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Lifting Fukushima evacuation orders without decontamination should be limited

September 16, 2020

A new system in which evacuation orders can be lifted in “difficult-to-return” zones in Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan without the national government decontaminating the zones will be set up, indicating a turnabout in the state’s recovery policy for the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station crisis.

Since the onset of the nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima nuclear plant, the recovery policy had been premised on decontamination.

Of the difficult-to-return zones, there are six towns and villages that serve as “recovery bases,” which are former downtown areas and other types of land that are being decontaminated so that people can live there again. But such bases comprise just 8% of all difficult-to-return zones.

The new system will permit free entry into the remaining difficult-to-return areas on the condition that no one will live there, and that people will only use them as parks and other facilities.

While complete decontamination for such areas will no longer be required, the government plans to keep the criteria that radiation levels must go down before evacuation orders for these zones can be lifted. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has agreed with this plan.

What triggered this reversal in policy is a request submitted to the government by the Fukushima prefectural village of Iitate in February. Just a portion of the village is still under evacuation orders. Iitate sought the lifting of evacuation orders for the entire zone, without insisting on the decontamination of areas outside recovery bases.

The other five towns and villages are not following suit, however. Rather, some of them have voiced concerns that the government has no prospects of decontaminating areas outside recovery bases, and will force them to follow the “Iitate model.”

The new system must be considered an exception that can only be applied when a town or village seeks its application. It must not be extended.

The government must first indicate a policy on how it will proceed with the lifting of evacuation orders of areas outside recovery bases.

This is something that local towns and villages have long been seeking from the government.

The law stipulates that pollution resulting from a nuclear incident is the responsibility of the national government. If the new policy is implemented, that responsibility will likely become blurred.

It is probably the huge expense of decontamination that is slowing down the government. There are many residents who are still torn between going back to their hometowns in Fukushima and staying elsewhere. And one reason for that is the government’s lack of clear leadership. We must not allow decisions to be postponed any longer.

Nearly a decade has passed since the onset of the disaster, and the differences in circumstances by community are increasingly standing out. In some places where the majority of the land is difficult-to-return, reconstruction and recovery have only just begun.

The national government must proceed with its recovery policy while taking into consideration the circumstances and intentions of each and every community.


September 24, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , | Leave a comment

Evacuation orders to be lifted even before radiation purged

hjhkllDecontamination work continues in a part of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, prior to the lifting of an evacuation order in April 2017.

June 3, 2020

The government is planning to create new rules to allow the lifting of evacuation orders in areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster before they are thoroughly decontaminated, according to sources.

The move comes in response to requests by local municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture. But it also reflects the slow pace of the decontamination process, now in its ninth year following the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Evacuation orders were issued for wide areas in the prefecture after the nuclear crisis triggered by the earthquake and tsunami disaster. They remain in place for seven municipalities classified as difficult-to-return zones because radiation levels remain high.

Government officials are still mulling how to best proceed with the new option. Lifting the evacuation orders would come with certain conditions. For example, the area in question would not be used for residential purposes and the municipal government would have to first decide that decontamination is not necessary.

The central government pledged to take responsibility for decontaminating areas before allowing residents to return to their homes.

This new proposal would be the first exception created to the procedures for the lifting of evacuation orders.

Officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear power industry, along with the Environment Ministry and the Reconstruction Agency, have all agreed to allow lifting evacuation orders for areas where decontamination is not complete, the sources said.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority will be tasked with issuing safety recommendations for lifting the orders in areas not yet purged of radioactive materials. The government headquarters that deals with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster is expected to then approve the change as early as this summer.

Evacuation orders were issued for areas where annual airborne radiation readings were higher than 20 millisieverts.

Currently, there are three main conditions that must be met before lifting the orders: annual airborne radiation levels must fall under 20 millisieverts; restoration of social infrastructure, such as the water supply, as well as decontamination, must have progressed to a reasonable degree; and sufficient discussions on the matter with the local municipal government need to have first taken place.

The revision would leave those conditions untouched and introduce a new option to allow for speeding up the process to lift the orders.

New conditions, still being discussed, would be established for areas where natural reductions in radioactive materials led to radiation levels falling under 20 millisieverts.

The evacuation order could be lifted in places not yet fully decontaminated if no residents or workers will live in that area in the future and if the local municipal government requests lifting the order.

Another condition being considered is whether municipal governments have plans for using the area, such as building parks or distribution warehouses.

Under the new proposal, the municipal government would be allowed to decide if it will require full decontamination before the evacuation order is lifted.

The central government began considering the new option after the village of Iitate submitted a request in February.

The village is located about 40 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The Nagadoro district in the southern part of the village is still classified as a difficult-to-return zone. The village government asked that the evacuation order be lifted for that entire district in 2023.

Under the central government’s plan, 17 percent of that district is designated as a special zone for reconstruction. Decontamination efforts would be concentrated on that zone to allow the evacuation order to be lifted in 2023.

But with more than 80 percent of the district still under an evacuation order, and with no foreseeable date for completing the cleanup of radioactive materials there, village officials worried that partially lifting the order would drive a new wedge into what had long been a single community.

Village government officials want to construct a park in the remaining area to serve as symbol of the community’s unity.

Village officials also confirmed with the 11 households located in the area outside the special zone that they had no intention of returning to their homes, even if the evacuation order is lifted. Central government officials also learned that radiation levels for much of the Nagadoro district have fallen under 20 millisieverts.

Just like Iitate, other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture will likely also face difficult choices. Like the Nagadoro district, other municipalities have also seen radiation levels fall under 20 millisieverts.

The slow pace of the decontamination process until now has led many evacuees to decide to remain where they are, rather than return to their homes.

Even in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted, only about 20 percent of residents had returned as of April.

Central government officials also acknowledge that the importance of decontamination has waned over the years, since relatively few residents have returned–even after the huge amounts of money spent to make communities habitable again.

About 3 trillion yen ($28 billion) has been spent on decontamination efforts to date.

June 11, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Evacuation Orders Lifted for Iitate, Kawamata, Namie, Tomioka

The Japanese government has lifted evacuation orders for zones it had designated as “areas to which evacuation orders are ready to be lifted” and “areas in which residents are not permitted to live” as a result of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The orders were lifted in Iitate, Namie and the Yamakiya district of Kawamata on March 31 and in Tomioka on April 1. Evacuation orders for “areas where it is expected that residents will face difficulties in returning for a long time” (or, more briefly, “difficult-to-return zones”) remain in place. The evacuation orders originally affected a total of 12 municipalities, but had been lifted for six of those as of last year. The latest rescission of orders has brought the ratio of refugees allowed to return to their homes to about 70%, with the area still under evacuation orders reduced to about 30% of its original size. TEPCO intends to cut off compensation to these refugees, with a target date of March 2018, roughly a year after the evacuation orders were lifted. Additionally, the provision of free housing to “voluntary evacuees,” who evacuated from areas not under evacuation orders, was discontinued at the end of March 2017.


Lifting of Orders Affects 32,000 People

The number of people forced to abandon their homes due to the Fukushima nuclear accident reached a peak of 164,865 people in May 2012, when they had no choice but to evacuate. Now, even six years later, 79,446 evacuees (as of February 2017) continue to lead difficult lives as refugees.

In the six municipalities for which the evacuation orders were lifted last year, the repatriation of residents has not proceeded well. Repatriation ratios compared to the pre-disaster population have been about 50 to 60% for Hirono and Tamura, about 20% for Kawauchi, and not even 10% for Naraha, Katsurao and the Odaka district of Minamisoma, where radiation doses were high (see Table 1).

Capture du 2017-06-04 14-36-01


The number of evacuees affected by the current lifting of evacuation orders for the four municipalities is 32,169. The ratio of positive responses to a residents’ opinion survey conducted by the Reconstruction Agency from last year to this year saying they would like to be repatriated was rather low, with about 30 to 40% for Iitate and Kawamata, and less than 20% for Namie and Tomioka. During the long course of their evacuation, spanning six years, many of the residents had already built foundations for their lives in the places to which they had evacuated.


