Japan wants Fukushima evacuees to go home. They’re not so sure. — The Christian Science Monitor

” About 160,000 people left their homes in 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Today, the government says it’s safe for many to return. But regaining residents’ trust remains a challenge. “

” For Toru Takeda, the best and worst parts of life in Yonezawa are the same: snow. Located in the mountains 150 miles north of Tokyo, the city typically lies under a few feet every winter. It snows so much that many streets in Yonezawa are equipped with sprinklers that spray warm underground water to keep them clear.

Mr. Takeda is still getting used to the sheer amount of snow and the inconveniences that come with it. Train delays. Slow traffic. Shoveling. It doesn’t snow nearly as much in Fukushima City, his hometown, an hour-long drive away in good weather.

But snow has its benefits when it melts. “The soil here is rich because the snow melts slowly,” Takeda says one morning at a diner in downtown Yonezawa. He’s certain that the gradual thaw makes the fruits and vegetables grown in the region some of the best in Japan. Taking a sip of coffee, he adds solemnly, “The water and soil in Fukushima [Prefecture] is still contaminated.”

It’s been almost seven years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The cleanup is projected to cost $200 billion and take up to 40 years. Yet already many of the area’s 160,000 evacuees have started to return.

The Japanese government says it’s safe, but Takeda isn’t convinced. His faith in authority was shattered by the botched response to the meltdown. Today, he remains suspicious of everything from regulatory agencies to utility companies, to say nothing of food safety and, of course, nuclear power. Whether the government is able to regain Takeda’s trust – and the trust of thousands of others like him – is an important test of its ability to revive the cities and towns of Fukushima.

“We don’t believe the government anymore,” Takeda says, speaking for himself, his wife and daughter, and about 20 other evacuees he knows who have refused to leave Yonezawa. “I’ll do anything and everything I can to make sure we can stay,” he declares. That includes going to court.

Man on a Mission

It all started last March, when the Fukushima prefectural government ended unconditional housing subsidies to nearly 27,000 people who left areas not designated as mandatory evacuation zones – including Takeda and many others in Yonezawa. Faced with the choice of returning to areas they fear are still unsafe or paying rent many can’t afford, they’ve chosen neither. Instead, they’ve stayed in their apartments and refused to pay rent. The local public housing agency tolerated this for a while. Then, in September, it filed an eviction lawsuit against the so-called voluntary evacuees, who quickly hired a team of lawyers in response.

“The Japanese government and Tepco caused the disaster,” Takeda says, referring to Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “They should have to pay.”

Since moving to Yonezawa in April 2011, Takeda, a 77-year-old retired high school English teacher, has emerged as the de facto leader of the city’s evacuee community. He organizes social gatherings and frequently meets with local government officials. He and his wife even set up a learning center in their small, three-room apartment for evacuee children. The center closed after two years, and now Takeda spends most of his time on the lawsuit. He does everything from fundraising to meeting with lawyers.

 “The government hates me,” he says. “If not for me then the evacuees would have already gone back.”

While the lawsuit in Yonezawa continues, some victims have already found redress. In October, a district court in Fukushima ruled that the Japanese government and Tepco must pay damages totaling $4.4 million to about 2,900 people. It was the third case in  which a court found the company negligent in not preventing the meltdown.

‘It breeds distrust’

Yonezawa, which lies 60 miles northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was once home to as many as 3,900 evacuees from Fukushima. There are fewer than 500 now left, according to government figures. Some have returned home, either out of financial necessity or because they believe it’s safe, but many have refused. In a survey conducted last April by the Fukushima government, 80 percent of voluntary evacuees living in other parts of Japan said they had no intention of going back.

 The government has worked hard to assuage any lingering fears. But Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace, says officials have played down the potential health risks because of the pressure they feel to put a positive spin on the situation. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to deliver on his promise that the Fukushima cleanup effort is “under control.”

“Having zones where people can’t live is politically unacceptable for the government,” Mr. Burnie says. “It creates the impression that a nuclear disaster can destroy whole communities for a long time.”

As the government rushes to revitalize Fukushima, it may run the risk of deepening public distrust, diminishing the respect for authority that is deeply rooted in Japanese society. A 2017 Pew survey found that 57 percent of Japanese have at least some trust in the national government to act in the country’s best interests, though just 6 percent have a lot of trust in national leaders.

Timothy Jorgenson, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, wrote in a 2016 online commentary that one of the government’s mistakes was its decision to increase the maximum limit of radiation exposure from 1 microsievert to 20 microsieverts per year. (Microsieverts measure the effects of low-level radiation.)

