In Fukushima, a land where few return — The Japan Times

” A cherry tree is blooming in the spring sunshine outside the home of Masaaki Sakai but there is nobody to see it. The house is empty and boarded up. Weeds poke through the ground. All around are telltale signs of wild boar, which descend from the mountains to root and forage in the fields. Soon, the 60-year-old farmhouse Sakai shared with his mother and grandmother will be demolished.

“I don’t feel especially sad,” Sakai says. “We have rebuilt our lives elsewhere. I can come back and look around — just not live here.”

A few hundred meters away the road is blocked and a beeping dosimeter begins nagging at the bucolic peace. The reading here is a shade over 1 microsievert per hour — a fraction of what it was when Sakai’s family fled in 2011.

The radiation goes up and down, depending on the weather, Sakai says. In gullies and cracks in the road, and up in the trees, it soars. With almost everyone gone, the monkeys who live in the forests have grown bolder, stopping to stare at the odd car that appears instead of fleeing, as they used to.

A cluster of 20 small hamlets spread over 230 square kilometers, Iitate was undone by a quirk of the weather in the days that followed the nuclear accident in March 2011. Wind carried radioactive particles from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which is located about 45 kilometers away, that fell in rain and snow on the night of March 15, 2011. After more than a month of indecision, during which the villagers lived with some of the highest radiation recorded in the disaster (the reading outside the village office on the evening of March 15 was a startling 44.7 microsieverts per hour), the government ordered them to leave.

Now, the government says it is safe to go back. With great fanfare, all but the still heavily contaminated south of Iitate, Nagadoro, was reopened on March 31.

The reopening fulfills a pledge made by Mayor Norio Kanno: Iitate was the first local authority in Fukushima Prefecture to set a date for ending evacuation in 2012, when the mayor promised to reboot the village in five years. The village has a new sports ground, convenience store and udon restaurant. A clinic sees patients twice a week. All that’s missing is people.

Waiting to meet Kanno in the government offices of Iitate, the eye falls on a book displayed in the reception: “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.” Listed at No. 12 is the beloved rolling patchwork of forests, hills and fields the mayor has governed for more than two decades — population 6,300, famous for its neat terraces of rice and vegetables, its industrious organic farmers, its wild mushrooms and the black wagyu cow that has taken the name of the area.

The description in the book is mocked by reality outside. The fields are mostly bald, shorn of vegetation in a Promethean attempt to decontaminate it of the radiation that fell six years ago. There is not a cow or a farmer in sight. Tractors sit idle in the fields. The local schools are empty. As for the population, the only part of the village that looks busy is the home for the elderly across the road from Kanno’s office.

“The village will never return to how it used to be before the disaster,” Kanno says, “but it may develop in a different way.”

Recovery has started, Kanno says, wondering whether returnees will be able to start building a village they like.

“Who knows? Maybe one day that may help bring back evacuees or newcomers,” Kanno says. “Life doesn’t improve if you remain pessimistic.”

Even for those who have permanently left, he adds, “it doesn’t mean that their furusato can just disappear.”

The pull of the furusato (hometown) is exceptionally strong in Japan, says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist who has written extensively about Iitate.

Yearning for it “is expressed in countless sentimental ballads,” Gill says. “One particular song, simply titled ‘Furusato,’ has been sung by children attending state schools in Japan since 1914.”

The appeal has persisted despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the rural/urban imbalance in Japan is more skewed than in any other developed nation, Gill says; just 10 percent of the nation’s population live in the country.

This may partly explain the extraordinary efforts to bring east Fukushima back to life. By one study, more than ¥2.34 trillion has been spent decontaminating an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island.

There has been no official talk of abandoning it. Indeed, any suggestion otherwise could be controversial: When industry minister Yoshio Hachiro called the abandoned communities “towns of death” in September 2011, the subsequent outrage forced him to quit a week later.

Instead, the area was divided into three zones with awkward euphemisms to suggest just the opposite: Communities with annual radiation measuring 20 millisieverts or less (the typical worldwide limit for workers in nuclear plants) are “being prepared for lifting of evacuation order,” districts of 20-50 millisieverts per year are “no-residence zones” and the most heavily contaminated areas of 50 millisieverts or more per year, such as Nagadoro, are “difficult-to-return.”

In September 2015, Naraha, which is located 15 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, became the first town in the prefecture to completely lift the evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. Naraha has a publicly built shopping street, a new factory making lithium batteries, a kindergarten and a secondary school.

A team of decontamination workers has been sent to every house — in some cases several times. Of the pre-disaster 7,400 residents, about 1,500 mainly elderly people have returned, the local government says, although that figure is likely inflated.

In Iitate, the cost of decontamination works out at about ¥200 million per household. That, and the passage of time, has dramatically reduced radiation in many areas to below 20 millisieverts a year. However, Kanno says, the cleanup extends to only 20 meters around each house, and three-quarters of the village is forested mountains. In windy weather, radioactive elements are blown back onto the fields and homes.

“All that money, and for what?” asks Nobuyoshi Itoh, a farmer and critic of the mayor. “Would you bring children here and let them roam in the fields and forests?”

Itoh opted to stay in one of the more heavily toxic parts of the village after everyone fled, with little apparent ill effect, although he says his immune system has weakened.