House and Building Demolition Proceeding (Namie)

A total of 15,356 evacuees (as of the end of 2016) are affected by the rescission of evacuation orders for Namie, amounting to about 80% of the town’s residents. Results of an opinion survey published by the Reconstruction Agency in November showed 17.5% of the residents saying they wanted to return to Namie. Most replied that they did not want to return or that they could not return yet.

A temporary shopping center named “Machi Nami Marushe” has been newly opened next to the main Namie Town Office building, where the evacuation orders have been lifted. The rail service on the Joban Line to JR Namie Station was restored when the orders were lifted. In the area around Namie Station and the shopping center in front of it, houses and buildings are being demolished and decontamination and road repair work are proceeding at a high pitch.

Meanwhile, Namie’s residents say their houses have been made uninhabitable by damage from various wild animals, including boars, raccoon dogs, palm civets, raccoons, martens and monkeys. Many houses have been ruined, necessitating their demolition.


‘Forward Base’ for Reactor Decommissioning (Tomioka)

A total of 9,601 evacuees (as of January 1, 2017) are affected by the rescission of evacuation orders for Tomioka, about 70% of the town’s residents. Results of a residents’ opinion survey show no more than 16% of them wishing to return to the town.

Last November, a commercial zone called “Sakura Mall Tomioka” was established along National Route 6. A supermarket and drug store opened for business there at the end of March. Nearby is the “Energy Hall”—TEPCO’s nuclear power PR facilities. Right next door to that, housing is being built for reconstruction workers, consisting of 50 detached houses and 140 apartment complex units. There are plans to relocate JR Tomioka Station to a position near these.

The town will play a role as a “forward base for reactor decommissioning.” The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) is promoting the construction of an international research center for the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), scheduled for completion by the end of March. It will carry out research on human resource development and methods for the disposal of radioactive wastes. These facilities are not meant for returning residents. Instead, they are being promoted as part of plans for a new “workers’ town” and will have decontamination and decommissioning workers move in as new residents along with decommissioning researchers.

On the other hand, the “difficult-to-return zones” of about 8 km2, including the Yonomori district, famous for its cherry tree tunnel that used to be lit up at night, will remain under evacuation orders. At a residents’ briefing, people expressed worries about matters like having to see the barricades to those zones on a daily basis.


Non-repatriating Residents Cut Off (Iitate)

The village of Iitate, located about 40 km northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, is making a massive decontamination effort across its entire area, including agricultural fields, to prepare for repatriation of its residents. About 2.35 million large flexible container bags into which contaminated waste is stuffed are stacked in temporary storage areas, accounting for about 30% of the total 7.53 million bags overall in the special decontamination area (for decontamination directly implemented by the national government). Prior to rescission of the evacuation orders, Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno made the controversial remark, “We will honor support from residents who repatriate to the village.” This brought an angry response from the residents, declaring that they were adamantly opposed to an attitude of treating those not returning as non-residents. The village’s position on repatriation is that it should be up to the judgement of the villagers themselves.


Three Requirements for Lifting Evacuation Orders

On December 26, 2011, Japan’s government determined three conditions needed to be fulfilled before evacuation orders could be lifted. These were (1) certainty that the accumulative annual dose at the estimated air dose rate would be 20 mSv or less, (2) that infrastructure and everyday services had been restored and decontamination work had proceeded sufficiently, especially in environments where children would be active, and (3) that there had been sufficient consultation with the prefecture, municipalities and residents. In May 2015, the government decided on a target of March 2017 for lifting the evacuation orders for all but the “difficult-to-return zones.” They proceeded with the decontamination work and provision of infrastructure for the residents’ return, but gaining consent was a hopeless cause.


Requirement 1: Coerced Exposure The annual 20 mSv standard the government established is puzzling. The ICRP’s recommendations and laws such as Japan’s Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law stipulate a public radiation exposure limit of 1 mSv a year. The government is repatriating the residents even at radiation doses exceeding this, and of most concern is how this will affect their health. The residents argue, “We cannot return to places with such a high risk of exposure.”

Trial calculations of the radiation doses received by individuals staying in Namie and Tomioka to conduct preparatory work were published prior to the rescission of evacuation orders for those towns, showing annual doses of 1.54 mSv for Namie and 1.52 mSv for Tomioka. These are below the government’s standard of 20 mSv a year (3.8 μSv per hour)* for lifting evacuation orders, but both exceed the annual limit for public exposure. They are not conditions ensuring “safety and security” as the government says.

At the residents’ briefings, the government explained that its basis for lifting the orders was that decontamination had been completed. However, even if the annual radiation dose has not fallen below 1mSv (the government’s decontamination standard, equivalent to an hourly dose of 0.23 μSv) after decontamination, they will press ahead with lifting the evacuation orders anyway. This drew strong reactions from the residents who said, “Are you making us return just because of the decontamination?” and “Are you forcing us to be exposed?”


Requirement 2: Shopping Close By

Prior to the earthquake and tsunami disaster, the Odaka district of Minamisoma, where the evacuation orders were lifted last July, had six supermarkets, two home centers, six fish shops and three drugstores. All of those, however, were lost in the disaster. At last, after the evacuation orders were lifted, two convenience stores opened, but they are far from the residential area near JR Odaka Station, and cannot be reached on foot. A clinic reopened, but since there is no pharmacy, there is no way for patients to buy prescribed medicines. Repatriated residents have to travel for about 20 minutes by car to the adjacent Haramachi district about 10 kilometers away to supplement their shopping and other necessities. Residents without cars, such as the elderly, have difficulty living there. They say, “Nobody wants to reopen the stores because it is obvious that they’ll run at a loss.” A vicious cycle continues, with stores unable to open because the residents who would be their customers are not returning.


Requirement 3: Spurn Residents’ Wishes Almost none of the residents attending the residents’ briefings have been in favor of lifting the evacuation orders. Nine or more out of 10 have expressed opposition. They are always given the same canned explanation, with the national and municipal governments brazenly and unilaterally insisting on lifting the orders.

“It is too soon to lift the evacuation orders,” complained one resident at Namie’s residents’ briefing on February 7. The 74-year-old woman living as an evacuee in Tokyo had been getting by on 100,000 yen a month in pension payments and compensation for mental anguish and was living in a single-bedroom public apartment (UR Housing) in Tokyo that qualifies as post-disaster public-funded rental accommodation. Her compensation will be cut off, and if she chooses to continue living in the housing where she currently resides, the rent is expected to exceed 100,000 yen. She considers how many years she could continue paying and doesn’t know what she would do if she became unable to pay. Such constant thoughts increase her anxiety. The minute the evacuation orders are lifted, she too will be rendered a “voluntary evacuee.”

The woman said, “Even if they tell me to go back to Namie because it is safe, I will not return.” They have finished decontaminating her house, but high levels of radiation remain, measuring 0.4 μSv per hour in her garden and 0.6 μSv per hour in her living room. With regard to this, Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba keeps repeating the same response that “the environment is in good order for people to come back and live in our town.”

A multitude of residents expressed a litany of angry opinions, such as, “If the government says it is safe, they ought to send some of their officials to live here first,” “Say we come back, but if we are going to live next to where dangerous decommissioning work is going on, are they still going to cut off our compensation?” and “The government and town officials say they are striving for the safety and security of the residents, but we can’t trust them at all.” Following this briefing, though, on February 27, the town of Namie accepted the national government’s policy of lifting the evacuation orders, formally deciding on the end of March as the date for rescission. They pooh-poohed the views of many of the town’s residents opposed to lifting of the orders.


Conclusion In a Cabinet Decision on December 20, 2016, the Japanese government adopted a “Policy for Accelerating Fukushima’s Reconstruction.” This policy promotes the preparation of “reconstruction bases” in parts of the “difficult-to-return zones” and the use of government funds for decontamination toward a target of lifting the evacuation orders for these areas in five years and urging repatriation. “Difficult-to-return zones” span the seven municipalities of Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka, Namie, Iitate, Katsurao and Minamisoma. By area, they account for 62% of Okuma and 96% of Futaba. The affected population numbers about 24,000 people.

The government’s repatriation policy, however, is resulting in bankruptcies. Rather than repatriation, they should be promoting a “policy of evacuation” in consideration of current conditions. Policies should be immediately implemented to provide economic, social and health support to the evacuees, enabling them to live healthy, civilized lives, regardless of whether they choose to repatriate or continue their evacuation.


