Labor groups protest reopening of rail lines near Fukushima — CounterPunch

” Labor activists have protested the reopening this month of a railway line in parts of northeast Japan where they believe radiation levels are still dangerous.

The Joban Line runs from Nippori Station in Tokyo to Iwanuma Station, just south of Sendai City. It is one of main connections between northeast Tokyo’s major station of Ueno up along the coast through Chiba, Ibaraki and Miyagi prefectures.

This region was severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011, while the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster meant that large areas through which trains pass were contaminated by radiation.

The Joban Line was directly hit by the massive tsunami wave in 2011, sweeping train carriages away. Though parts of the line were quickly reopened that same year, two sections of the line—between Tatsuta and Odaka stations, and between Soma and Hamayoshida—remained closed, with passengers served by buses for some of the stations.

However, the operator, East Japan Railway Company (JR East), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, have been keen to reopen the whole line as part of the northeast Japan reconstruction efforts. The Joban Line represents a valuable source of income from both passengers traveling between Sendai and Tokyo as well as freight.

Following decontamination measures, rail services resumed from Iwaki to Tatsuta in late 2014. However, north of Tatsuta lies the areas located within a 20km radius of the devastated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is widely considered a no-go zone.

In July this year, JR East resumed services on the 9.4-kilometer stretch between Odaka and Haranomachi stations as the evacuation order was lifted for the southern part of Minamisoma City, though few residents are willing to return to a community so close to the contaminated area. Media reports suggest only 10-20% are coming back to live in the area.

On December 10th, the previously closed 23.2-kilometer northern section of line between Soma and Hamayoshida reopened for rail services. It means passengers will now be served by a further six stations on the section, though three of these (Shinchi, Yamashita and Sakamoto stations) had to be relocated inland by up to 1.1 kilometers as an anti-tsunami measure. Along with the construction of elevated tracks, the total cost of the latest reopening is said to be 40 billion yen ($350 million).

By spring 2017, the line will be reopened between Namie and Odaka, and then later in the year between Tatsuta and Tomioka. The final section linking Tomioka and Namie, passing through somewhat infamous areas like Futaba, is set to reopen by the end of fiscal 2019 (end of March 2020).

Local tourist bodies are naturally delighted and are pulling out all the stops to attract people. At the newly reopened stations, passengers are able to buy commemorative tickets, take hiking trips, and even try on historical armor.

Lingering Doubts over Radiation

Official announcements say that radiation levels have fallen and clean-up efforts will remove any health risk. Last August, JR East began decontamination tests on parts of the railway between Yonomori and Futaba stations where the radioactivity remains high. It has reported that falling radiation levels can be confirmed at six inspection points along the line, making it confident that decontamination measures are working.

However, the legacy of the Fukushima disaster is a lingering distrust for government and corporate claims about radiation. Activists allege that authorities and JR East are putting profits and the appearance of safety over the genuine health of rail workers and passengers. Just as with the gradual lifting of restrictions on entering the areas around the Joban Line, reopening the railway is, they say, an attempt to encourage evacuated residents to return and tourists to visit even though health risks may remain.

This pressure to reconstruct the region quickly and maintain an impression of safety to Japan and the rest of the world comes from the very top, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s now notorious claim that the Fukushima disaster was “under control” in his speech in September 2013 during the final (and successful) Tokyo bid to win the 2020 Olympic Games. Abe also officiated at the opening of the rebuilt Shinchi Station on December 10th.

Protests Against Reopening

The rank and file rail unions Doro-Mito (National Railway Motive Power Union of Mito) and Doro-Chiba (National Railway Motive Power Union of Chiba) have long protested the ambitions of JR East as part of their campaigns against the operator’s growing policies of rationalization and outsourcing.

On December 10th, around 50 activists from Doro-Mito and associated groups opposed the Joban Line reopening by demonstrating at the Sendai branch of JR East in the morning. A small number of train drivers from the union also went on strike that day. This was coordinated with other protests and actions in Fukushima City and Tokyo at JR sites. At an afternoon protest outside the JR East headquarters in Shinjuku, central Tokyo, around 150 unionists demonstrated.

These are just the most recent examples of actions by this network of medium-sized yet feisty unions, which have waged several strikes and protests since JR East began reopening parts of the track following the 2011 disaster. Unionists have fought to block the reopening in order to protect the well-being of workers as well as the general public.

Other unions and labor groups have apparently remained silent on the Joban Line issue, as have the major anti-nuclear power protest organisations. The mainstream media has also given the Joban Line protests almost no coverage, though the reopening itself was extensively celebrated.