One of the reasons why Iitate was such a pleasant place to live before the nuclear crisis, he recalls, was its unofficial barter system. “Most people here never bought vegetables; they grew them,” he says. “I would bring someone potatoes and they would give me eggs. That’s gone now.”

At most, he says, a few hundred people are back — but they’re invariably older or retired.

“They alone will not sustain the village,” Itoh says. “Who will drive them around or look after them when they are sick?”

As the depth of the disaster facing Iitate became clear, local people began to squabble among themselves. Some were barely scraping a living and wanted to leave, although saying so out loud — abandoning the furusato — was often difficult. Many joined lawsuits against the government.

Even before disaster struck, the village had lost a third of its population since 1970 as its young folk relocated to the cities, mirroring the hollowing-out of rural areas across the country. Some wanted to shift the entire village elsewhere, but Kanno wouldn’t hear of it.

Compensation could be a considerable incentive. In addition to ¥100,000 a month to cover the “mental anguish” of being torn from their old lives, there was extra money for people with houses or farms. A five-year lump sum was worth ¥6 million per person — twice that for Nagadoro. One researcher estimates a rough figure of ¥50 million for the average household, sufficient to leave behind the uncertainties and worries of Iitate and buy a house a few dozen miles away, close enough to return for work or to the village’s cool, tranquil summers.

Many have already done so. Though nobody knows the true figure, the local talk is that perhaps half of the villagers have permanently left. Surveys suggest fewer than 30 percent want to return, and even less in the case of Nagadoro.

Yoshitomo Shigihara, head of the Nagadoro hamlet, says many families made their decision some time ago. His grandchildren, he says, should not have to live in such a place.

“It’s our job to protect them,” Shigihara says. He lives in the city of Fukushima but returns roughly every 10 days to inspect his house and weed the land.

Even with so much money spent, Shigihara doubts whether it will bring many of his friends or relatives back. At 70 years of age, he is not sure that he even wants to return, he says.

“I sometimes get upset thinking about it, but I can’t talk with anyone in Fukushima, even my family, because we often end up quarreling,” he says. “People try to feel out whether the others are receiving benefits, what they are getting or how much they received in compensation. It’s very stressful to talk to anyone in Iitate. I’m starting to hate myself because I end up treating others badly out of frustration.”

Kanno has won six elections since 1996 and has overseen every step of Iitate’s painful rehabilitation, navigating between the anger and despair of his constituents and the official response to the disaster from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), operator of the crippled nuclear plant.

He wants more money to complete decontamination work (the government claims it is finished), repair roads and infrastructure. Returnees need financial support, he says. However, it is time, he believes, to end the monthly compensation, which, in his view, induces dependency.

“If people keep saying that life is hard, they will not be able to recover,” he says. “What we need is support for livelihoods.”

A new system gives seed money to people who voluntarily come back to start businesses or farms.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we are influencing people’s decisions or forcing them to return,” the mayor says, using the phrase “kokoro ni fumikomu,” which literally means “to step into hearts.”

Yet, next year, thousands of Iitate evacuees will face a choice: Go back or lose the money that has helped sustain them elsewhere for six years. Evacuation from areas exposed to less than 20 millisieverts per year will be regarded as “voluntary” under the official compensation scheme.

This dilemma was expressed with unusual starkness last month by Masahiro Imamura, the now sacked minister in charge of reconstructing Tohoku. Pressed by a freelance reporter, Imamura tetchily said it was up to the evacuees themselves — their “own responsibility, their own choice” — whether or not to return.

The comment touched a nerve. The government is forcing people to go back, some argued, employing a form of economic blackmail, or worse, kimin seisaku — abandoning them to their fate.

Itoh is angry at the resettlement. For him, politics drives the haste to put the disaster behind.

“It’s inhuman to make people go back to this,” he says. Like the physical damage of radiation, he says, the psychological damage is also invisible: “A lot of people are suffering in silence.”

Itoh believes the government wants to show that the problems of nuclear power can be overcome so it can switch the nation’s idling nuclear reactors back on. Just four are in operation while the fate of 42 others remains in political and legal limbo. Public opinion remains opposed to their restart.

Many people began with high hopes in Iitate but have gradually grown distrustful of the village government, says Kenichi Hasegawa, a farmer who wrote a book titled “Genpatsu ni Furusato o Ubawarete” (“Fukushima’s Stolen Lives”) in 2012. Right from the start, he says, the mayor desperately tried to hide the shocking radiation outside his office.

“Villagers have started losing interest,” Hasegawa says.

Meetings called by the mayor are poorly attended.

“But they hold meetings anyway,” Hasegawa says, “just to say they did.”

Kanno rejects talk of defeatism. A tourist shop is expected to open in August that will attract people to the area, he says. Some villagers are paving entrances to their houses, using money from the reconstruction budget. As for radiation, everyone “has their own idea” about its effects. The lifting of the evacuation is only the start.

Itoh says he once trusted public officials but those days are long gone. By trying to save the village, he says, the mayor may in fact be killing it. ”

by David McNeill and Chie Matsumoto, The Japan Times

source

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Fukushima: A second Chernobyl? — The Asia-Pacific Journal

” Waiting for the Future in Fukushima

As the sixth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster approaches, the area around the hulking corpse of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant continues to exude a horrible fascination. Arkadiusz Podniesinski is one of thousands of photographers and journalists drawn there since the crisis began in March 2011. In 2015 his first photo report from the area attracted millions of views around the world.