Ryohei Kataoka, CNIC


* This calculation is based on a government approved formula which assumes that people will be exposed to 3.8 μSv per hour only for 8 hours per day when they are outside the house. It is assumed that they will be indoors for 16 hours per day and the screening effect will reduce the exposure rate to 1.52 μSv per hour. On a yearly basis, this calculates to slightly less than 20 mSv per year.

June 4, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reconstruction Disaster: The human implications of Japan’s forced return policy in Fukushima


Suzuki Yūichi interviewed and with an introduction by Katsuya Hirano with Yoshihiro Amaya and Yoh Kawano

Transcription and translation by Akiko Anson


Suzuki Yūichi (56) was born to a farming family in Namie, Fukushima in 1960. Namie was one of the areas most devastated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as well as the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Besides 565 deaths from the earthquake/tsunami, because the town was located within the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the damaged nuclear power plant, the entire town was evacuated on March 12. The government of Namie continued to operate in Nihonmatsu-city 39 kilometers from Namie. At the time of the nuclear accident, Mr. Suzuki was working in the Citizens’ Affairs Division of Namie and was immediately assigned to the Disaster Management Division established to assist citizens in finding missing family members, locating temporary housing, and evacuating families. Suzuki was subsequently responsible for decontamination efforts, return policies, and establishing clinics for prospective returnees. In the summer and the winter of 2016, I visited Namie with my colleagues Professor Yoshihiro Amaya of Niigata University and Yoh Kawano, a PhD candidate at UCLA, to interview Mr. Suzuki. Mr. Suzuki contends that the majority of former residents of Namie are unlikely to return to the town even after the Japanese government lifts the restriction on residency in certain areas on March 31, 2017. Many families have already settled in new villages, towns and cities in and outside Fukushima and continue to fear internal radioactive exposure and other dangers associated with decommissioning the damaged reactors. As a city official who led decontamination efforts and return policy, Suzuki remains skeptical of Japanese government programs for “reconstruction” or “revival” of the affected areas. He anticipates that the area will become a “no man’s land” after the elderly returnees pass away. Namie’s population was 21,400 at the time of the nuclear accident. He estimates that 10 percent or less will return. The interview is an important testament to the ongoing rift and dissonance between Tokyo and Fukushima over the policies and slogans of “reconstruction” and “return”. K.H.


Hirano: Mr. Suzuki, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. You have been promoting decontamination work as a town official until recently since the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

It is said that even after decontamination is completed, the radiation level will rise again. Do you think that “residents’ return (kikan, 帰還)” and “reconstruction (fukkō, 復興)” are possible under such conditions? For example, through experimental planting of rice and vegetables, the possibility of reviving agriculture has been explored in Namie. How many people do you think plan to return here to resume agriculture?

Suzuki: I used to work in the decontamination control division, and as far as I know from what I learned there, once decontamination work is completed, radiation levels should not return to the high levels prior to decontamination effort. However, I have heard various doctors voicing concerns about whether the dose rates, even after decontamination, have actually dropped to safe levels, so I personally feel uncertain about this although I am not a specialist in the field.1

I believe, however, that as long as radiation levels stay below 0.2 – 0.3 microsieverts per hour in Namie, there may not be much difference between the evacuation areas and Namie. In fact, in Nihonmatsu, where my family and I are now living, the radiation level is 0.2 or 0.1 and many people are living there.

5024-03The Japanese government has announced that it is lifting evacuation orders in the green and orange zones on March 31, 2017. This image is taken from the website of Fukushima Prefecture.


Hirano: Some people claim that decontamination is not very effective.

Some evacuees from Namie currently living in my hometown in Ibaraki prefecture made a one-day trip to Namie last October, and were joined by a group of professors from Ibaraki University, who have been collecting and monitoring data on radiation doses in that area. They sampled soil in the area around one of the evacuees’ houses, which had been declared decontaminated. In some areas the level had dropped to the national and international standard (1 millisieverts per year or 0.23 microsieverts per hour), but in the backyard and in a forest area just behind the house, the radiation level was actually extremely high.2

Suzuki: It seems that it has not yet been completely decontaminated . Well, I have to say, we can’t decontaminate forest areas. That would require cutting down all the trees and then scraping up all the topsoil. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see any effect. But as far as areas around houses are concerned, all the soil has been stripped away, so the radiation level has dropped significantly. For example, my parents’ house is in a so-called “zone in preparation for lifting the evacuation order.” At first the radiation level was 3.0 microsieverts per hour, but after decontamination, it has dropped to less than 0.5.

Hirano: I see. But the entire contaminated region in Fukushima is richly forested– it’s all surrounded by forest, not just Namie. If it is impossible to decontaminate forest areas, it means that radioactive material could easily blow in from the forest, causing radiation levels to increase in decontaminated areas. Some residents say that the radiation level has in fact risen since the decontamination. So does it mean that decontamination is effective only in urban areas where there are few forests? In other words, there is a gap between places where decontamination has been working well and places where it has not.

Suzuki: It is okay in areas where the soil has been properly stripped away, but nobody has done anything in mountain areas behind homesurayama, 裏山). We town officials have been asking the Ministry of the Environment to decontaminate such areas properly as well, since they are not just nameless wooded hills. Rather, they are Satoyama (里山), wooded areas surrounding people’s homes that are a part of their everyday lives. We’ve said that if we don’t decontaminate those areas we wouldn’t be able to bring people back home.

5024-04.jpgHouses in wooded areas (satoyama) are not decontaminated. Radiation levels remain high and residents are not allowed to return.


However, if we cut all of the trees down in order to decontaminate, we will lose water retention capacity, which could result in a natural disaster. So that’s another reason we can’t clean up mountains and forests. We have considered just asking people to stay away from forest areas. If you take a radiation dosimeter and find 0.2 in your garden and then that same dosimeter indicates 1.0 in another place higher up, you will have to acknowledge that you have a hotspot and stay away from it. People will have to make those judgments as they go about their lives.

Hirano: It sounds psychologically stressful, doesn’t it? We have to live our lives constantly telling ourselves it is okay here, but not there.

Suzuki: I know what you mean, but that is all we can do to deal with the Satoyama areas. And then there are rivers. Before the nuclear accident, we used to go to a river to pick up pebbles or take our kids there to play in the water, but the Ministry of the Environment doesn’t deal with rivers so they decided not to decontaminate rivers. They have not done anything to remove radiation from them. I’m talking rivers that have a levee on either side. Their reasoning probably is that once a river is flooded, it will be contaminated again. That is my guess. But rivers are also a part of everyday life, so we have been asking that they be properly decontaminated as well, but…

Hirano: Do they have a plan in place?

Suzuki: Probably not. I don’t think so.

Hirano: Well, so is your town planning to prepare for residents who return, such as setting up public signs for high radiation areas to warn people not to come close to those areas? Or is it something like ‘let’s leave it up to people’s “common sense” once they return home’?

Suzuki: I think it will likely be left up to their common sense. That’s why I believe it is necessary that schools give children radiation awareness training, so that they can learn how to avoid internal radiation exposure by measuring doses of what they eat, or they can learn to stay away from dangerous places where they live. Now, this is not limited to only Fukushima, but should apply to people throughout Japan.

Hirano: In other words, from now on this kind of so-called self-responsibility will become an essential part of life in Fukushima, won’t it? Later I would like to return to this topic and ask about education on the risks of nuclear power plants, and external and internal radiation exposure.

But I would like to ask you a little more about the “return policy”. When I interviewed you last summer, you mentioned that under the return policy probably less than 10% of residents would come back. Has your estimate changed?

Suzuki: No. It is about the same. Regarding the estimate, we briefly had a program called “special case overnight stay” (tokurei shukuhaku, 特例宿泊) to allow former residents to stay in Namie during the month of September for 26 days. The only participants after all were elderly couples and some single guys, who really wished to return. That was about it.


5024-05Namie town center. Decontamination work has been completed and the streets have been cleaned up. However, it is expected that most shops will not reopen. I saw about a dozen people preparing to move back during my visit to Namie in the winter of 2016.


Also we have begun a program called “preparatory overnight stay” (junbi shukuhaku, 準備宿泊) since November, which allows residents who notify us to stay in evacuation areas until the evacuation orders are permanently lifted. It is still going on, but the only participants in the program have been elderly couples. We have set up a temporary emergency clinic, but only the elderly couples, who participated in both programs, the special case overnight stay and the preparatory overnight stay, visit the clinic when they’re feeling sick.