“To the Japanese people, this raising of the annual safety limit from one to 20 mSv appears like the government is backpedaling on its commitment to safety,” Dr. Jorgenson wrote. “This is the problem with moving regulatory dose limits after the fact to accommodate inconvenient circumstances; it breeds distrust.”

Jorgenson wrote that the government would be better off to just explain what the health risks are at various radiation doses and leave it at that. Armed with such information, evacuees could decide for themselves if they want to return home.

For now, the government appears poised to further cut housing subsidies to evacuees. Its current plan would remove 5,000 households from the roll by March 2019. Advocacy groups are pressuring it to reconsider. In a written statement submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Feb. 2, Greenpeace and Human Rights Now, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization, called on the government to “provide necessary housing support to all Fukushima evacuees, including those who evacuated from outside the government designated areas, as long as needed to ensure their ability to freely choose where they will live without pressure to return areas where their health or life would be at risk.”

If the Japanese government were to take such advice, the lawsuit in Yonezawa could end. Takeda says it’s a tempting thought, but rather than waiting for the government to change its plan, he’s busy preparing for his next court appearance on March 20.

“I don’t have much time left,” Takeda says. “I can’t go home.” ”

by Michael Holtz, The Christina Science Monitor; contributions from Takehiko Kambayashi

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Japan’s plutonium glut casts a shadow on renewed nuclear deal — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO — The decision Jan. 16 to automatically extend a nuclear agreement with the U.S. came as a relief to a Japanese government worried about the prospect of renegotiating the basis for a cornerstone of its energy policy. But friction remains over a massive store of plutonium that highlights the problems with the nation’s ambitious nuclear energy plans.

The nuclear fuel cycle pursued by Japan’s government and power companies centers on recovering uranium and plutonium from spent fuel for reuse in reactors. This is made possible by the unique agreement with the U.S. that lets Japan make plutonium. The radioactive element can be used in nuclear weapons, so its production is generally tightly restricted.

“The agreement forms part of the foundation of Japan’s nuclear power activities,” said Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, in comments to reporters Friday. “It’s important from the standpoint of the Japan-U.S. relationship.”

America began sharing its advanced atomic energy technology with other nations in the 1950s, aiming to promote its peaceful use. Washington remains hugely influential in setting ground rules for military applications of nuclear material, including with regard to reprocessing. Countries including South Korea have sought special arrangements like Japan’s.

The lack of fuss over the renewal of the agreement, which had been due to expire this coming July, has masked concerns expressed behind the scenes. A Japanese official visiting Washington in December was asked by a U.S. nuclear policymaker about Japan’s oversight of its plutonium stockpile.

Japan has amassed roughly 47 tons of plutonium stored inside and outside the country — enough for some 6,000 nuclear warheads. With the nation’s nuclear power plants gradually taken offline after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and progress on restarting them sluggish, Japan has been left with no real way to whittle down a pile drawing international scrutiny.

Washington ultimately did not ask to change the nuclear agreement, which after the expiration date can be terminated by either side with six months’ notice. Given the tense regional security situation, including North Korea’s missile advances, “Japan and the U.S. apparently didn’t want the world to see friction between them over nuclear power,” said a Japanese government insider in contact with Washington.

Tokyo’s relief at the lack of American demands is dampened by the awareness that the deal could be scrapped at any time. “It’s more unstable than before,” an industry ministry official acknowledged.

The best-case scenario for Japan would have been securing an agreement that set a new expiration date. But any such change would have had to go through the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers supporting nuclear nonproliferation might not have welcomed giving Japan — which already has no prospect of using up its existing supply — carte blanche to keep reprocessing. This risk is likely why Washington opted for automatic extension of the existing agreement.

The precursor to the current deal, signed in 1955, let Japan use American technology to kick-start its own atomic energy industry. A new agreement in 1968 permitted reprocessing of spent fuel with U.S. consent. A 1988 revision gave blanket permission for reprocessing for peaceful applications.

But the nuclear fuel cycle policy this enabled has stalled amid chronic problems at key facilities. The Japanese government decided in 2016 to scrap the Monju plutonium-fueled experimental fast breeder reactor. And a reprocessing facility in northern Japan that would be critical to producing plutonium fuel usable by conventional reactors has faced repeated delays that have pushed back the completion date from 1997 to 2021.

Reducing Japan’s plutonium stockpile will be vital to assuaging international concerns. Seko asserted that plutonium consumption will pick up again as the Nuclear Regulation Authority clears more reactors to restart.

But this may not work as well as Tokyo hopes. Just five reactors have met the stricter safety standards imposed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, and not all of these use plutonium.