Podniesinski brought to Japan his experience of chronicling the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear accident in Chernobyl, which he first visited in 2008. It was, he noted, people, not technology that was responsible for both disasters. Japanese politicians, he adds, are offended by comparisons with Chernobyl. Still, rarely for a foreign report on Fukushima, his work was picked up by Japanese television (on the liberal channel TBS), suggesting there is a hunger for this comparative perspective.

Podniesinski’s first trip strengthened his belief in the “catastrophic consequences of nuclear disasters.” Apart from the suffering caused by the disruption of so many lives (160,000 people remain homeless or displaced), there is the struggle to return contaminated cities and towns to a state where people can live in them again. Billions of dollars have already been spent on this cleanup and much more is to come: The latest rehabilitation plan by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. puts the total bill for compensation alone at 7.08 trillion yen, or nearly $60 billion.

Thirty years after Chernobyl’s reactor exploded, Ukrainians have long come to terms with the tragedy that befell them, he writes. The dead and injured have been forgotten. A 2-billion-Euro sarcophagus covering the damaged reactor is nearly complete. The media returns to the story only on major anniversaries. What, he wonders, will become of Fukushima? Last year, Naraha became the first town in Fukushima Prefecture to completely lift an evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. But despite rebuilding much of the town’s infrastructure and spending millions of dollars to reduce radiation, the local authorities have persuaded only a small number of people to permanently return there.

Radiation is only part of the problem, of course. “The evacuees worry about the lack of schools, hospitals and shops,” says Podniesinski. “About the public infrastructure, which has not been sufficiently rebuilt. It must be adapted to the needs of older people, who, after the departure of so many young people from the zone, will now be the majority. However, the evacuees are most afraid of loneliness, as few of their family members, friends and neighbors have decided to return.”

The sense of life suspended, of waiting for the future to arrive, resonates in Tomioka, once home to nearly 16,000 people, now a ghost town. Podniesinski arrives just as its famous cheery blossoms bloom, but there is nobody to see them. The irony of fate, he writes, means that this Japanese symbol of new, nascent life blooms in contaminated and lifeless streets. “Will the city and its residents be reborn? Undoubtedly, the last word shall belong to them alone.” DM “

introduction by David McNeill

” Fukushima: A Second Chernobyl?

Exactly a year has passed since my first visit to Fukushima. A visit which strengthened my belief of how catastrophic the consequences of nuclear disasters can be. A visit that also highlighted how great the human and financial efforts to return contaminated and destroyed cities to a state suitable for re-habitation can be.

The report on the Fukushima zone through the eyes of a person who knows and regularly visits Chernobyl received a great deal of interest in the international community. Viewed several million times and soon picked up by traditional media around the world, it became for a moment the most important topic on Fukushima. I was most pleased, however, by the news that the coverage also reached Japan, where it not only caused quite a stir (more on that another time) but also made me realize just how minuscule Japanese knowledge about the current situation in Fukushima is.

As a result, over the last year I started to go to Fukushima more often than to Chernobyl. This is hardly surprising for another reason. 30 years have passed since the Chernobyl disaster, so the majority of Ukrainians have long since come to terms with the tragedy. The dead and injured have been forgotten. The same is true for media interest, which is only revived on the occasion of the round, 30th anniversary of the disaster. In addition, after nearly 10 years and 2 billion euros, work on the new sarcophagus is finally coming to an end, and soon a storage site for radioactive waste and a 227-ha radiological biosphere reserve will be established.

Will the decommissioning of the power plant in Fukushima also take 30 years and end with the construction of a sarcophagus? Will the contaminated and deserted towns located around the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi power plant be called ghost towns and resemble Chernobyl’s Pripyat? Finally, will Fukushima become a popular place for dark tourism like Chernobyl and be visited by thousands of tourists every year?

I Never Want to Return Alone

The Japanese, particularly politicians and officials, do not like and are even offended by comparisons between Fukushima and Chernobyl. It is, however, difficult not to do so when analogies are visible everywhere. While the fact that the direct causes of the disasters are different, the result is almost identical. A tragedy for the hundreds of thousands of evacuated residents, hundreds of thousands of hectares of land contaminated, and decades of time and billions of dollars devoted to eliminating the results of the disaster. And the first cases of thyroid cancer.

The situation in Fukushima resembles a fight against time or a test of strength. The government has devoted billions of dollars to decontaminating the area and restoring residents to their homes. They must hurry before the residents completely lose hope or the desire to return. Before the houses collapse or people are too old to return to. In addition, the authorities soon intend to stop the compensation paid to residents, which according to many of them will be an even more effective “encouragement” for them to return. Deprived of financial support, many residents will have no other choice but to return. Many young families are not waiting for any government assistance. They decided long ago to leave in search of a new life free of radioactive isotopes. They will surely never return.

But radiation is not the only problem that the authorities must worry about. The evacuated residents worry about the lack of schools, hospitals and shops. About the public infrastructure, which has not been sufficiently rebuilt. It must be adapted to the needs of older people, who, after the departure of so many young people from the zone, will now be the majority. However, the evacuees are most afraid of loneliness, as few of their family members, friends and neighbours have decided to return.