We are building a medical facility now that will be opened once the evacuation order is lifted in Namie, but it will provide nothing beyond primary and secondary medical care, so we won’t have an actual inpatient facility. It means that anyone who needs to be admitted to a hospital, will have to go to a neighboring town, but these hospitals are already struggling with a shortage of doctors and nurses, so I am doubtful that they will be able to accept outside patients any time soon.

In my opinion, if you remain wherever you’ve evacuated to, you can always be admitted to a hospital and receive necessary medical care. I always tell people to think about these things before they decide to return home. The clinic doctor also explains this to his patients, but elderly couples really want to come back to Namie. The doctor believes they should individually decide. I ask them, “so after you return to Namie, what are you going to do if you feel sick and need to be hospitalized? You won’t have a place to go.” They say, ”I will go to a hospital in so-and-so town.” Then I ask, “what if they can’t admit you there? Even after you are discharged from a hospital, where are you going?” “I am going to a nursing home.”

But in reality, even the nursing homes are understaffed and unable to accept new patients. There are facilities, but there isn’t enough staff to run a facility and give adequate care.

When I ask what they are going to do, they have no concrete answers. They just have a vague idea about going there and maybe being admitted to a hospital. They just want to come back home. That is their strongest feeling. It seems that they just don’t want to stay where they have been since evacuation. That was the case of an elderly couple I dealt with recently.

Hirano: Had they been living in temporary housing for quite a while then?3

Suzuki: Yes. Also lack of employment opportunities for a generation of breadwinners is another reason why I think that less than 10% of evacuees will come back. In addition, many have children attending school in the places they evacuated to, so it is not possible to think about returning.

I had my children with me when the evacuation order came, and I ended up sending them to school in the town where we settled. As you know, I did it not because they wanted to change schools but because they had to. It is possible for my children to graduate from the schools they are currently attending. No matter how much you say that it’s safe, that it’s okay to go back, parents need to think about the considerable burden placed on children by switching schools, as this poses another risk to children.

Also it’s been almost six years since we were forced to leave our town. The reality is that children no longer have friends from Namie. This is the same with my children. All of their friends are the ones they met after we evacuated to Nihonmatsu, and once they go to high school, they only hang out with friends from their high school. At the time of the evacuation, one of my children was a 4th grader in elementary school, but she does not see any of her classmates from that time. She has no connection with other children from Namie. Even if you move back here, you will need to find a job, but there will be no employment other than reconstruction-related work.

Hirano: While we’re on that subject, would you say something about lifting the evacuation orders? I understand this applies only to limited areas of the town and not to the entire town.

Suzuki: Yes, the town is divided into three areas, the “zone in preparation for lifting the evacuation order,” “restricted residence area,” and “difficult-to-return zone.” This is divided according to radiation levels, and according to the government report submitted to the town, there are plans to lift evacuation orders in the first two zones sometime in March 2017. As for the third zone, the difficult-to-return zone, no plan has been announced.

Hirano: Does it mean that residents who have a house or property in the town except for the difficult-to-return zone, are allowed to return if they wish?

Suzuki: Yes, that is right.

Hirano: But as you mentioned earlier, even in the areas designated safe to return, various facilities, which returnees will need to restart their lives, are not in place yet, so they are likely to face multiple hardships. But if they choose to return no matter what, the municipal government will support them. Is this the current situation?

Suzuki: Yes. We have been working to restore infrastructure to its pre- earthquake and tsunami state. Concerning the water supply goes, restoration work is nearly complete, and the sewer system has been restored in areas where the evacuation orders are expected to be lifted to the point that we can operate, although I can’t say it is 100% yet.

Concerning infrastructure, a few businesses such as commercial and medical facilities, the post office, and a banking facility have resumed operation. One financial institution opened a branch office in Namie sometime last year, however it’s not as though everyone uses that one bank, so I don’t know what to say about that.

Hirano: A moment ago Mr. Kawano and I stopped by the temporary shopping arcade, which is set up next to the town hall. It houses 11 stores now, and we spoke with some of the owners. They are truly concerned about the prospects for their businesses. They believe that only a few will come back to town and that they won’t be able to sustain their businesses.

Right now they keep their stores open experimentally with financial support from the local government, but they know that the support won’t last forever. They seem to be struggling with the long-term prospects for their businesses. I wonder what the point of this trial exercise is without a prospect for the future.

Suzuki: Well, more than a trial exercise, it is rather to show people that there are at least places to buy food, hardware, daily commodities, dry cleaning. It is to show that we have a place to at least get basic necessities, though these stores are very small.

The prosperity of these stores will probably depend on how many people eventually move back. I don’t think evacuees will bother coming here all the way from where they are currently staying to go shopping. But when you drop in at Namie, as long as there is a convenience store, you can get almost everything, except for hardware. They have drinks, food, first-aid kits, laundry detergent and even cigarettes and some little luxury items. There are also some small restaurants, and I heard that they are the top-selling businesses. And the Lawson convenience store in the temporary shopping arcade carries a bit of fresh food.

I have a feeling that even the participants of the preparation stay program brought a lot of food with them when they came back. So among the 11 stores in the temporary arcade, I heard that only the restaurants have been successful. Instead of buying food and cooking, people will get a box lunch from a convenience store or order meals for home delivery. It seems that this is the current situation.

Kawano: The store owners at the shopping arcade I spoke to also said that considering the lack of enthusiasm for the movement to return in town, it is hard to believe that the evacuation orders will be lifted sometime in March here in Namie.

Suzuki: Yeah. We have some estimates that 500 or 1,000 residents might move back, but even if they do come back, they are likely to feel that they are the only ones or the only families living in Namie since they can’t expect to have many neighbors around them. Especially at night, you usually see lights on in every house by 7pm or 8pm, but you won’t be able to see that. So if you have next-door neighbors on both sides when you return, you might feel as if you’ve finally returned to your hometown, but the reality is that with people evacuated to locations all over the country, it is not easy to coordinate your return with other families.

The best way might be to move into public housing built for evacuees or disaster recovery public housing. All of the units might not be filled, but you would have some other families living in the same complex, so it might feel more reassuring.

But I don’t think it will be that easy. In fact, it has been a year since neighboring towns, such as Hirono-machi, Naraha-machi, and Odaka-ku of Minami Sōma, lifted their evacuation orders, but most evacuees who have returned are elderly people.4 Some of them have been encouraging others to return, something like “oh, so and so is back, so we should return, too.” Watching how those other towns are going, I feel it might be possible for some evacuees from Namie to decide to return home encouraged by their pioneering neighbors.

It is also true, however, that while such efforts are being made, some elderly evacuees will probably pass away in 10 or 15 years. Elementary or junior high school students at the time of evacuation will be almost in their 30s, won’t they? Namie will be just a place for a little bit of memory and nostalgia, “oh, I remember there used to be a house I used to live in when I was little,” but no more, no less. That’s why it will be extremely difficult to bring people back to town after all these years. I am not surprised at all if places like Namie-machi or Odaka-ku will become a “no man’s land” 20 or 30 years later. 

Hirano: In Odaka-ku, where decontamination work has been completed, some farmers have begun experimentally planting a few crops and exploring the possibility of reviving agriculture. How many farmers are really thinking about returning to restart agriculture? How likely are they to be able to sell their rice or other crops once they prove to be free of radioactive substances? Also does the government have any plans to support these farmers?

Suzuki: In order to eliminate harmful rumors (fūhyō higai, 風評被害) against produce from Fukushima, the governor has been disseminating information about safety of food from Fukushima to the whole country. Our mayor has also been promoting safety of our produce by taking rice grown here to the Ministry of the Environment for testing.5

But the farmers participating in this test planting are all elderly people. After all, there are few young farmers in Namie, and the majority of people engaged in agriculture here are older people. Before the accident, their adult children used to help in the field as part-time farmers, but they had to abandon their fields due to the evacuation, and as a result they have ended up losing their connection with agriculture.

