” A UN human rights expert has urged Japan to reconsider its policy of returning women and children to areas still high in radiation after they were displaced by the Fukushima meltdown.
Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on hazardous substances, criticized the Japanese government’s decision to resettle citizens in areas with radiation levels above one millisievert per year, the threshold of health risk to groups particularly sensitive to radiation, including children and women of childbearing age.
“The gradual lifting of evacuation orders has created enormous strains on people whose lives have already been affected by the worst nuclear disaster of this century,” he said.
Tuncak presented his findings to a General Assembly committee meeting in New York. “Many feel they are being forced to return to areas that are unsafe, including those with radiation levels above what the government previously considered safe,” he added in a news release.
The Japanese government dismissed his concerns, blaming one-sided information and expressing concern that the statement could stoke “unnecessary fears” about the site of the March 2011 nuclear disaster.
After the earthquake and subsequent power plant meltdown, the Japanese government raised its acceptable radiation levels to 20 millisieverts. The UN last year issued a recommendation to return the level to pre-meltdown standards, but Japan ignored the request.
Over seven years later, radiation levels around Fukushima remain high, as has the apparent level of denial within the Japanese government. They recently announced plans to release about a million tons of wastewater contaminated with radioactive elements into the Pacific Ocean, claiming high-tech processing had reduced the contaminants to safe levels, but was forced to admit that 80 percent of the water remained contaminated after local residents protested the dumping plans.
The government has been removing evacuation orders gradually and plans to repeal all of them within five years, regardless of the contamination level in the areas. Japan was slow to enact the evacuation orders initially – only residents within a 3km radius of the meltdown were told to evacuate immediately after the accident, and four days later, residents 30km away were still being told to shelter in place. However, it was already allowing resettlement in areas within 20km of the plant by 2014.
Tuncak has clashed with the Japanese government before. In August, he and two other UN human rights experts criticized them for putting at risk the lives of those involved in the Fukushima clean-up. An earlier UN report showed that 167 plant workers had received radiation doses that increased their cancer risk.
Only last month did the Japanese government admit that even a single plant worker had died as a result of radiation exposure. The unnamed man, whose job included measuring radiation levels immediately after the meltdown, was exposed to about 195 millisieverts of radiation and developed lung cancer after leaving his job in 2015. ”
” When Kazumi Kusano stood in the CRIIRAD radiological laboratory in Valence, France listening to lab director, Bruno Chareyron, describe just how radioactive the soil sample taken from a school playground back home in Japan really was, she could not fight back the tears.
“This qualifies as radioactive waste,” Chareyron told them. “The children are playing in a school playground that is very contaminated. The lowest reading is 300,000 bequerels per square meter. That is an extremely high level.” (CRIIRAD is the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation, an independent research laboratory and NGO).
Kazumi, a Japanese mother and Fukushima evacuee who prefers not to use her real name, was in France with two other mothers, Mami Kurumada and Akiko Morimatsu — all of whom also brought their children — as part of an educational speaking tour. Morimatsu was also invited to testify before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, to launch an appeal for the rights of nuclear refugees.
In Japan, seven years since the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold, the government is requiring some refugees to return to the region. Says Chareyron, whose lab has worked extensively in the Fukushima zone, “the Japanese government is doing everything to force citizens to return to lands where the radiation doses that citizens and children should be subjected to are largely over the typically acceptable norms.”
“People in Japan still don’t believe that the effects they are feeling are due to radiation,” said Kusano during one of the tour stops in France. Indeed, when they took samples in their neighborhoods to be analyzed for radioactive contamination, they were mocked not only by their neighbors but by government officials.
“We don’t take this seriously in Japan,” said Kurumada, who expressed relief to be among those who understand the true dangers, like Chareyron and the French anti-nuclear activists with whom they met. “In our country, it’s taboo to talk about radiation and contamination.”