Can the authorities manage to convince the residents to return? Has critical mass been exceeded, after which evacuees will learn from others and return? The authorities are doing everything they can to convince residents that the sites are safe for people. They open towns, roads and railway stations one after another. Unfortunately, despite this, residents still do not want to return. A recent survey confirms that there is a huge gap between the government’s current policies and the will of the affected residents. Only 17.8% want to return, 31.5% are unsure and 48% never intend to return.

It Became Chernobyl Here

During my first visit to Fukushima, I met Naoto Matsumura, who defied official bans and returned to the closed zone to take care of the animals abandoned there by farmers fleeing radiation. Matsumura has taken in hundreds of animals, saving them from inevitable death by starvation or at the hands of the merciless officials forcing farmers to agree to kill them. Thanks to his courage and sacrifice, Matsumura soon became known as the Guardian of Fukushima’s Animals.

Matsumura was not able to help all of the animals, however. According to the farmer, a third of them died of thirst, unable to break free of the metal beams in barns, wooden fences or ordinary kennels. Matsumura took me to one such place.

Not all appreciate Matsumura’s sacrifice and courage. Many people believe that helping these animals, which sooner or later would have ended up on a plate, is not worth the risk the farmer is exposing himself to. Matsumura always has the same answer for them – there is a fundamental difference between killing animals for food and killing animals who are no longer needed due to radiation.

Cow Terrorist

I also returned to Masami Yoshizawa, who like Naoto Matsumura decided to illegally return to the closed zone to take care of the abandoned animals. Shortly after the disaster, some of the farmer’s cows began to develop mysterious white spots on their skin. According to Yoshizawa, they are the result of radioactive contamination and the consumption of radioactive feed.

Yoshizawa’s farm is located 14 km from the destroyed power plant. From this distance, the buildings of the plant are not visible, but its chimneys can be seen. And, as Yoshizawa says – one could also see [and hear] explosions in the power plant as well as radioactive clouds that soon pass over his farm. Consequently, nearly half of the nearly 20,000 inhabitants of the town of Namie were evacuated to Tsushima, located high in the nearby mountains. But soon people began to flee from there when it turned out that the wind blowing in that direction contaminated the area even more. As a result of the radioactive contamination in Fukushima, a new generation known as the hibakusha has arisen. Up to now, this name was only given to people who were victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now this concept has also been applied to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As Yoshizawa says – of the 120 surveyed hibakusha, he ranks third in Namie in terms of the amount of radiation doses received.

Defying the completely ignorant authorities, Yoshizawa quickly became a professional activist and his cows got a new mission – they became protestors. And, soon after, he brought one of them in front of the Ministry of Agriculture’s building, demanding that research be undertaken to explain why white spots have appeared on the animals’ skins after the disaster. Yoshizawa says, “I protested [by] bringing a bit of Fukushima to Tokyo. May the cows and I become living proof of the disaster, and the farm a chronicle telling the story of the Fukushima disaster.”

When protesting against the construction and re-starting of subsequent nuclear power plants, Yoshizawa does not bring his cows along anymore. Instead, he has a car festooned with banners that pulls behind it a small trailer with a metal model of a cow. “I have a strong voice and can scream louder than die-hard right wingers!” explains Yoshizawa. “I’m a cowboy, a cow terrorist, a kamikaze!” he adds in a loud voice, presenting an example of his capabilities. “We are not advocating violence, we don’t kill people, we are not aggressive. We are political terrorists,” he concludes calmly. And after a moment, he invites us to a real protest. The occasion of the planned opening of the railway station is to be attended by Prime Minister Sinzo Abe himself.

The protest goes peacefully indeed. Yoshizawa first drives round the city to which the Prime Minister is soon to arrive. Driving his car, he shouts into the microphone, “When a fire broke out in the reactors, TEPCO employees fled. The fire was extinguished by the young men of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. Why were you not able to control the power plant you built?” He continued immediately, “Today the Prime Minister is coming here. Let’s get up and greet Abe. Let’s show Abe not only the beautifully prepared railway station, let him also see the dark side of the city. For 40 years, we supplied electricity to Tokyo. Our region only could support Japan’s economic development. And now we suffer. Tales about the safety of nuclear power plants are a thing of the past,” Yoshizawa concludes. When the moment of the Prime Minister’s arrival approaches and the crowds grow larger, policemen and the Prime Minister’s security detail approach the farmer. They order him to take down his banners and leave the site. Yoshizawa obeys, but carries out their commands without haste. As if deliberately trying to prolong their presence, hoping to have time to meet and “greet” the Prime Minister.

No-go Zones

As always, a major part of my trip to Fukushima is devoted to visits to no-go zones. Obtaining permission to enter and photograph the interior is still difficult and very time-consuming. However, it is nothing compared to the search for owners of the abandoned properties, persuade them to come, show their houses and discuss the tragic past.

Sometimes, however, it’s different. Such as in the case of Tatsuo and Kazue Kogure, who with the help of Japanese television agreed to take me to Tomioka, where they ran a small but popular bar. It was not only a place to eat and drink sake, but also to sing karaoke with the bar’s owners.

Unfortunately the city, and with it the bar, stood in the way of the radioactive cloud and had to be closed. Earlier, I saw many similar bars and restaurants. Overgrown, smelly, full of mould, debris and scattered items. This place, however, is different. It is distinguished by its owners, who despite age and the tragedy they experienced, did not give up and opened a new bar outside the radioactive zone. Mr and Mrs Kogure not only showed me the abandoned bar, but also invited me to their new one.