I believe those who want to come back and resume agriculture now will be mostly retired people, the elderly, so I am not sure how long they will be able to continue with agriculture considering they won’t have help from the younger generations. Even the younger people I am talking about here, who might consider returning to engage in agriculture, will probably be in their 50s, so I would say most farmers will be 75 or older.

Hirano: So it sounds like even if the experimental planting succeeds, these farmers are not actually pursuing an operation to make a living. Like the elderly couples you mentioned earlier, these farmers really want to return home and as long as they can grow enough to feed themselves, they will be happy.

Suzuki: That’s what I think. They feel terrible about leaving the land they inherited from their ancestors unattended for such a long time. The decontamination work has been completed, and all the weeds in their fields have been pulled. Now that their land is back to normal again, they probably want to at least cultivate it and harvest crops they can eat in the land their ancestors passed on to them.


5024-06Nemoto Sachiko and Kōichi run organic farms in Odaka of Minami Sōma. They moved back to their home as soon as the government took Odaka off the designated hazard zone in April 2012. The Nemoto family has been farming land here since the early 17th century. Kōichi has been working with researchers at Niigata University to grow rice and vegetables since 2012 and his crops have been confirmed free of radiation. Their neighbors and friends have not returned, and they think that they will not return. .


Of course, I cannot say for sure that they have no intention of earning income by selling their produce. I am sure it will make them happy if they can do so, but I don’t think that it will be a high priority in their mind right now.

Speaking of rice produced through test planting, as long as it is certified to be safe, it is can be sold in the market. It is true that the rice is tested on a bag-by-bag basis to ensure the radioactive cesium level does not exceed the limit, and the contaminated soil has been treated with zeolite. The deep plowing method has also been applied to the soil so that the upper layer soil can be replaced with a lower layer.

In my opinion, however, some radioactive substances still remain in the soil. It means it is possible that there are still some risks of farmers being exposed to radiation in their fields. Right now there is no technique that has been established to remove zeolite from the soil. The best way would be to scrape off the soil completely, but this would also remove the compost, which would probably affect soil fertility and crop growth. In fact, rice yields have decreased considerably compared to before the accident. So I guess we need to figure out how to deal with these problems associated agricultural land in the future.

Amaya: I believe it is very important to establish control measures to minimize radiation exposure to farmers.

Suzuki: I also think the government needs to properly communicate the risks, educating farmers about the risks caused by radiation instead of giving them a go-ahead based only on whether or not radioactive substances are detected in their produce. For example, before the accident it was not uncommon for them to roll up their trousers and enter a rice paddy barefooted if they needed to fix some small thing. But now they need to be advised to avoid doing so because radioactive substances may still remain in the soil. Although the level of airborne radioactivity has been reduced, it does not mean the substances have been completely removed. The radioactive compounds have been buried deeper in the soil by deep plowing and also remain with zeolites in the soil.

Amaya: What zeolite does is absorb radioactive cesium in the soil, so it makes crops less likely to absorb cesium, but as long as zeolites stay in the soil, radioactive substances will remain in the soil as well.

Hirano: Is there any way to remove zeolites from the soil?

Amaya: As far as I know, there is no way to remove zeolites that have absorbed radioactive cesium from the soil selectively or efficiently at low cost.

Hirano: The only option is to leave them in the soil.

Amaya: Some researchers have been trying to develop technology to remove radioactive cesium from zeolites. In fact, it is possible in principle to dissociate cesium absorbed into zeolites with acid, but you would need a lot of equipment to treat a large amount of soil, and a facility to store radioactive cesium. The cost for all of this might pose a big problem. Also during the process of dissociation, mineral nutrients in the soil are likely to be removed, so it might also become a problem when it comes to growing crops.

Hirano: That means that we have to remove all the soil, doesn’t it? It sounds like it may be extremely difficult to revitalize agriculture, which had been the mainstay of Fukushima.

Suzuki: Well, it won’t be easy for sure. First of all, we need to figure out how to solve the problem of manpower. I think we can recruit people, but as I have mentioned before, those who are interested in engaging in agriculture and actually have the agricultural skills to do it are mostly elderly people in their late 60s and 70s. It will be hard for them to remain active for the next 10 or 20 years. So the future of agriculture is an open question. I don’t think it will be easy to revive it.

Hirano: Namie has wonderful mountains and ocean, and before the nuclear accident, it was known as a place where you could harvest not only rice but any food you want. It used to be surrounded by rich, beautiful nature.

According to surveys of city dwellers before the accident, Fukushima was always one of the most ideal places to move to enjoy the country life in retirement. In your view, what had most attracted people to Namie before the disaster?

Suzuki: Well, to put it briefly, a lot of it is the rustic atmosphere. Namie is not really urban, but it’s not just a narrow-minded backwoods town, either. We have traditional crafts like Obori Soma ceramic ware, and both fishery and forestry were active. There were farmers who grew pears and other fruit. Rice, fish, fruits, seasonal foods like mushrooms and vegetables– all these were within our reach. Namie was a comfortable and easy place to live.

5024-07Obori Sōma Ceramic Ware

Hirano: All such things have been destroyed, haven’t they? That’s where things stand now in Namie.

Suzuki: That’s right. There is no doubt that the nuclear industry was one main factor that made this town prosperous. All the regions throughout Japan where nuclear power stations were located, were very poor. There was nothing to develop. This was true for Namie where Fukushima Daiichi (Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Station) and Daini (Fukushima No.2 Nuclear Power Station) are located.

But remember, we were always lectured with the myth of nuclear safety, and I was taught it since I was little. We visited the nuclear energy information center on a social studies school trip and learned about how it would work and how beneficial it would be, like how it could create energy at a low cost. I do not recall any discussion about radiation at all. That’s why we never thought it could cause such a danger.

That’s how we grew up here. It is also true that we had a low unemployment rate in this town because there were a quite a few people engaged in nuclear power-related work. Our tax revenue also had been going up, and the nuclear industry had promoted our local economies significantly. So economically the town and the industry maintained a mutually beneficial relationship.


5024-08Namie High School before the Nuclear Disaster

Hirano: So residents here had a very positive impression of the economic effect brought by the nuclear industry?

Suzuki: I think they did. At least I did.

Hirano: So while the safety myth had been accepted widely by residents, neither the central government nor TEPCO had explained anything about nuclear related risks.

Suzuki: No, they didn’t talk about risk. We were told that accidents could not happen.

Hirano: That means they didn’t explain that if an accident were to happen, how serious a disaster it could cause, or even how much of the community could be destroyed. Nothing like that at all…

Suzuki: I don’t think so. There is a PR facility nearby the power stations, and there might have been some kind of explanation concerning nuclear risks there, but I don’t remember it, even if they had anything. So I think probably not at all. This must be true for other communities with nuclear power plants nationwide.

Hirano: I agree with you. My hometown is close to Tokai-mura, and I heard the same thing from residents there, as well. This is probably how the safety myth spread through all these communities. The residents were told how it would bring positive economic effects and significant wealth to their community. That it’s nothing but a win-win situation. This was how they came to accept the nuclear power plants in their community. Was it the same in Namie?

Suzuki: Yes, I think it was the same here. At least that’s how I feel. I am 56 years old, and I was 50 at the time of the accident. I believed what they had told us.

I did not even realize that a cooling system failure could cause the kind of situation that it did. So at the time of evacuation, I imagined that the accident at the power plant would lead to an explosion, that is, an explosion like an atomic bomb. That was the image I had then about the accident.

However, at the time of the accident, plant workers I talked to said that the loss of power supply and the failure of cooling system in one unit would cause problems with all four units. They all said that. Obviously those who were engaged in the plant work knew so much more about radiation, such as the limit of radiation exposure, since they worked in a strict radiation-control environment. I am sure they had been educated well through numerous lectures about radiation.

I have a feeling that only a handful of officials in local government had knowledge about radiation at that time. I gradually learned all about how much exposure we received, and about radioactive substances Cesium 134, 137, Strontium, etc. I came to learn these things after the nuclear disaster. I had no knowledge whatsoever before then.

Hirano: Let me ask you some specific questions. What was the percentage of Namie residents who worked at TEPCO or its affiliated companies before the accident? You mentioned that the industry stimulated the local economy.