Both Kusano and Kurumada are among those who have brought lawsuits against Tepco and the Japanese government, seeking compensation for Fukushima evacuees. Several of these have already ruled in favor of the evacuees and have assigned responsibility for the accident to Tepco and the government while providing financial awards to the plaintiffs. (Kusano’s son’s testimony helped win one of those cases — see our earlier coverage.)
The Japanese government pressured evacuees to return to areas contaminated by the Fukushima disaster by withdrawing their government financial assistance. However, many in areas that were not obligatory evacuation zones also left the region, given the high levels of radioactive contamination.
In addition to the visit to CRIIRAD, the mothers also spoke at public meetings in Lyon, Grenoble and Valence where CRIIRAD is located. The short news video below, in French, captures their visit to the lab.
At the UN in Geneva, Morimatsu’s testimony was postponed several days by a workforce strike. But eventually, Morimatsu (pictured with her son above the headline) was able to deliver her speech. She said:
“My name is Akiko Morimatsu. I am here with other evacuees and mothers, together with Greenpeace. I evacuated from the Fukushima disaster with my two children in May 2011. Shortly after the nuclear accident, radiation contamination spread. We were repeatedly and unnecessarily exposed to unannounced radiation.
“The air, water and soil became severely contaminated. I had no choice but to drink the contaminated water, to breast-feed my baby. To enjoy health, free from radiation exposure, is a fundamental principle. The Japanese Constitution states, ‘We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.’
“However, the Japanese government has implemented almost no policies to protect its citizens. Furthermore, the government is focusing on a policy to force people to return to highly contaminated areas.
“I call on the Japanese government to immediately, fully adopt and implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council. I thank UN member states for defending the rights of residents in Japan. Please help us protect people in Fukushima, and in East Japan, especially vulnerable children, from further radiation exposure.”
Earlier that month, the Japanese government had responded to its Universal Periodic Review, by stating that it “supports” 145 recommendations and “notes” 72. One of those recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council, and which Japan “accepted”, was the paragraph that states: “Respect the rights of persons living in the area of Fukushima, in particular of pregnant women and children, to the highest level of physical and mental health, notably by restoring the allowable dose of radiation to the 1 mSv/year limit, and by a continuing support to the evacuees and residents (Germany);”
According to Hajime Matsukubo of Citizens Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, while the Upper House of the Japanese Diet has indicated its willingness to decrease annual radiation exposures from 20 mSv, the Japanese government has only said it would “follow up” on the specific UN recommendation and report back later. There is no timeframe for such a change, hardly surprising since it would presumably mean once more evacuating people the government has already pressured to return to contaminated areas. The practical implications of this happening leave it very much in doubt.
However, Matsukubo believes that even the commitment to follow up “is a strong tool for us to push the government forward.” Aileen Mioko Smith of Kyoto-based Green Action agrees. “Now we have terrific leverage,” she said. Her group, along with Greenpeace Japan will be looking to “keep the Japanese government’s feet to the fire on this.”
by Linda Pentz Gunter, with contributions from Kurumi Sugita and Akiko Morimatsu, Beyond Nuclear International
” This month, seven years after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdowns and explosions that blanketed hundreds of square kilometres of northeastern Japan with radioactive debris, government officials and politicians spoke in hopeful terms about Fukushima’s prosperous future. Nevertheless, perhaps the single most important element of Fukushima’s future remains unspoken: the exclusion zone seems destined to host a repository for Japan’s most hazardous nuclear waste.
No Japanese government official will admit this, at least not publicly. A secure repository for nuclear waste has remained a long-elusive goal on the archipelago. But, given that Japan possesses approximately 17,000 tonnes of spent fuel from nuclear power operations, such a development is vital. Most spent fuel rods are still stored precariously above ground, in pools, in a highly earthquake-prone nation.
Japanese officialdom relentlessly emphasises positive messages regarding Fukushima’s short- and medium-term future, prioritizing economic development and the gradual return of skeptical evacuees to their newly “remediated” communities. Yet the return rate for the least hard-hit communities is only about 15%. Government proclamations regarding revitalisation of the area in and around the exclusion zone intone about jobs but seem geared ominously toward a future with relatively few humans.