What is unusual and extremely gratifying is the fact that the couple’s efforts to continue the family business are also supported by regular customers from the previous bar. “It’s thanks to their help that we could start all over again,” Kazue Kogure acknowledges. She immediately adds, “By opening the bar again we also wanted to be an example to other evacuated residents. To show that it’s possible.”

The Scale of the Disaster Shocked Us

I also visit the former fire station located in the closed zone in Tomioka. Due to the nuclear power plant neighbouring the city, the firefighters working here were regularly trained in case of a variety of emergencies. I am accompanied by Naoto Suzuki, a firefighter who served here before the disaster. In the middle of the firehouse, my attention is drawn to a large blackboard. “That’s the task scheduler for March 2011,” the firefighter explains. “On 11 March, the day of the disaster, we had nothing planned, but,” he adds with an ironic smile, “the day before we had a training session on responding to radioactive contamination. We practiced how to save irradiated people and how to use dosimeters and conduct decontamination.”

Unfortunately, the reality shocked even the firefighters, who had to cope with tasks they had never practiced. For example, with cooling the reactors. Even the repeatedly practiced evacuation procedures for the residents were often ineffective and resulted in the opposite of the desired effect. It turned out that the data from SPEEDI (System for Predicting Environmental Emergency Dose Information), whose tasks included forecasting the spread of radioactive substances, was useless and did not reach the local authorities. As a result, many residents were evacuated for more contaminated sites and unnecessarily endangered by the additional dose of radiation.

The monthly work schedule at the fire station in Tomioka (no-go zone). Firefighter Naoto Suzuki shows the training session on how to help people exposed to radiation planned for the day before the disaster. A committee meeting to provide information in the event of a fire in the nuclear reactors was planned for 14 March.

In the spring of this year, thanks to the help and support of many people, particularly the local authorities, evacuated residents and even a monk, I was also able to see many interesting places mostly located in the closed zones in Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and Namie. Although five years have passed since the disaster, most of them still remain closed and many valuable objects can still be found there. Due to this, I have decided not to publish information that could aid in locating them.

Hope

Ending my series of travels around Fukushima, I return to Tomioka to see the thing for which the city is most famous and its residents most proud – one of the longest and oldest cherry blossom tunnels in Japan. For the residents of Tomioka, cherry trees have always been something more than just a well-known tourist attraction or the historic symbol of the town. Not only did they admire the aesthetic attributes of the flowers, but they were also part of their lives, organized festivals, meetings and the topic of family conversations.

The natural beauty and powerful symbolism as well as their constant presence in Japanese arts have made cherry trees become an icon of Japanese cultural identity. They signal the arrival of spring, the time for renewal and the emergence of new life. In the spiritual sense, they remind us of how beautiful, yet tragically short and fragile, life is – just like the blooming cherry blossoms that fall from the tree after just a few days.

The nuclear irony of fate meant that this Japanese symbol of new, nascent life today blooms in the contaminated and lifeless streets of Tomioka. Will the city and its residents be reborn, along with the cherry trees blossoming in solitude and silence? Undoubtedly, the last word shall belong to them alone. ”

by Arkadiusz Podniesiński

source with a lot of photography

Residents who fled Fukushima meltdown fear return to ghost town — Bloomberg

” Weed-engulfed buildings and shuttered businesses paint an eerie picture of a coastal Japanese town abandoned after a monstrous earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns in the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Namie, one of the communities hardest hit by the 2011 disaster, had 21,000 residents before they fled radiation spewing from the reactors eight kilometers (five miles) away. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now looking to repopulate the town as early as next year, a symbolic step toward recovery that might also help soften opposition to his government’s plan to restart Japan’s mostly mothballed nuclear industry.

“The national and local governments are trying to send us back,” said Yasuo Fujita, 64, a sushi chef who lives alongside hundreds of other Fukushima evacuees in a modern high rise in Tokyo more than 200 kilometers away. “We do want to return — we were born and raised there. But can we make a living? Can we live next to the radioactive waste?”

So far few evacuees are making plans to go back even as clean-up costs top $30 billion and Abe’s government restores infrastructure. That reluctance mirrors a national skepticism toward nuclear power that threatens to erode the prime minister’s positive approval ratings, particularly in areas with atomic reactors.

Mothballed Reactors

Officials in his government are calling for nuclear power to account for as much as 22 percent of Japan’s electricity supply by 2030, nearly the same percentage as before the Fukushima meltdown, in part to help meet climate goals. Only two of the nation’s 42 operable nuclear plants are currently running, leaving the country even more heavily reliant on imports of oil and gas.

A poll published by the Asahi newspaper this week found 57 percent of respondents were opposed to restarting nuclear reactors, compared with 29 percent in favor. One of Abe’s ministers lost his seat in Fukushima in an upper house election in July, and the government suffered another setback when an anti-nuclear candidate won Sunday’s election for governor of Niigata prefecture, home to the world’s largest nuclear plant.

Some 726 square kilometers — roughly the size of New York City — of Fukushima prefecture remain under evacuation orders, divided by level of radioactivity. While the government is looking to reopen part of Namie next year, most of the town is designated as “difficult to return to” and won’t be ready for people to move back until at least 2022.

“We must make the area attractive, so that people want to return there,” Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura said this week. “I want to do everything I can to make it easy to go back.”