Suzuki: I would say at least 50% if we include all its subcontractors’ businesses, and factories, and all the companies below them. In fact, my uncle also ran a small subcontracting company, which was about two or three steps down from the general contractors. My uncle’s company dispatched workers, and he himself worked with them to make a living. So if we include all the businesses related to the TEPCO operation, such as catering, entertaining, and gift-giving, I would say at least 50% of residents here had worked for TEPCO and related industries.

Hirano: I would guess that many companies located in Namie relied heavily on TEPCO.

Suzuki: I think many of them did. I can’t give you an exact proportion, but many businesses were affiliated with TEPCO.

Hirano: I would like to ask about the return policy. Are there are any discrepancies between plans at the national, prefectural, and local level regarding the policies for “residents’ return” and “reconstruction”?

Suzuki: My feeling is that right after the disaster, the central government was willing to listen to us and to try to help with whatever we needed, but recently I feel that they have turned everything toward lifting the evacuation orders.

Their attitude is “we’ve heard you enough, and we’ve dealt with you enough during the concentrated reconstruction period. (2011~2015) What else do you want? More money?” You might remember a cabinet member (Ishihara Nobuteru) saying, “the bottom line is they want money.”6

The government should just contribute money – this was the feeling I got. I understand that it isn’t that easy for them to dispatch officials to a local government at the spur of a moment just because we had an emergency and needed more people and help. I know the central government hires many officials as needed, so it is hard to deal with our request for more people to handle the extra work related to the evacuation.

However, it is easier to provide funds to the disaster-stricken areas. That’s why they had such strong preferences for coming up with a budget rather than sending staff.

Also I feel that people who haven’t been the victim of a disaster, including politicians and bureaucrats, won’t be able to understand the predicament of the evacuees who were forced to flee. Here we thought that victims of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 must have resumed normal lives after a few years of living in temporary housing.7 To me that was just something that happened far away in the Kansai area. Unless you experience it yourself, it’s difficult to understand what it’s really like.

Hirano: What the media has been saying is that for Namie, in particular, after lifting its evacuation orders, full-scale reconstruction can begin. I feel that what the Japanese government is trying to do is to send the message that the nuclear crisis in Fukushima has been finally settled. The government believes that it is necessary to do so in order to create an image of Japan rising like a phoenix from the ashes at the Tokyo Olympics of 2020. That’s what it hopes to achieve by putting aside the thorny predicament of more than 100,000 evacuees and the difficulty of rebuilding communities.

I don’t feel that the Japanese government is looking at reality from the standpoint of the locals. That’s why they simply can’t accept how much the pre-accident life in Namie has fundamentally been destroyed, as you described earlier, and that, even for residents wishing to return, the current situation here is far from ready for them to come back and that there is no way to fix the situation. Mr. Suzuki, how do you feel about this sense that the government has conveyed that the situation in Fukushima is now under control, that reconstruction has been going well, and the return policy has been successful?

Suzuki: Well, I don’t think it will be possible for the reconstruction to be completely finished even 100 years from now. We can say the reconstruction is 100% complete only when everything has been restored to the way it used to be before the evacuation. But of course, there is no way to really restore the life we had before.

So I don’t think 100% reconstruction will be possible, but I think it would be nice if each family passes on its own stories of what Namie used to be like from generation to generation, from mothers and fathers to sons and daughters, and to their children, including lessons of what we learned from this nuclear accident. In fact, some NPOs and other organizations have been working hard to facilitate events so that stories about Namie may continue into the next generation.

Also, since the budget from the central government won’t last forever, I think they want to lift the evacuation order to continue the next step of settling the other remaining issues in the next few years. Considering the fact that money comes from limited financial resources and the burden falling on taxpayers, I understand the situation even from the standpoint of a beneficiary.8

The most important thing we need to do, I think, is to figure out how to support evacuees who are struggling to put their lives back together. More than people like me who have been able to keep a job, I’m concerned about people without jobs and unable to work because of various health issues, and those who have lost their homes to the earthquake or tsunami and have no place to return to and no idea what to do.

They have managed to live so far with the compensation they receive from TEPCO for mental stress, but it is vital now more than ever to think about how to financially support these people.9 For example, instead of giving the same flat amount of financial support to all evacuees, we need to establish a system to grant support based on individual needs and circumstances. Unfortunately it is true that there are some who are not willing to support themselves even though they are capable, and are using the compensation to lead an idle life.

We appreciate the compensation since those who have been affected by the disaster have been suffering mental distress, but I think the time has come to reach out to and focus on the people in real need of help. Those capable of working should get jobs and stand on their own feet.

Hirano: So you think it is necessary and important to carefully differentiate individual needs and give assistance and support on a case-by-case basis.

Suzuki: Yes, I believe so.

Hirano: Have there been any discussions about this between the central and local governments?

Suzuki: No. Well, as the local government, I think it is very difficult to pursue. There will be residents who will complain, “so you are going to cut our compensation. You are going to abandon us. We are all residents of this town.” We will have to deal with problems like this, so it’s not going to be easy. I think it would be difficult for the local government to carry out such a policy.

If it is really true that it is now safe to return and restart life, as the central government has said, I believe they should come up with a policy to encourage people to return by creating employment in Namie. If they do and provide job opportunities, I do think that more people would come back.

The best way to do so would be, I think, for the Japanese government to build national facilities in the evacuation areas, in Namie and elsewhere. Then former residents will be assured that the government decision to build indicates the safety of the area. But in reality there no government facilities have been built in this town. Since the accident, not a single facility has been built here. That leads residents to think that it is still not safe to live here, especially with Fukushima Daiichi not yet decommissioned. They feel that the absence of government facilities confirms this.

Hirano: It makes sense. If the central government insists that it is safe to return, if Prime Minister Abe’s pledge that Fukushima is under control is true, they need to take the initiative to show people that in fact it is now a safe place to live. Otherwise residents won’t be convinced.

Suzuki: Exactly. They should buy land from the town and actively start building government facilities to conduct research or to work on developmental plans. They should build housing for national government employees. Residents would then be reassured. I am not sure if it has something to do with evacuation orders or instructions, but right now there is a branch office of the Ministry of the Environment in Minami Soma city, far north of our town. The nearest office to the south is in Hirono town.

Hirano: In addition, as you mentioned before, it is also important to implement policies to educate people about the risk of nuclear power. In order to achieve that, both the central government and TEPCO need to end their cover-up culture. They need to explain all the possible risks to residents who wish to return, and let them decide. Is that what Namie town local government hopes to do for its residents?

Suzuki: Yes, exactly. Part of what we call “risk communication” (risukomi,リスコミ) is, in a way, to give people some “negative” information. The government has been reluctant to pursue this, but it is crucial for people to be informed of any risks even if it has a potential negative impact on them, so that they can make their own decisions. We had been fed only positive information, but if something bad happens, we will know what to expect.

But as long as the reconstruction plans come from a Tokyo-centric perspective, Namie will have neither hopes nor dreams. As I’ve said many times, the only people coming back to town are elderly. Without young people, I believe, a town can’t be revived and reconstructed. The current policy seems to focus on merely bringing back people, but unless government can recreate a safe environment for young people, including children, beginning with complete decontamination, it’s hard to see any future. I’m not even sure, to be honest with you, if it’s possible to actually create a safe environment. Remember, it was the central government that told us that it would take responsibility to decontaminate and reconstruct.

For the local government that was forced to evacuate, it would have been much better and less stressful if we had been told not to live in this area for, say, the next thirty years and to find some other place to start a new life. They could have given us some money to cover initial cost of moving and later compensation for losses. That way, we could transfer our resident certificates to a new town and receive full public services and benefits like other residents there. It would have been much better financially, as well.9

But the central government that took the initiative to promise that it would take full responsibility for decontamination and would bring us back to our hometowns. That’s why I believe it should put itself in the position of evacuees and take responsibility for what they are supposed to do to the end, instead of relying on the power of money.

Hirano: The evacuation orders will be lifted at the end of March 2017. This interview has revealed that there is still much more work to be done and many problems to resolve, and that the prospect for the future still remains unclear. It also gave us a chance to think again about for whom and for what the policies and slogans of “reconstruction” and “return” exist. We greatly appreciate your valuable time and opinion.

Related articles

Arkadiusz Podniesinski, Fukushima: A Second Chernobyl?