Doro-Mito and Doro-Chiba are the largest groups in a network of militant unions called Doro-Soren, affiliated with the Japan Revolutionary Communist League. Other smaller unions have been established in Tokyo, Fukushima, Niigata and elsewhere. While the overall numbers of unionized workers remain only in the hundreds, organizers hope to create a national union in the future.

The unions have held small strikes on the Joban Line issue alongside their regular strikes and protests against labor conditions, as well as participating in general rallies against the restarting of nuclear power plants in Japan. In this way, the issues of neoliberalism and nuclear power have become aligned in a new and invigorating way.

The Doro-Soren network is also associated with NAZEN, which was formed in August 2011 as a youth group to fight the nuclear industry. The various groups have taken part in annual protests at Fukushima on the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, regularly mobilizing over 1,000 demonstrators. … 

by William Andrews

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Returning home after Fukushima nuclear disaster — Al Jazeera

” Fukushima, Japan – This week, authorities lifted an evacuation order for nearly all parts of Minamisoma city, Fukushima prefecture, allowing more than 10,000 people to return to their homes for the first time since 2011’s nuclear disaster.

Tens of thousands of people across the prefecture had to abruptly leave their homes five years ago after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The lifting of the evacuation order marked the largest number of people allowed back into their hometown – yet only around an estimated 20 percent of Minamisoma’s 10,807 residents in 3,487 households decided to come back.

Since 2014, the government has been gradually lifting up evacuation orders within a 20km radius of the nuclear power plant, following the progress of some clean-up efforts.

Our team drove to Minamisoma from Tokyo along the country’s northeastern coast.

It was not difficult to spot the on-going clean-up efforts.

A great number of big contaminated waste disposal bags were piled up at temporary holding areas on fields across Fukushima prefecture.

Some holding areas were massive in size, occupying huge chunk of the fields, with a string of trucks constantly dropping off black bags.

Roads into contaminated towns were still blocked by big barricades, and checkpoints were put in place to only allow people with a special permit to enter.

As we drove past contaminated areas, the reading on our Geiger counter, which measures the level of radiation, would from time to time jump above usual levels, reaching as high as 3μSv/h – the government’s long-term reduction goal for areas within a 20km radius of the nuclear power plant stands at 0.23μSv/h.

Passing through the still largely empty, yet seemingly peaceful streets of Minamisoma, we arrived at the Odaka station in the city’s Odaka district.

Although the train service had been resumed for the first time in more than five years on the 9.4km stretch between Odaka and Haranomachi station, only a handful of passengers were seen during the day.

Trains arrived and departed, largely empty.

What caught my attention was a large screen in front of the station, showing radiation levels in real time.

The reading was 0.142μSv/h, which was higher than 0.06μSv/h in Tokyo – but still below the 0.23μSv/h government goal.

Such screens were set up across the city to assuage the public’s lingering concerns over radiation contamination.

Over the past few years, a growing number of Minamisoma residents settled somewhere else, worried over the potential long-term health effects of a return back home.

However, people who did decide to come back were trying their best to ensure that life in their hometown, albeit slowly, returned to normal.

About a three-minute walk distance from the station, we spotted around 30 young students and residents.

Preparations were under way by a number of local organisations to celebrate the opening of a community centre in a makeshift building, where residents could freely come and talk about their life back in hometown.

An old lady asked passers-by to take a seat as she served local food. Young students were hanging out with their friends, doing hula hoop and blowing bubbles.

Many of the returnees told us that despite the uncertainties and doubts, they hoped to restore a sense of community – and thus prove to friends and families who were having second thoughts about coming back that it was worth returning home.

“Although we cannot bring back Odaka to what it used to be before the disaster, as residents here, we want to bring back its spirit and the community,” Yoshiki Konno, a local resident and the head of an NGO, told Al Jazeera.

“That is the most important thing we must do.”  ”

by Musun Kim

source

Fukushima ghost towns struggle to recover — The Hindu

” Post-tsunami reconstruction and radiation cleanup could take 10 years, but officials say something has been permanently lost

Nearly three years after a major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak devastated coastal and inland areas of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, 280 km northeast of Tokyo, Namie has become a silent town of ghosts and absent lives.

Namie’s 21,000 residents remain evacuated because of continuing high radiation levels, the product of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, 10 km to the south. Homes, shops and streets are deserted except for the occasional police patrol or checkpoint.

Like the setting for a Hollywood post-apocalypse movie, grass and weeds poke up through cracked pavements. At an abandoned garage, a rusting car sits on a raised ramp, waiting for a repair that will never be completed. A feral dog peers from a wild, untended garden.