Workers are cleaning by scraping up soil, moss and leaves from contaminated surfaces and sealing them in containers. Still, the operation has skipped most of the prefecture’s hilly areas, leading to fears that rain will simply wash more contamination down into residential zones. Decommissioning of the stricken plant itself is set to take as many as 40 years.

The bill for cleaning up the environment is ballooning, with the government estimating the cost through March 2018 at $3.3 trillion yen ($32 billion). That’s weighing on Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., which is already struggling to avoid default over decommissioning costs.

“They are spending money in the name of returning things to how they were” without having had a proper debate on whether this is actually possible, said Yutaka Okada, senior researcher at Mizuho Research Institute in Tokyo. “Was it really right to spend this enormous amount of money?”

Namie officials, operating from temporary premises 100 kilometers away in the city of Nihonmatsu, are plowing ahead with preparations. A middle school in the town is scheduled for remodeling to add facilities for elementary pupils — even though they expect only about 20 children to attend. Similar efforts in nearby communities have had limited success.

Only 18 percent of former Namie residents surveyed by the government last year said they wanted to return, compared with 48 percent who did not. The remainder were undecided.

Staying Put

Fujita, the sushi chef, has joined the ranks of those starting afresh elsewhere. He opened a seafood restaurant near his temporary home last year, and is buying an apartment in the area. In a sign the move will be permanent, he even plans to squeeze the Buddhist altar commemorating his Fukushima ancestors into his Tokyo home.

For those that do return, finding work will be a headache in a town that was heavily dependent on the plant for jobs and money.

Haruka Hoshi, 27, was working inside the nuclear facility when the earthquake struck, and she fled with just her handbag. Months later she married another former employee at the plant, and they built a house down the coast in the city of Iwaki, where they live with their three-year-old son. They have no plans to return.

“It would be difficult to recreate the life we had before,” she said. “The government wants to show it’s achieved something, to say: ‘Fukushima’s all right, there was a terrible incident, but people are able to return after five years.’ That goal doesn’t correspond with the reality.” ”

by Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro

source

Reassessing the 3.11 disaster and the future of nuclear power in Japan: An Interview with former Prime Minister Kan Naoto — The Asia-Pacific Journal

” Introduction

For more than two decades, the global nuclear industry has attempted to frame the debate on nuclear power within the context of climate change: nuclear power is better than any of the alternatives. So the argument went. Ambitious nuclear expansion plans in the United States and Japan, two of the largest existing markets, and the growth of nuclear power in China appeared to show—superficially at least—that the technology had a future. At least in terms of political rhetoric and media perception, it appeared to be a winning argument. Then came March 11, 2011. Those most determined to promote nuclear power even cited the Fukushima Daiichi accident as a reason for expanding nuclear power: impacts were low, no one died, radiation levels are not a risk. So claimed a handful of commentators in the international (particularly English-language) media.

However, from the start of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11 2011, the harsh reality of nuclear power was exposed to billions of people across the planet, and in particular to the population of Japan, including the more than 160,000 people displaced by the disaster, many of whom are still unable to return to their homes, and scores of millions more threatened had worst case scenarios occurred. One authoritative voice that has been central to exposing the myth-making of the nuclear industry and its supporters has been that of Kan Naoto, Prime Minister in 2011. His conversion from promoter to stern critic may be simple to understand, but it is no less commendable for its bravery. When the survival of half the society you are elected to serve and protect is threatened by a technology that is essentially an expensive way to boil water, then something is clearly wrong. Japan avoided societal destruction thanks in large part to the dedication of workers at the crippled nuclear plant, but also to the intervention of Kan and his staff, and to luck. Had it not been for a leaking pipe into the cooling pool of Unit 4 that maintained sufficient water levels, the highly irradiated spent fuel in the pool, including the entire core only recently removed from the reactor core, would have been exposed, releasing an amount of radioactivity far in excess of that released from the other three reactors. The cascade of subsequent events would have meant total loss of control of the other reactors, including their spent fuel pools and requiring massive evacuation extending throughout metropolitan Tokyo, as Prime Minister Kan feared. That three former Prime Ministers of Japan are not just opposed to nuclear power but actively campaigning against it is unprecedented in global politics and is evidence of the scale of the threat that Fukushima posed to tens of millions of Japanese.

The reality is that in terms of electricity share and relative to renewable energy, nuclear power has been in decline globally for two decades. Since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, this decline has only increased in pace. The nuclear industry knew full well that nuclear power could not be scaled up to the level required to make a serious impact on global emissions. But that was never the point. The industry adopted the climate-change argument as a survival strategy: to ensure extending the life of existing aging reactors and make possible the addition of some new nuclear capacity in the coming decades—sufficient at least to allow a core nuclear industrial infrastructure to survive to mid-century. The dream was to survive to mid-century, when limitless energy would be realized by the deployment of commercial plutonium fast-breeder reactors and other generation IV designs. It was always a myth, but it had a commercial and strategic rationale for the power companies, nuclear suppliers and their political allies.