The nuclear watchdog said Jan. 16 that it will devise new guidelines to better adhere to the government’s principle of not possessing plutonium without a specific purpose. Critics of Japan’s plutonium production will likely not be satisfied without a convincing, reality-based plan to deal with the issue. ”

by Kazunari Hanawa and Takashi Tsuji, Nikkei writing staff

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Tokyo court orders Tepco to pay $10 million in damages over 2011 disaster — Reuters

” TOKYO (Reuters) – A Tokyo court on Wednesday ordered Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) to pay around 1.1 billion yen ($10 million) to a group of Fukushima residents, local media reported, nearly seven years after the company’s reactor meltdowns in northeastern Japan.

A group of 321 people residents from Minami-soma in Fukushima prefecture had sought around 11 billion yen in damages in a class action suit, according to the reports.

Minami-soma is a city about 30 km (19 miles) from Tepco’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where reactors melted down after being hit by a massive tsunami in March 2011. After the disaster, some areas near the plant became no-gone zones, forcing many residents to flee their homes.

A Tepco spokesman said a ruling was made by the Tokyo court today, but declined to comment further.

Tepco has long been criticized for ignoring the threat posed by natural disasters to the Fukushima plant, and the company and government were lambasted for their handling of the crisis.

Last year, a district court in Fukushima ruled in the largest class action lawsuit brought over the 2011 nuclear disaster that the company and the Japanese government were liable for damages totaling about 500 million yen.

A group of about 3,800 people, mostly in Fukushima prefecture, filed the earlier class action suit, the biggest number of plaintiffs out of about 30 similar class action lawsuits filed across the nation. “

reporting by Minami Funakoshi; editing by Tom Hogue, Reuters

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Lingering effects of 2011 disaster take toll in fallout-hit Fukushima, experts warn — The Japan Times

” There are fewer and fewer headlines these days about the catastrophe resulting from the triple core meltdown in March 2011 at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But participants at a recent symposium stressed that the disaster’s lingering effects continue to weigh heavily on people and municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture.

“In the post-disaster reconstruction, Miyagi Prefecture had to start from zero,” said former Fukushima University President Toshio Konno, who is from Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, and lost five relatives in the town when it was hit by tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. “But Fukushima Prefecture had to start from a negative point because of the additional impact of the nuclear calamity. It is really hard for Fukushima to reach the zero point.”

During the symposium at Tokyo’s Waseda University on Saturday, Konno — who served on a Fukushima Prefectural Government committee tasked with judging whether deaths in the years following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami were disaster-related — said that as of Sept. 30 last year, there were 3,647 such cases in Japan, of which Fukushima Prefecture accounted for 60 percent.

What’s more, Fukushima is the only prefecture among the three disaster-hit Tohoku prefectures that still sees people die from related causes. Since March 2016, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which were also hit by the quake and tsunami, have suffered no disaster-related deaths, while Fukushima has seen 50, Konno said.

He also said that the number of disaster-related suicides in Fukushima has grown over time compared with Iwate and Miyagi. Fukushima saw 10 such suicides in 2011, 13 in 2012, 23 in 2013, 15 in 2014 and 19 in 2015. Corresponding figures in Iwate and Miyagi, respectively, are 17 and 22 in 2011, eight and three in 2012, four and 10 in 2013, three and four in 2014 and three and one in 2015.

Takao Suami, a Waseda professor heading the university’s efforts to provide legal support for the reconstruction, said the government’s Nuclear Damage Compensation Dispute Resolution Center was fairly helpful in addressing compensation issues until around the spring of 2014. But Suami said cases have emerged recently in which the utility, now known as Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., refuses to accept reconciliation proposals put forward by the center.

Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer working with some 3,000 residents of the village of Iitate on the compensation dispute resolution process, said that even though residents suffered exceedingly high levels of external radiation exposure immediately after the meltdowns — measuring 7 millisieverts on average — due to a delayed evacuation order, the center proposed in December that only people whose exposure was 9 millisieverts or higher should be entitled to compensation, a threshold which covers just 200 people. (Nuclear power stations are legally required to limit the yearly radiation exposure for residents living nearby to 1 millisievert or less.)

Michitaro Urakawa, a professor emeritus of law at Waseda who says he supports the restart of nuclear plants, said the compensation system for victims of the nuclear disaster has a fundamental flaw. Tepco, he said, is benefitting from the injection of funds for compensation from the central government, while consumers — including low-income people in Fukushima Prefecture who did not have assets worth compensation — are helping the utility return the injected money to the government in the form of increased electricity bills.