Namie is nobody’s town now. Nobody lives here, and nobody visits for long. Even the looters have stopped bothering, and no one knows exactly when the inhabitants may be allowed to return permanently — or whether they will want to.

The 2011 catastrophe faded from world headlines long ago, but in Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and other blighted towns in the 32-km evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant, it is a disaster that never ends.

At the plant itself, recent leaks of contaminated water into the sea and a fraught operation to remove fuel rods from one of the damaged reactors have shown how critical the situation still is — and will remain during a decommissioning process that could take up to 40 years.

For Fukushima’s displaced population, the effects of the disaster continue to be deeply felt. The evacuation area was subdivided earlier this year into three zones of higher or lower radiation risk. In the worst affected zone, return will not be allowed before 2017 at the earliest.

In other areas, families and businesses face difficult decisions about whether or not to go back. At present, no one is even allowed to stay overnight. Locals say that whatever happens, many younger people will not return.

There is little or no trust in official pronouncements, given the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), to take adequate measures to protect the plant against the tsunami and the company’s unimpressive post-disaster record.

There are suspicions that the government knows some towns may never be safe to live in again, but refuses to admit it in order to protect Japan’s unpopular nuclear power industry. There is also a sense that Fukushima’s victims have been forgotten.

That said, the painstaking cleanup continues and there has been some progress in adjoining, less badly affected areas, according to Hiroshi Murata, the head of the Odaka ward of Minamisoma City, close to Namie.

As many as 18,000 people died or were declared missing in Fukushima Prefecture after the tsunami struck. The radiation plumes caused the forced evacuation of a further 154,000, according to the Japan Reconstruction Agency.

In Odaka, 148 people died, and there were more than 300 fatalities in Minamisoma as a whole. But now around 53 per cent of Odaka residents have returned home, a total of 6,800 out of a pre-disaster population of 12,800, Mr. Murata said.

Nobody has died directly as a result of the nuclear disaster, but a close eye is being kept on the incidence of thyroid cancer in children, following the experience of Chernobyl.

The biggest issues the local administration now faces, following the rehousing of residents in temporary accommodation, are the demolition of unsafe houses, replacement of infrastructure and services, including roads and school playgrounds, and the decontamination and desalination of buildings and land.

“To decontaminate one house and garden takes 10 to 14 days,” Mr. Murata said. “We have to remove surface soil, cut the trees, wash the roofs, clean the rain gutters. The house owners are responsible for cleaning inside. The city and the government help with the rest.” At least in Odaka there is something to clean and repair. In Ukedo, the part of Namie municipality closest to the Pacific Ocean, the devastation is total. Hardly a single house was left standing by the tsunami, which reached 17m in height in some places, Mr. Murata said — a vast wall of water that devoured all in its path.

Wrecked fishing boats still lie stranded kilometres inland and there are vast piles of scrap metal, smashed cars, bits of concrete bridges and broken wooden house frames where once a thriving village stood. An abandoned elementary school, 500m from the sea, looks as though it has been bombed.

But even in Ukedo, a long line of displaced local resident volunteers can be seen picking up and sorting debris on a wintry afternoon, gradually clearing the land where homes formerly stood. With impressive organisation, the local authorities are recycling everything they can, bagging it up in vast compounds erected amid the bleak, salty flatlands that were once rice paddy fields.

Tetsurou Eguchi, the Deputy Mayor of Minamisoma City, said the radiation-related cleanup was likely to take another five to six years and could cost as much as ¥350 billion, much of which would come from the national government. Post-tsunami reconstruction would take up to 10 years. But something intangible had been permanently lost, he said. “When it comes to the economy, and individual and social life, it is very difficult to recover this, compared with how it used to be.” The most challenging problem, he said, was decontamination. “Basically [the radioactive fallout] is not in the air any more. It’s in the soil.” The area was dependent economically on small businesses, agriculture, fishing and tourism, including the famous annual Soma Nomaoi samurai festival, he said. All had been seriously affected.

“People don’t believe it is safe to visit here. They won’t believe our produce, our livestock, our fish are safe. There is a blight. This will take a long time to change.” Much had been said by the national government about supporting Fukushima prefecture in its efforts to get back on its feet, but the reality is different, Mr. Eguchi said.

“It is a fact that we have received quite a lot of support, but is it sufficient? That is difficult, because it’s not just a question of reconstruction. Politicians in Tokyo say if Fukushima does not recover, Japan will not recover, but I’m not sure they really mean that.

“I don’t think Fukushima is fully supported by the whole country. And that’s what the citizens here think.” ”

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