The basis for the Fukushima Daiichi accident began long before March 11th 2011, when decisions were made to build and operate reactors in a nation almost uniquely vulnerable to major seismic events. More than five years on, the accident continues with a legacy that will stretch over the decades. Preventing the next catastrophic accident in Japan is now a passion of the former Prime Minister, joining as he has the majority of the people of Japan determined to transition to a society based on renewable energy. He is surely correct that the end of nuclear power in Japan is possible. The utilities remain in crisis, with only three reactors operating, and legal challenges have been launched across the nation. No matter what policy the government chooses, the basis for Japan’s entire nuclear fuel cycle policy, which is based on plutonium separation at Rokkasho-mura and its use in the Monju reactor and its fantasy successor reactors, is in a worse state than ever before. But as Kan Naoto knows better than most, this is an industry entrenched within the establishment and still wields enormous influence. Its end is not guaranteed. Determination and dedication will be needed to defeat it. Fortunately, the Japanese people have these in abundance. SB

The Interview

Q: What is your central message?

Kan: Up until the accident at the Fukushima reactor, I too was confident that since Japanese technology is of high quality, no Chernobyl-like event was possible.

But in fact when I came face to face with Fukushima, I learned I was completely mistaken. I learned first and foremost that we stood on the brink of disaster: had the incident spread only slightly, half the territory of Japan, half the area of metropolitan Tokyo would have been irradiated and 50,000,000 people would have had to evacuate.

Half one’s country would be irradiated, nearly half of the population would have to flee: to the extent it’s conceivable, only defeat in major war is comparable.

That the risk was so enormous: that is what in the first place I want all of you, all the Japanese, all the world’s people to realize.

Q: You yourself are a physicist, yet you don’t believe in the first analysis that people can handle nuclear power? Don’t you believe that there are technical advances and that in the end it will be safe to use?

Kan: As a rule, all technologies involve risk. For example, automobiles have accidents; airplanes, too. But the scale of the risk if an accident happens affects the question whether or not to use that technology. You compare the plus of using it and on the other hand the minus of not using it. We learned that with nuclear reactors, the Fukushima nuclear reactors, the risk was such that 50,000,000 people nearly had to evacuate. Moreover, if we had not used nuclear reactors—in fact, after the incident, there was a period of about two years when we didn’t use nuclear power and there was no great impact on the public welfare, nor any economic impact either. So when you take these factors as a whole into account, in a broad sense there is no plus to using nuclear power. That is my judgment.

One more thing. In the matter of the difference between nuclear power and other technologies, controlling the radiation is in the final analysis extremely difficult.

For example, plutonium emits radiation for a long time. Its half-life is 24,000 years, so because nuclear waste contains plutonium—in its disposal, even if you let it sit and don’t use it—its half-life is 24,000 years, in effect forever. So it’s a very difficult technology to use—an additional point I want to make.

Q: It figured a bit ago in the lecture by Professor Prasser, that in third-generation reactors, risk can be avoided. What is your response?

Kan: It’s as Professor Khwostowa said: we’ve said that even with many nuclear reactors, an event inside a reactor like the Fukushima nuclear accident or a Chernobyl-sized event would occur only once in a million years; but in fact, in the past sixty years, we’ve had Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Professor Prasser says it’s getting gradually safer, but in fact accidents have happened with greater frequency and on a larger scale than was foreseen. So partial improvements are possible, as Professor Prasser says, but saying that doesn’t mean that accidents won’t happen. Equipment causes accidents, but so do humans.

Q: Today it’s five years after Fukushima. What is the situation in Japan today? We hear that there are plans beginning in 2018 to return the refugees to their homes. To what extent is the clean-up complete?

Kan: Let me describe conditions on site at Fukushima. Reactors #1, #2, #3 melted down, and the melted nuclear fuel still sits in the containment vessel; every day they introduce water to cool it. Radioactivity in the vessel of #2, they say, is 70 sieverts—not microsieverts or millisieverts, 70 sieverts. If humans approach a site that is radiating 70 sieverts, they die within five minutes. That situation has held ever since: that’s the current situation.

Moreover, the water they introduce leaves the containment vessel and is said to be recirculated, but in fact it mixes with groundwater, and some flows into the ocean. Prime Minister Abe used the words “under control,” but Japanese experts, including me, consider it not under control if part is flowing into the ocean. All the experts see it this way.

As for the area outside the site, more than 100,000 people have fled the Fukushima area.

So now the government is pushing residential decontamination and beyond that the decontamination of agricultural land.

Even if you decontaminate the soil, it’s only a temporary or partial reduction in radioactivity; in very many cases cesium comes down from the mountains, it returns.

The Fukushima prefectural government and the government say that certain of the areas where decontamination has been completed are habitable, so people have until 2018 to return; moreover, beyond that date, they won’t give aid to the people who have fled. But I and others think there’s still danger and that the support should be continued at the same level for people who conclude on their own that it’s still dangerous—that’s what we’re saying.

Given the conditions on site and the conditions of those who have fled, you simply can’t say that the clean-up is complete.

Q: Since the Fukushima accident, you have become a strong advocate of getting rid of nuclear reactors; yet in the end, the Abe regime came to power, and it is going in the opposite direction: three reactors are now in operation. As you see this happening, are you angry?

Kan: Clearly what Prime Minister Abe is trying to do—his nuclear reactor policy or energy policy—is mistaken. I am strongly opposed to current policy.