Kaido and other lawyers called for reconstruction policies that truly meet the needs of Fukushima people, because compensation cannot cover damage that does not have a monetary value, such as the loss of communities, friendship, business ties and fears about the future, including the threat of health problems due to radiation exposure.

Another problem highlighted at the symposium was the unhealthy financial state of disaster-hit municipalities in Fukushima. Waseda professor Yoshihiro Katayama, a former Tottori governor who was internal affairs minister for the Democratic Party of Japan administration at the time of the meltdowns, said the municipalities will end up with excess personnel, creating a financial burden over the long term.

Disaster-hit municipalities in the prefecture are already facing financial strain. The town of Namie — roughly half of whose area lies within 20 km of the nuclear plant — saw its revenue grow from ¥9.48 billion in 2010 to ¥20 billion in 2016. But the portion of the funds from the central and prefectural governments increased to 87.2 percent from 68.6 percent, reducing the percentage of internal revenue to 12.8 percent from 31.4 percent.

Further, if the municipalities decide to end contracts commissioning administrative services to private firms, the local economy will suffer, Katayama said. He also expressed fear that the municipalities may have lost the know-how to assess the value of real estate, the basis of real estate taxes, an important revenue source.

Katayama also said the aging population will lead to a deep and serious problem in disaster-hit areas because many young people who evacuated will not return, causing such problems as difficulty maintaining the public health insurance system as well as city water and sewage systems. There will also be a shortage of nursing care workers and schools will be forced to close, he warned.

“Although the revenue of disaster-hit municipalities enormously expanded, the time will come when their administrative services have to shrink,” Katayama said. “Currently, the central government is taking special measures. But both the central government and the municipalities concerned must think about how to achieve a soft landing.” ”

by Tai Kawabata, The Japan Times

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Tepco refused safety agency’s proposal to simulate Fukushima tsunami nine years before meltdown disaster — The Japan Times

” Nine years before the 2011 meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. turned down a request from the government’s nuclear watchdog for it to conduct a simulation of powerful tsunami that could hit the plant, a court document showed on Tuesday.

Written testimony was submitted to the Chiba District Court on Nov. 24 by Shuji Kawahara, who was head of a team responsible for quake safety issues at the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) — the predecessor of today’s Nuclear Regulation Authority.

Kawahara’s testimony showed that Tepco may have missed an opportunity to examine the possibility of a tsunami disaster almost a decade before such a crisis came to pass in 2011, when massive waves knocked out critical cooling systems at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

The testimony was submitted as part of a lawsuit filed by Fukushima evacuees seeking compensation from the utility and the central government.

The crippled plant has spewed a massive amount of radioactive material into its surroundings, forcing numerous residents to temporarily evacuate. Many have completely abandoned their hometowns.

Contacted by The Japan Times, Tepco spokesman Norio Okura declined to comment, saying “the matter is related to the ongoing lawsuit.”

In the court documents, Kawahara maintains that NISA asked Tepco to conduct a tsunami simulation in August 2002, highlighting emails that summarize discussions at NISA-Tepco meetings that were sent to related parties later the same month.

NISA made the request because a government expert committee for quake research published on July 31, 2002, a report warning that a major tsunami event could hit anywhere along the Pacific coast of Japan, Kawahara said in the statement.

The report concluded that a major tsunami could hit somewhere along the coastal areas from Tohoku to Chiba Prefecture, with a probability of 20 percent over the next 30 years.

Tepco representatives visited NISA officials on Aug. 5 to discuss the report. But Tepco officials “resisted for 40 minutes” during the meeting and eventually turned down NISA’s request, according to a copy of Kawahara’s written statement, seen by The Japan Times on Tuesday.

In the statement, Kawahara said he believes Tepco rejected the request because “it would take substantial time and expense to carry out a simulation,” and because there was no evidence strongly suggesting such a quake and tsunami could actually hit the Fukushima plant.

Rejecting the proposal, Tepco officials cited a research paper written by two seismologists who played down the possibility of such a quake-tsunami disaster, according to Kawahara.

NISA didn’t override Tepco’s refusal. Kawahara said he believes NISA’s decision at the time was “justifiable.”

In the spring of 2008, Tepco conducted a simulation and concluded that tsunami as high as 15.7 meters could hit the Fukushima plant. But the firm still did not take action before the 2011 disaster, instead saying the simulation was based on a hypothetical scenario and that there was no evidence suggesting such powerful tsunami would actually engulf the Tohoku region.

In its ruling on Sept. 22, Chiba District Court denied any central government responsibility but ordered Tepco — now Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. — to pay additional compensation of ¥376 million to 42 evacuees. Both Tepco and the plaintiff have appealed to a higher court. ”

by Reiji Yoshida, The Japan Times

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