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11 years later, Fukushima still faces a long road to full recovery

Workers remove debris at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant’s No. 1 reactor building.

March 11, 2022

Eleven years after a broad swath of the northeastern Tohoku region was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the government is stressing the progress made in the recovery and reconstruction of disaster-hit areas.

It points out, for example, that its plan to relocate 18,000 houses to areas of high ground for residential land development has been achieved. It also says 98 percent of the local seafood processing facilities have resumed operations in an encouraging sign of recovery of one of the mainstay industries in the region.

But the actual picture is less sunny with the process of recovery and reconstruction only halfway through for most local industries and people’s livelihoods. Local fish hauls are still around 70-80 percent of the pre-disaster levels in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

A survey by the Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry found that about 45 percent of affected companies have yet to return to the staffing levels before that day 11 years ago.

DISTRUST OVER FUKUSHIMA CONTAMINATED WATER 

In particular, Fukushima Prefecture, where the catastrophic accident broke out at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, is struggling to recover what it lost in the disaster.

Coastal fishing catches last year were only 20 percent of pre-disaster figures. Fukushima’s hardships will be further compounded by the scheduled start in spring next year of TEPCO’s plans to release treated radioactive water from the crippled nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean.

Underground water that keeps flowing into the melted reactors is generating a steadily increasing volume of “treated water,” or water currently stored in tanks installed within the compound after being treated with special equipment to eliminate most of the highly radioactive materials.

The government emphasizes that it decided to discharge the water into the sea after explaining meticulously to local communities that scientifically the water poses no health hazard. But the fisheries associations in both Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures as well as in Fukushima have voiced opposition to the step.

“The decision was made in Tokyo and has been imposed on us,” fumes Ayanori Sato, 31, a Sakhalin surf clam fisherman in the Yotsukura district of Iwaki, a city in Fukushima Prefecture.

In Yotsukura, local fishermen restarted Sakhalin surf clam fishing three years after the nuclear disaster. Since four years ago, the district has been holding Sakhalin surf clam festivals once or twice a month as part of its efforts to dispel unfounded negative rumors about the safety of locally caught clams.

The government and TEPCO have pledged to provide proper compensation if the release of treated water breeds rumors that damage local industries. 

A recent Supreme Court ruling on a damages lawsuit filed by people forced to evacuate from their homes due to the Fukushima disaster has increased the distrust of the government and the utility among victims.

The ruling confirmed that the compensation standards set by the government’s interim guidelines are not sufficient. For Sato, who thinks of fishing as his lifelong job, money is not enough to compensate for what he has lost.

The release of treated water is expected to continue for 30 years or so. The government and TEPCO should establish a system to monitor the effects on the environment and locally caught seafood during the period.

There can be no real progress on this matter unless the government and the utility actively disclose information to win the understanding of local communities.

NO PROSPECT FOR MANY EVACUEES TO RETURN HOME 

In Fukushima Prefecture, there remains some 340 square kilometers of land where the evacuation order is still in place, areas near the crippled plant with high levels of radiation, known as “kitaku konnan kuiki” (difficult-to-return zone).

The order is set to be lifted this spring in certain parts of the zone designated as reconstruction priority areas eligible for preferential policy support to help improve the living environment, such as intensive decontamination and infrastructure development efforts.

In the town of Futaba, home to the stricken plant and the only municipality in the prefecture that is still covered entirely by the evacuation order, local residents will be allowed to return home for the first time since the accident, possibly in June.

On March 4, a group of 12 workers, including TEPCO group company employees, were carrying 20 tatami mats, chests of drawers and other items placed on them out of the house of Kiyotaka Iwamoto, 74, located close to Futaba Station.

Although the household goods seemed to be still usable, they had to be replaced to lower the radiation levels in the room. 

Iwamoto is hoping that the work to repair his home will be completed by summer. But he is expecting to have to shuttle between his home in Futaba and his evacuation site in the city of Nasushiobara in Tochigi Prefecture for the time being.

By the end of February, some 20 local households applied for permission to stay in special facilities within the town to prepare for returning to their homes.

There is no family preparing to return near Iwamoto’s home. He is also concerned about the fact that there is no facility within the town that offers rehabilitation programs for his 71-year-old wife, who suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage after the disaster.

These reconstruction priority areas constitute only 8 percent of the difficult-to-return zone. The government has repeatedly said it will decontaminate the land and houses of local residents who want to return to their homes so that the order can be lifted for the entire zone by the end of the 2020s. But it has yet to offer any specific plan to achieve this goal, keeping the outlook uncertain.

Despite all these problems plaguing affected areas, the government has tried to paint a rosy picture of Fukushima’s future in its “Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework,” a policy initiative to nurture new high-tech industries in such areas as robotics and hydrogen energy.

Goals are important for efforts to rebuild disaster-hit areas. But promoting such an unrealistic dream does not lead to any progress in key goals. The first step in rebuilding ravaged communities in Fukushima should be mapping out down-to-earth visions for the future of the communities based on tough-minded assessments of the reality of Fukushima.

DEVELOP CONVINCING PLANS TO DECOMMISSION THE REACTORS 

At the end of January, a robot arm designed to remove melted nuclear fuel debris at the bottoms of ruined reactors at the plant arrived in Fukushima. A trial run of the machine has started for use at the No. 2 reactor.

This is, however, only a small step in the long and complicated clean-up process. There are an estimated 880 tons of radioactive debris at the bottoms of the Nos. 1-3 reactors. Nobody knows, however, how the debris is scattered about and in what form.

The government has already dropped the goal of removing the debris in 20-25 years, included in the road map for decommissioning the reactors published in December 2011. But the goal of completing the decommissioning process in 30-40 years has been kept unchanged.

One big challenge is finding a location for the final disposal of contaminated soil and waste temporarily stored in Futaba and Okuma, where the plant is located. The completion of the work to deal with the consequences of the accident, which is far more difficult than the ordinary decommissioning process and requires different approaches, is vital for progress in the reconstruction of ravaged communities.

But the government has not offered any clear image of this future nor any reliable estimate of the total cost. While the government has estimated the total cost at 22 trillion yen ($189.15 billion), including the compensation to be paid to victims, one research institute has pegged it at 35 trillion to 80 trillion yen.

The government needs to lay out clear and concrete visions for the ultimate state of the Fukushima No. 1 plant and the process of achieving that state while subjecting the visions to Diet scrutiny. Without such visions, it will remain difficult to clear up the dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over Fukushima’s future.

It is, of course, impossible to find a quick solution to the challenge. The long road to Fukushima reconstruction is strewn with obstacles that have to be overcome one by one.

https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14569666

March 13, 2022 - Posted by | Fuk 2022 | , ,

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