David McNeill and Androniki Christodoulu, Inside Fukushima’s Potemkin Village: Naraha

William Johnston with Eiko Ootake, The Making of “A Body in Fukushima”: A Journey through an Ongoing Disaster



In April 2013, two years after the disaster, the Japanese government changed the limit of radioactive exposure dose from one milli-sievert per year (mSv/yr) or 0.23 micro-sievert per hour (μSv/h) to 20 mSv/yr or 3.8 μSv/h. This standard was roughly 6 times higher than that for “Radiation Controlled Areas.” The Labor standards act prohibits those under the age of 18 from working under these conditions. This new standard has been used only in Fukushima for determining evacuation zones as well as school grounds, buildings, and residential areas. The policy of zoning left (607) 743-2421out over 260 “spots” in areas such as Minami Sōma-city, Date-city, and Kōzu-village whose radiation levels exceeded 20 mSv/yr. The government initially announced that the new standard would be used as an emergency measure and soon be lifted. Contrary to this announcement, however, 20 mSv/yr has virtually become the new standard for safety measure and return policies.

On December 28, 2014, the Japanese government removed 142 areas in the city from the list, noting that annual radiation exposure had fallen below the 20 mSv/yr threshold. On April 17, 2015, some 530 residents of Minami Sōma filed a lawsuit demanding that the government revoke a decision to remove their districts from a list of radiation hot spots. This decision meant the ending of their entitlement to receive support in the form of subsidized medical treatment and “consolation” money. The plaintiffs argued that by international standards, the upper limit for radiation exposure was 1 mSv/yr, and thus the government’s decision to delist the hot spots based on a 20 mSv/yr standard betrayed its responsibility for protecting the safety of citizens. The government insisted that its decision was based on scientific findings.

The government is now carrying out the return policies based on the same rationale. Evacuees who have lived in areas that are under 20 mSv/yr and expressed concerns about safety are regarded as “voluntary” and thus can receive very little financial support and compensation. With the lifting of evacuation orders in parts of Namie, Ōkuma, Iitate, and Tomioka at the end of March, 2017, they will not be allowed to stay in temporary housing. Even those who were originally ordered to evacuate will be considered “voluntary” after March 31, losing Fukushima prefecture’s financial aid for housing. Many critics refer to the government’s return policy as “forced return policy” as well as “kimin seisaku” or the “policy of abandoning people.” See more details, Hino Kōsuke, Genpatsu Kimin (原発棄民), (Tokyo: Mainichi News Press, 2016).


When I visited Namie in the summer of 2016 with a group of researchers of Niigata University, the radiation level in some backyards and a forest area ranged from 5~10 microsieverts per hour.


In 2012, Fukushima prefecture promised to build “reconstruction public housing” (fukkō kōei jūtaku, 復興公営住宅) in Iwaki-city, Minami Sōma-city, and Fukushima-city for evacuees. The temporary housing (kasetsu jūtaku, 仮設住宅) was originally expected to be in use only for 2 years until the construction of public housing. But due to central government hesitation to implement this plan as well as the increase in the cost of construction materials and worker outflow from Fukushima to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics, the construction of the public housing was delayed and over 30,000 people are still living in the temporary housing. As reported in many media outlets, the conditions of temporary housing are far from desirable. The walls are paper-thin, and apartments are small. Furthermore, about 50,000 people are either living with relatives or renting apartments, unable to find new homes. According to the 2015 survey conducted by Fukushima prefecture, 62.1% of the 80,000 evacuees have health problems. 61.6 % are worried about the wellbeing of their families and themselves, 43.2% about their housing, 42.7% about their mental conditions, and 39.0% about the uncertain future and financial problems. When I interviewed evacuees from Namie at one of the temporary housing sites in Nihonmatsu, they expressed similar concerns. Now, with the lifting of evacuation orders, they will be forced to decide whether to return to their hometowns or find a new home within or outside Fukushima.


Hirono-town is about 20 kilometers from Fukushima-Daiichi. The Japanese government lifted the evacuation order in 2015. As of 2017, 2,897 out of 5,490 people have returned. Naraha-town is 16 kilometer from Fukushima-Daiichi and the evacuation order was lifted in September, 2015. 767of 8,011 Haraha residents have retuned to the town. Odaka-ku of Minami Sōma-city is also 16 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi. The order was lifted in July, 2016. 1,329 of 12,842 Odaka-ku returned to the area.


The so-called “damages created by rumors” have become a major point of political contention since the nuclear disaster. Many farmers and businesses, not only in relatively unaffected areas of Fukushima but in other prefectures in northeastern Japan, have suffered substantial financial loss due to widespread concerns about being exposed to radiation. On the other hand, Liberal Democratic Party politicians and conservative media outlets have used the “rumor-caused damage” charge to silence criticism, warning against discussion of the real danger of external and internal radioactive exposure. Residents of Fukushima continue to live under the pressure of being accused of encouraging rumor-caused damage even though their concerns are legitimate and their efforts to raise awareness about radiation should be taken very seriously. Some right-wing internet bloggers call those who raise concerns about radiation “unpatriotic” or “anti-Japanese.”


Ishihara Nobuteru, a son of former Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro, then Minister of the Environment, made the infamous remark in June, 2014 during a Q and A session at the House of Councilors with regard to slow progress in persuading towns and villages to build intermediate nuclear waste storage facilities.


The Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake occurred on January 17, 1995 in the southern part of Hyogo prefecture, Japan. It measured 6.9 on the earthquake magnitude scale, claiming 6,434 lives, most of which were in Kobe, a major urban center with a population of 1.5 million.


In 2016, the Abe administration has decided to use taxpayer money for decontaminating affected areas in Fukushima. The decision marks a fundamental shift from the current policy that obliges TEPCO to pay for the decontamination work.  The 2017 decontamination work is estimated to cost 30 billion yen. Behind the adminstration’s decision for the use of taxpayer money is the rapidly expanding expense of decontamination, with the latest estimate rising from the original 2.5 trillion yen to 4 trillion. This estimate does not include the no-return zones. The government expects the planned work in those areas to cost roughly 300 billion yen over five years. The Abe administration’s decision not only increase people’s financial burden but also blur TEPCO’s responsibility for the irretrievable damages it caused.


Each person receives from 100,000 to 120,000 yen per month as compensation for mental anguish in addition to compensation for the loss that varies significantly. The former compensation will end in 2018.


As stated in note 2, the Japanese government was reluctant to support the building of “reconstruction public housing.” This was mainly because it was concerned that this would slow the return of evacuees to their hometowns and home villages. Hino Kōsuke writes in Genpatsu Kimin that Tokyo’s reluctance indicates it is prioritizing the return policy over respecting evacuees’ needs and concerns. Suzuki Yūichi’s statement here expresses the same view.


April 4, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

Lifting Fukushima evacuation orders

28 feb 2017

The lifting of evacuation orders in four municipalities around Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holding’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant over the weekend does not normalize the lives of former residents forced out of their hometowns due to the radioactive fallout from the March 2011 triple meltdowns at the plant. The government needs to keep up support for the residents — both those returning to their hometowns and those choosing to stay out for various reasons — to help them rebuild their lives, which were shattered by the nuclear disaster six years ago.

Since 2014, the government has been moving to lift its evacuation orders issued to areas once designated no-go zones around the Tepco plant where the level of radioactive pollution is deemed to have declined to acceptable levels through decontamination efforts. The lifting of the evacuation orders in parts of the Fukushima towns of Namie, Tomioka and Kawamata and Iitate village on Friday and Saturday paves the way for the return of about 32,000 former residents. The total areas designated as no-go zones have now been reduced to roughly one-third of their peak — although areas that used to be home to 24,000 people will continue to be off-limits to former residents due to still high radiation levels.

Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said reconstruction from the March 11, 2011, disasters — the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear fiasco — is making steady progress and is “entering a new stage” with the lifting of evacuation orders to the former no-go zones around the Tepco plant. Also at the end of March, public housing assistance was terminated for people who had voluntarily evacuated from areas located outside the no-go zones out of fear of radioactive pollution.

However, government decisions alone will not return evacuees’ lives to a state of normalcy. In areas where evacuation orders have earlier been lifted since 2014, only 13 percent of the former residents have returned to their hometowns. In Namie and Tomioka, where some parts of the towns will continue to remain off-limits due to high radiation levels, more than 50 percent of former residents told a Reconstruction Agency survey last year that they have no plans to return in the future.