But are things moving steadily backward? Three reactors are indeed in operation. However, phrase it differently: only three are in operation. Why only three? Most—more than half the people—are still resisting strongly. From now on, if it should come to new nuclear plants, say, or to extending the licenses of existing nuclear plants, popular opposition is extremely strong, so that won’t be at all easy. In that sense, Japan’s situation today is a very harsh opposition—a tug of war—between the Abe government, intent on retrogression, and the people, who are heading toward abolishing nuclear reactors.

Two of Prime Minister Abe’s closest advisors are opposed to his policy on nuclear power.

One is his wife. The other is former Prime Minister Koizumi, who promoted him.

Q: Last question: please talk about the possibility that within ten years Japan will do away with nuclear power.

Kan: In the long run, it will disappear gradually. But if you ask whether it will disappear in the next ten years, I can’t say. For example, even in my own party opinion is divided; some hope to do away with it in the 2030s. So I can’t say whether it will disappear completely in the next ten years, but taking the long view, it will surely be gone, for example, by the year 2050 or 2070. The most important reason is economic. It has become clear that compared with other forms of energy, the cost of nuclear energy is high.

Q: Thank you. ”

Interview by Vincenzo Capodici

Introduction by Shaun Burnie

Translation by Richard Minear

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Fukushima’s record decreasing rate of population causing gender gap, census shows — The Asahi Shimbun

” FUKUSHIMA–Fukushima Prefecture’s population has declined by 5.7 percent since 2010, its largest recorded drop and the cause of a widening gender gap in some areas, according to national census figures announced on Dec. 25.

The population drop is mainly due to ongoing evacuations following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, according to the preliminary figures released by the prefectural government.

The prefecture lost 39,715 men and 75,743 women, a decrease of 4 percent and 7.3 percent from 2010, respectively. The difference is thought to have been caused partly by the majority male presence in reconstruction efforts.

A prefectural government official said the diminishing population is “attributable to a considerable number of people who have evacuated to places outside Fukushima Prefecture.”

On the gap between the male and female populations in some municipalities, the official said, “I assume that most of the workers who relocate themselves to these municipalities for the purpose of carrying out work related to nuclear power plants and reconstruction efforts are male, but many of the evacuees are female.”

The national census figures are the first released by the prefectural government since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which triggered the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Fukushima prefecture’s population as of Oct. 1 stood at 1,913,606, down 115,458, or 5.7 percent, from the last census in 2010.

Among the six towns and villages where the entire population has left under evacuation orders, four towns recorded zero inhabitants: Okuma and Futaba, which co-host the nuclear plant, and nearby Tomioka and Namie.

The village of Katsurao had 18 people who have returned to their homes after being evacuated. They are recorded as temporary residents, but the central government is working to make their resettlement permanent. Katsurao’s evacuation order is scheduled to be lifted next spring.

Naraha, where an evacuation order was lifted on Sept. 5, also experienced a massive decrease in its population, with 976 people living in the area, down 6,724 people, or 87.3 percent, from 2010. The figures illustrate the fact that few evacuees have opted to return home.

The town of Hirono, where a large portion of the population is involved in nuclear reactor decommissioning work, tallied a male population of 2,746, up 2.3 percent from 2010. The female population, on the other hand, was about half that figure at 1,577, down 42.3 percent.

The population figures are based on the number of people living in the prefecture as of Oct. 1, irrespective of whether they are registered as local citizens.

In areas where entry is restricted due to high levels of radiation from the nuclear accident, municipal employees and police officers were deployed to survey the population for the census. ”

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Japan flags grave danger from floods and water tainted by Fukushima nuke plant radiation — The Standard

” Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate across Japan today as heavy rain pounded the country, sending radiation-tainted waters into the ocean at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

Waist-high floods in some areas left rescuers scrambling to pluck people to safety as a wide area was deluged in the wake of Typhoon Etau.
“This is a scale of downpour that we have not experienced before. Grave danger could be imminent,” forecaster Takuya Deshimaru told an emergency press conference.

The Japan Meteorological Agency issued special warnings for Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures, north of Tokyo, urging vigilance against mudslides and flooding.

More than a dozen people were injured, including a 77-year-old woman who broke her leg after falling in strong winds, local reports said.

Etau, which smashed into Japan yesterday, moved out into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) by the end of the day, but a wall of rain continued to lash the country.

Parts of central Tochigi have seen almost 60 centimeters of rain since Monday evening.

The torrential downpour has also exacerbated a contaminated water problem at the Fukushima nuclear plant as it overwhelmed the site’s drainage pumps, a spokesman for operator Tokyo Electric Power said.

Hundreds of tons of contaminated water have flowed into the ocean, he added.

TEPCO is storing huge volumes of water used to cool reactors that were sent into meltdown when a tsunami hit Japan in 2011.

Tochigi authorities ordered more than 90,000 residents to evacuate, while another 116,000 were advised to leave their homes, public broadcaster NHK said.

In Ibaraki prefecture, at least 20,000 were ordered to evacuate for fears of floodings, NHK said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government was on high alert.

“The government will stand united and do its best to deal with the disaster… by putting its highest priority on people’s lives,” Abe told reporters.

The meteorological observatory in Tochigi said the Kinugawa river, which also runs through Ibaraki, overflowed early today.

In Tochigi’s Kanuma city, a local official said rescuers were searching for a missing person believed to be buried in mudslides.

“We don’t know details of this person yet,” he said.

NHK reported it was a woman in her 60s buried after mudslides destroyed houses. Her husband was rescued soon after, it added.—AFP ”

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