPCO finally admitted that one of the storage tanks built hastily in the aftermath had leaked 300 tonnes of toxic water and more could be at risk, which for Michael Friedlander, a nuclear engineer, only confirms TEPCO’s inability to handle the crisis beyond a short-term effort.

The leakages are one aspect of a more general problem. Since 2011, it has been widely speculated that a steady flow of radioactive groundwater continues to trickle towards the Pacific Ocean despite the construction of an underground barrier to act as a sealant. In response, the next phase of planning has been considering the possibility of freezing the ground around the plant to halt further contamination. Yet for experts like Friedlander this cannot be the definitive solution since the technique has never been used for long-term purposes.

What is now known of course is that many of the present challenges are a direct consequence of TEPCO’s short-sightedness, corrupt company politics and reckless overconfidence. The whole Fukushima disaster could have been avoided if only some obvious safety warnings were heeded.

Japan has the misfortune of lying dangerously close to a destructive plate boundary making it particularly susceptible to subduction zone earthquakes. A thorough risk assessment acknowledging the real possibility of serious damage in the event of a natural disaster should have been a priority. Instead, letting the “myth of nuclear safety” and the fear of negative publicity cloud sound judgement, most advice was taken dismissively and warnings largely downplayed.

Whether the damage sustained to the plant’s three nuclear reactors resulted from the initial earthquake or the subsequent tsunami which effortlessly engulfed the 10 meter high seawall, is not the issue. The issue is that human negligence was the main cause and that is what makes the current situation so unacceptable.

As numerous reports surface of contaminated fish being found in Pacific waters like Canada’s West Coast, questions of food safety arise and expectations to see viable initiative taken heighten.

Amongst the furore however another urgent problem exists. Depression and a steady loss in morale have been observed with alcoholism and carelessness becoming a noticeable feature.

An extensive investigation from Fukushima has revealed barely acceptable living conditions amongst the workers. Some men are sleeping communally on plant premises squeezed into a space about the size of a corridor and others, until fairly recently were having to walk hundreds of meters at night just to use the toilet. According to Tanaka Shunichi, the head of Japan’s nuclear regulator, “mistakes are often linked to morale. People usually don’t make silly, careless mistakes when they’re motivated and working in a positive environment”.

What is perhpas being forgotten or not deemed relevant by TEPCO is that many of its workers are also victims of a very serious accident. About 70 percent of the men have been forced to abandon their homes and live away from their families. With no healthy support network or access to regular psychological counselling these men really only have each other, and it is beginning to show.

Two competing strands of argument have been prevalent in the aftermath. One of them maintains that things are under control and that exposure to low-level radiation from fish and other sources poses no real health risks. The other, insists that TEPCO is increasingly unable to deal with the crisis amidst growing financial difficulties, shortages of skilled labour and the effects of prolonged low-level radiation remaining largely unknown or undisclosed just yet.

If you are having trouble deciding what to believe the following may help. Imagine a bathtub that was gradually being filled with dangerous chemicals, and the people hired to fix the problem were having problems themselves. Would you feel safe in their hands?

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