Is life in Fukushima really getting back to normal? — The Washington Post

The big question

It’s been nearly eight years since the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, which sent radiation plumes floating across the world and forced the evacuation of much of the surrounding area. Now, with the Olympics coming to Tokyo next year, Fukushima is being set up as a symbol of hope, recovery and a return to normalcy. But some of the area’s former residents remain afraid to come back, and towns still lie deserted despite government assurances. So we asked Post Tokyo bureau chief Simon Denyer, who recently visited the area: Is life in Fukushima really getting back to normal?

“That’s certainly the impression Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to create. The Olympic torch relay will start in Fukushima, and the city will host baseball and softball as well.

The city of Fukushima, perhaps 50 miles from the nuclear plant, is bustling, with radiation levels comparable to Hong Kong and London. Japan’s strict testing program shows that its farm and fisheries products are absolutely safe. Tourist arrivals and food exports from the prefecture have both recovered to beyond their pre-accident levels.

“But the towns nearest the plant offer a different story. Some areas remain off limits due to radiation, and the mountainous forests surrounding the area are virtually impossible to decontaminate. Even in towns that have been cleared for people to return, residents remain extremely wary — especially families with young children.

“In the town of Namie, cleared for resettlement two years ago, less than 5 percent of the pre-disaster population has returned. A sign telling customers to make themselves at home is still displayed in a bar, but debris litters the floor inside. A karaoke parlor is boarded up. Wild boars, monkeys and palm civets still roam the streets.

“In another town, I saw a deserted ramen restaurant — bowls, glasses, bottles of soy sauce and even a pack of cigarettes abandoned on the counter, as they were on March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami struck the region. The restaurant is still off-limits and coated in dust I wasn’t about to touch.

“The government says the plant itself may take 30 or 40 years to decommission, and the cleanup will cost $200 billion. But the technology does not yet exist to safely remove hundreds of tons of molten fuel from the stricken reactors. Independent experts say it could take much longer and cost much more.” ”

by Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, Today’s WorldView

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Nuclear Watch: Fukushima fallout update Arnie Gundersen & Dr. H. Caldicott — The Stream

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More than 25,000 people will never go home because of Fukushima contamination — Rob Edwards, Sunday Herald

” At least 25,000 people evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan will never be able to go home, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

A large swathe of land downwind of the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors smashed by a 15-metre tsunami in March 2011 is so contaminated by radioactivity that it will not be officially safe to return for more than a hundred years.

Tens of thousands more who have left their homes outside the most contaminated zone will choose never to return because of the dangers. One is Rumyko Kobayashi, a quietly spoken grandmother of nine, who had to leave her ancestral home in Tomioka.

“Because the radiation is so high, I can’t bring my grandchildren home and I do not want to live in a place where you can’t see your grandchildren,” she says.

With heart-rending dignity, Kobayashi confesses how strongly she feels about what she’s lost. “I am very, very sorry to my ancestors who lived there for a long time as a family, a chain of generations,” she says.

“I am very sorry to my children and grandchildren because they cannot come back to live in our cherished home. I feel guilty, as if it was me who blew up the nuclear power station.”

The explosions, meltdowns and leaks at Fukushima Daiichi triggered by an earthquake and tsunami three and a half years ago have hurt Japan deeply, triggering 2.2 million compensation claims, an £8 billion decontamination budget and dozens of legal suits. It’s a hurt that is going to take many decades to heal.

More than 30,000 square kilometres of northern Japan were contaminated by the huge clouds of radioactivity that belched into the air during the accident. Over 80,000 people were forced to evacuate from the areas closest to Fukushima Daiichi, and at least another 80,000 are reckoned to have voluntarily decided to flee their homes.

The official evacuation zone is divided into three different areas. In the least contaminated furthest away from the nuclear plant, the Japanese government is hoping to allow 32,900 people to return soon.

In the second area there is two or three times as much contamination, and no immediate plans to lift the ban on living there. But the government is hoping that, after decontamination work and natural radioactive decay, 23,300 people will be allowed home in years to come.

In the third area closest to the nuclear station, radiation levels are so high that experts say it will be more than 120 years before it will be safe for anyone to be allowed back. That means that the 24,700 who used to live there will all be dead before they can go home.

Many of those who may be allowed back, won’t want to come. A survey of one village in the evacuation zones, Katsurao, found that 60 per cent of residents either didn’t want to return home or weren’t sure. Families with young children faced an “enormous challenge” because of the “invisible risk” of radiation, said the village mayor, Masahide Matsumoto.

“At least 25,000 people will never be able to return home, and this will have traumatic, prolonged and widespread consequences,” said Maria Vitagliano, international programme director for Green Cross International, an environmental Red Cross active in Japan and set up by former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1993.

She added: “In Japan the catastrophe is continuing. Three years on, it is impossible to calculate the full dimensions of this disaster and its terrible consequences for the people. This is a catastrophe that will cause untold suffering for decades to come.”

More than 1,600 deaths have been attributed to the nuclear accident by the Japanese authorities, mainly amongst elderly evacuees due to acute stress, suicides or shortages of medical care. Any long term health damage from the radioactive contamination will take many years to show up.

It is a tragic disaster that is getting worse, according to Ikuko Hebiishi, a green councillor in Koriyama city, 55 kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi. The evacuations have torn families and communities apart, making people sick and depressed, she said.

“The next Fukushima disaster could happen anywhere and anytime in Japan as long as nuclear power plants exist in our country. The co-existence of nuclear power and human beings is totally impossible.”

Since the accident, Japan has closed down all 48 of its nuclear reactors for safety checks. But the government is now planning to re-open as many of them as it can, despite admitting that more than 60 per cent of the Japanese population is opposed to nuclear power.

Two reactors at Sendai in southern Japan were given the green light by the nuclear safety regulator to restart last month, though they face other hurdles before they can actually be turned on. More than 20 other applications to restart reactors are pending.

“We are suffering from a national disaster, but we have to think about balancing better efficiency and safety,” said Toshimo Nakagawa, a government MP for Hiroshima. Another government MP, Fumikioki Kobayashi, added: “We can’t immediately abandon nuclear power.”

A third government MP, Mineyuki Fukuda, did not deny when pressed that all the reactors could be re-opened. “They will have to meet new safety standards, and when they meet those standards, they will be opened,” he said. “If they do not meet those standards, they will not be reopened.”

But the government’s attitude towards nuclear power infuriates many. “What makes me angry is that they don’t regret what happened,” said Yoshiko Aoki, who runs a community centre for Fukushima Daiichi evacuees in Koriyama.

“It’s the individual villagers who regret it, and that makes me very angry. They are all afraid of the hazards. They don’t have a future and don’t feel there is a possibility of going home.”

The tsunami was not the issue, Aoki argued. “The biggest problem is the nuclear catastrophe – and it is not only our problem. It is a problem for future generations and for the world.” ”

This article was published both on Rob Edward’s website and the Sunday edition of the Herald Scotland.