The Fukushima prefecture government is currently promoting a plan, dubbed The Innovation Coast, that would transform the unwelcoming region into a thriving sweep of high-tech innovation. Much of the development would be directed towards a “robot-related industrial cluster” and experimental zones like a robot test field.
The test field would develop robots tailored for disaster response and for other purposes on a course simulating a wide range of hurdles and challenges already well represented in Fukushima itself. Large water tanks would contain an array of underwater hazards to navigate, mirroring the wreckage-strewn waters beneath the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a number of meltdown-remediating underwater robots have met a premature demise in recent years.
Elsewhere on the robot test field, dilapidated buildings and other ruins would serve as a proving ground for land-based disaster-response robots, which must navigate twisted steel rods, broken concrete and other rubble. Engineered runways and surrounding radiation-hit areas would serve as prime territory for testing parlous aerial drones for a range of purposes in various weather conditions – which would be difficult or impossible to achieve elsewhere in relatively densely populated Japan.
The planned site for the test field would link with a secluded test area about 13km south along the coast to coordinate test flights over the exclusion zone’s more or less posthuman terrain.
Naturally, unlike Fukushima’s human residents, robots would be oblivious to the elevated radiation levels found outside the Fukushima Daiichi facility. In addition, prefectural officials have suggested that the exclusion zone environs could play host to a range of other services that don’t require much human intervention, such as long-term archive facilities.
Proud long-time residents of Fukushima, for their part, see all this development as a continued “colonisation” of the home prefecture by Tokyo – a well-worn pattern of outsiders using the zone for their own purposes, as were the utility representatives and officials who built the ill-fated plant in the first place.
Years of colossal decontamination measures have scraped irradiated material from seemingly every forest, park, farm, roadside, and school ground. This 16 million cubic metres of radioactive soil is now stored in provisional sites in and around the exclusion zone, waiting to be moved to an interim storage facility that has hardly been started and for which nearly half of the land has not yet even been leased.
The state has promised to remove all the contaminated soil from Fukushima after 30 years, and government officials have been scrupulous in insisting that this will be the case – for soil. Yet in a nation with about 17,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel rods and no willing candidates for secure repositories, it is only a matter of time before it becomes possible for politicians to publicly back the idea of transforming the area around Fukushima Daiichi into a secure repository.
Government officials, including those tasked with nuclear waste storage, describe the quintessentially Japanese strategy of saki-okuri, or calculated postponement, in the context of nuclear waste storage. Such perception management is a subtle business, but by quietly and unrelentingly pushing back the day of reckoning – slowly changing the terms of debate – the broadly distasteful prospect of storing Japan’s most dangerous material in its most tragically maltreated region would become gradually less intolerable to Japanese sensibilities.
The expanse of Fukushima in and around the exclusion zone represents an already contaminated area with, since 2011, far fewer residents to protest against such plans. Such a rare opportunity for relatively unopposed intervention in a struggling area will surely prove irresistible to the nuclear lobby.
Fukushima has been marginalised, disenfranchised, and outmanoeuvred for decades. After all, the electricity from Fukushima Daiichi went straight to the capital, not to Fukushima itself, which bore the risks. Since 2011, Fukushima has been saddled with the staggering burden of the meltdown’s aftermath that, despite government PR, will encumber and stigmatise its citizens for at least several decades. ”
Greenpeace radiation specialist Jan Vande Putte visits towns near the Fukushima No. 1 site and measures radiation levels in the homes, streets, playgrounds and nearby forests. The government has lifted evacuation zone orders in certain areas like Iitate and plans on lifting evacuation orders in towns like Namie that are still highly contaminated. Putte looks at this issue from a human rights perspective, as residents of these towns are being threatened by the government to move back to contaminated areas because of the termination of their monthly compensation that they use to pay for housing where they have relocated.
” 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. “
” YONEZAWA, JAPAN—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