Some of the former residents cite continuing concerns over the effects of radioactive contamination, while others point to the slow recovery of infrastructure crucial to daily life such as medical services and shopping establishments in their hometowns. Other former residents have started life anew in the places to which they have evacuated.

The prospect is also bleak for businesses that used to operate in the areas. According to a survey by the association of Fukushima Prefecture chambers of commerce and industry, about half of the companies located in the no-go zones were unable as of last September to reopen their businesses as they lost their customers and business partners in the years since the 2011 disaster. Many of the busineses that have reopened after the evacuation orders were lifted said they have not been able to earn the same level fo profits as before the nuclear crisis.

Reconstruction from the March 2011 disasters continues to lag in Fukushima compared with the other devastated prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate, because of the additional woes caused by the Tepco plant disaster. Nearly 80,000 Fukushima residents remain displaced from their homes six years on — roughly half the peak figure of 165,000 but still accounting for a bulk of the national total of 123,000 as of February.

With the lifting of the evacuation orders, monthly payments of consolation money from Tepco to the residents of former no-go zones will be terminated in a year. Fukushima Prefecture’s housing aid, essentially funded by the national government, to more than 20,000 Fukushima people who voluntarily evacuated from their homes outside the no-go zones was cut off at the end of last month — although substitute assistance programs will be continued on a limited scope.

Officials say that decontamination and restoration of social infrastructure have progressed in the former no-go zones around the Tepco plant. However, administrative decisions such as the lifting of evacuation orders alone will not compel evacuees to return to their hometowns or rebuild their communities shattered by the nuclear disaster. The government must keep monitoring the real-life conditions of residents in affected areas and extend them the support they need, as well as continue to improve crucial infrastructure so more evacuees feel they can return home.

April 3, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima residents to return six years after nuclear meltdown



Fukushima, Japan is set to welcome back residents after the nuclear power station disaster in 2011 deserted 70 percent of the area.

Six years after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami rocked Japan and triggered a meltdown of the power station, the majority of the affected residents within the Fukushima prefecture can return home following forced evacuation orders, The Asahi Shimbun reports.

Residents of the towns Namie, Iitate, and the Yamakiya district in the town of Kawamata, totalling 22,100 people, were told they could return home Friday – with the exception of some no-go zones where radiation levels are still too high, according to

Further evacuation orders were lifted for the town of Tomioka on Saturday. Residents took part in a candlelight vigil on Friday night in memory of those who died in the disaster, thought to number more than 8,000.


So far, the homecoming has not been as successful as government officials had hoped, as not many people are willing to go back. In fact, only 14.5 percent of residents have returned to areas that previously had their evacuation orders lifted, according to the Japan Times.

The government’s fiscal 2017 budget set aside 23.6 billion yen ($212 million) to restore the healthcare system and other essential facilities to encourage the return of evacuees.

Okuma and Futaba, the two towns closest to the Fukushima nuclear plant, are the only remaining municipalities still deemed as “difficult-to-return zones.”

Activist hunters have started culling radioactive boars that freely roam the ghost towns near the crippled power plant in anticipation of returning residents.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster, which brought about the closure of all of Japan’s 44 working reactors, is said to be the world’s second worst after the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy.

April 3, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

Long-awaited announcement


A woman sheds tears at the ceremony to mark the government lifting the evacuation order for the village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 31. The evacuation orders for the towns of Kawamata and Namie were also lifted, reducing the Fukushima nuclear disaster evacuation zones to the highly-contaminated difficult-to-return zones. However, of the roughly 22,500 residents of the three municipalities, only around 10 percent are expected to return to their homes. Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno nevertheless remained positive at the ceremony, stating, “The lifting of the order is not our goal, but it’s the beginning of reconstruction. I hope to strengthen our spirit of independence and will to restore our village.”


April 1, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , | Leave a comment

3 Towns Evacuation Orders Lifted, Return of Residents Slow


A road remains blocked Thursday evening in the town of Tomioka near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. An evacuation order for Tomioka residents will be lifted Saturday.

Evacuation orders lifted for three more Fukushima areas but residents slow to return

FUKUSHIMA – Japan on Friday lifted its evacuation orders for the village of Iitate and two other areas that had been enforced due to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station.

The move came six years after Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s power station suffered meltdowns after the huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, triggering evacuation orders in many places in Fukushima Prefecture, including Iitate and the other two areas.

Residents of Iitate, the town of Namie and the Yamakiya district in the town of Kawamata, totaling some 22,100 at the end of February, can now return home, except in a handful of places included in no-go zones where radiation levels are still too high.

With the evacuation order set to be removed for the town of Tomioka on Saturday, Okuma and Futaba, the host towns of the crippled power station, will be the only Fukushima municipalities without an area where an evacuation order has been lifted.

Meanwhile, municipalities where evacuation orders have been removed have their own problems: a slow return of residents.

The central government and affected municipalities have channeled their efforts into improving commercial facilities, transportation systems and other infrastructure, hoping to attract residents, old and new.

In Tomioka, a ¥2.4 billion emergency hospital will be created, reflecting strong calls for medical institutions.

The return of residents has remained slow, however, with many returnees being elderly. In the five municipalities whose evacuation orders had already been lifted, only 14.5 percent of residents came back.

In Iitate, Namie and Kawamata’s Yamakiya district, the share of residents who said they want to go back to their hometowns in joint surveys mainly by the Reconstruction Agency stood at 33.5 percent, 13.4 percent and 43.9 percent, respectively.

The central government will begin work to revive areas in the no-go zones spanning seven municipalities. According to the government’s plan, each of the seven will have a reconstruction base for work to decontaminate local areas tainted with radioactive substances from the Tepco power station and build infrastructure.

Decontamination costs will be borne by the central government. It aims to lift evacuation orders in the no-go zones within about five years.

The government is resolved to fully lift the evacuation orders (in the no-go zones), even if it takes a long time,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently said.

But a concrete path to the goal is not in sight.



People pray in silence in front of a memorial for the victims of the 2011 disaster in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, early on March 31. The tsunami-struck Ukedo district remains empty in the background.

Most Fukushima evacuation orders end save for no-go zones

More than six years after the nuclear accident, evacuation orders for areas in two towns and one village in Fukushima Prefecture were lifted after midnight on March 30, allowing residents to finally return home.

The number of residents affected tops 32,000, including the population of Tomioka, where the same order is scheduled to be lifted on April 1.

That will result in the government’s evacuation order issued right after the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant being lifted for almost all affected areas, apart from highly contaminated areas designated as a “difficult-to-return zone.”

However, less than 20 percent of people had returned to areas where the order had already been withdrawn earlier, and not many residents from areas close to the nuclear plants are willing to go back.

On March 31, the order for parts of Namie and Kawamata towns and Iitate village was lifted.

In the coastal Ukedo district in Namie, about seven kilometers north of the No. 1 plant, about 30 people, including Namie residents and the town mayor, gathered at a memorial for the 182 victims from the town before the dawn, hours after the lifting of the evacuation order.

Just after 5:30 a.m., they held a minute of silent prayer.

I would like to achieve complete recovery until the ban (on the difficult-to-return zone in the town) is lifted entirely for Namie, while cooperating with the residents,” said Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba.

In Namie, Iitate and Tomioka, the entire population had been living outside their homeland.

After the nuclear crisis unfolded, spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the government issued evacuation orders to 11 municipalities, for the total population of about 81,000.

Since then, one by one, the authority had lifted bans on areas that met certain safety criteria–estimated annual radiation doses totaling 20 millisieverts or less, and infrastructure and lifelines were reconstructed.

In Okuma and Futaba, where the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is sited, the evacuation order remains in effect for all residents.

From now on, the government’s priority will shift to encouraging evacuees’ return and assisting them on becoming financially independent, while withdrawing in stages their compensation and accommodation payments.

In the government’s fiscal 2017 budget, a fund of 23.6 billion yen ($212 million) was set aside for restoring the local health-care system and facilities in the area impacted by the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, and nuclear crisis.

Restoring the essential services for living is part of the plan to encourage evacuees to return to their homes.

April 1, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment