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Restoring crops and a sense of pride

The mayor of Okuma, home of the damaged nuclear power plant, has been in exile for eight years – here he writes about finally returning
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Okuma residents plant rice in an experimental field in May this year.
June 22, 2019
The residents of Okuma were among more than 150,000 people who were forced to flee their homes after the March 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As one of the wrecked plant’s two host towns, Okuma was abandoned for eight years before authorities declared that radiation levels had fallen to safe levels, allowing residents to return. Even now, 60% of Okuma remains off limits, and only a tiny fraction of the pre-disaster population of 11,500 has returned since their former neighbourhoods were given the all clear in April. A month later, Okuma’s mayor, Toshitsuna Watanabe, and his colleagues returned to work at a new town hall. In his final diary for the Guardian, Watanabe reveals he has mixed feelings about being able to return to his family home.
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Okuma’s mayor, Toshitsuna Watanabe, stands outside his family home. He will move back soon after renovations are completed.
 
Toshitsuna Watanabe, mayor of Okuma
My family home is in the Ogawara neighbourhood of Okuma. The radiation levels there were deemed low enough for the government to lift the evacuation order for that part of the town in April this year, eight years after every single resident was forced to leave. My house, which stood empty for all that time, is being refurbished and I will be able to move back in August.
It’s a big old house and needs a lot of work. All of the walls and roof have to be removed as they were badly damaged in the earthquake. Other parts will have to be renovated. The workmen will also strengthen its foundations and rebuild the outer walls. It would have been cheaper and quicker to demolish the house and build a new one on the same plot of land. But I decided against that as I was determined to keep at least some of the house that my father built 60 years ago.
My father was always eager to learn. He studied new farming methods at university in Tokyo, and tried his hand at poultry farming and aquaculture, which were almost unheard of in those days. As his eldest son, I was expected to follow in his footsteps and work in agriculture. It seemed only natural to me that that’s what I would do.
I spent two years away from Okuma when I studied at an agricultural college in Sendai. My father and I had disagreements when I was young, but I eventually came round to his way of thinking about the importance of protecting our home and keeping it in the family. Now I say exactly the same thing to my son.
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Sunflowers grow in fields in Okuma that were used for crops before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Photograph: Okuma town office
I like the Japanese saying seiko udoku – which means working in the fields when the sun is shining and staying at home reading when it rains. So when I finally return to my own home in Okuma, I’m going to get involved in farming again, but this time as a hobby.
Sunflowers grow in fields in Okuma that were used for crops before the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
 
The fields we own have been decontaminated, but because they haven’t been used for eight years they need to be restored to a state fit for growing crops. Eventually I’d like to keep chicken and sheep, and grow mushrooms. I get secretly excited whenever I think about it.
But the painful truth is that less than 4% of Okuma’s population can dream like that. The area where the other 96% of the population lived is still classed as “difficult to return to” because of radiation levels. It could take years to lift the evacuation order there, or it might not be lifted at all.
It breaks my heart to think that our residents have been divided into those who can come home and those who can’t. The latter must be tempted to think that they have been left behind while other people are able to return to their clean homes.
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Residents of Okuma dance during the O-bon summer festival in 2018, when they were able to visit their hometown but not stay there overnight.
 
A conversation I had with someone I know in the town left a real impression on me. She had been told that she could, in fact, return as long as she moved to a neighbourhood where the evacuation order had been lifted. But she said: “I don’t just want to return to Okuma; I want to return and live in my old house in Okuma.”
I know exactly how she feels, and so do the other people who want to return to Okuma. When I think about people in that predicament I can’t feel completely happy about my own situation.
From now on, we will try to revive our hometown in two ways. First, every single resident, including those who may have given up on ever living in Okuma again, will be able to return whenever they like. And second, we will build a town that will attract people who have never lived here.
We have always taken great pride in the hard work everyone put into building Okuma into a great place to live. I am sure that the same sense of pride will continue to help us as we rebuild our town and make it an even better place.
I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to get our old town back. My seiko udoku hobby can wait if necessary.
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June 27, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , | Leave a comment

Survey: 80% of voluntary Fukushima disaster evacuees outside pref. unwilling to return home

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A group of evacuees offer silent prayers for earthquake and tsunami victims at an evacuation centre in Soma, Fukushima prefecture on May 11, 2011.

80% of voluntary Fukushima evacuees unwilling to return home – survey

A vast majority of Fukushima voluntary evacuees are not planning to move back to their homes out of fear of radiation despite the government declaring living conditions in the prefecture to be “good”, a new government survey has discovered.

Some 78.2 percent of “voluntary” evacuees households have no intention of returning to their previous places of residence and plan to “continue living” in the area they had evacuated to, results of a Fukushima Prefectural Government survey released on April 24 show.

Only 18.3 percent of households said they intended to move back to the Fukushima prefecture.

On their own accord, some 12,239 households left areas that were not covered by the government’s evacuations orders that were issued following the tsunami and the subsequent meltdown of Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Unlike people who were forced to relocate under evacuation orders, voluntary evacuees only received a fraction of the payment of at least 8.5 million yen ($77,300) that the government offered in compensation to mandatory evacuees.

For six years, most of them lived in other parts of Japan through government sponsored subsidies which ended in March this year after the government claimed that the “living environment (in Fukushima Prefecture) is in good order.”

Despite the official assessment, the environmentally wary refugees “still worry about radiation, and many of them have shifted the foundations of their lives to the places they’ve evacuated to,” the prefectural official in charge of the survey told Mainichi, Japan’s national daily.

Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori pledged to work closely with local governments where the evacuees’ old and new homes are located to help them.

It’s essential to respect the evacuee’s intentions” about returning home, Uchibori told reporters after the release of the survey. “However, we will work to create an environment where people can live with peace of mind, so evacuees can return home in the future.”

https://www.rt.com/news/386153-voluntary-fukushima-evacuees-survey/

 

80% of voluntary Fukushima disaster evacuees outside pref. won’t move back: survey

FUKUSHIMA — Some 80 percent of voluntary Fukushima nuclear disaster evacuees now living in other areas of Japan have no intention of returning, results of a Fukushima Prefectural Government survey released on April 24 show.

The prefecture ended a housing subsidy for voluntary evacuees at the end of March this year, stating that the “living environment (in Fukushima Prefecture) is in good order” due to ongoing decontamination work and other factors.

Voluntary evacuees “still worry about radiation, and many of them have shifted the foundations of their lives to the places they’ve evacuated to,” the prefectural official in charge of the survey said.

The survey covered 12,239 voluntary evacuee households that had been receiving the prefectural housing subsidy, of which 5,718 households had left Fukushima Prefecture. A total of 4,781 supplied answers to the prefecture regarding where they intended to live in the future, 78.2 percent of which stated that they would “continue living” in the area they had evacuated to. Another 3.5 percent stated that they would move, but not back to Fukushima Prefecture. Only 18.3 percent of respondent households said they intended to move back to the prefecture.

However, only 23.6 percent of voluntary evacuees living in Fukushima Prefecture said they would stay in their current locations, while 66.6 percent said they hope to return to their pre-disaster homes.

Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori told reporters at an April 24 news conference, “It’s essential to respect the evacuees intentions” about returning home. “However, we will work to create an environment where people can live with peace of mind, so evacuees can return home in the future.”

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170425/p2a/00m/0na/003000c

April 26, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | 1 Comment

The Children of Fukushima Return, Six Years After the Nuclear Disaster

1Children at a nursery school this month in the hamlet of Naraha in Fukushima. The government lifted the evacuation order on the town in 2015.

NARAHA, Japan — The children returned to Naraha this spring.

For more than four years, residents were barred from this hamlet in Fukushima after an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant north of town. When the government lifted the evacuation order in 2015, those who returned were mostly the elderly, who figured coming home was worth the residual radiation risk.

But this month, six years after the disaster, 105 students turned up at Naraha Elementary and Junior High School for the beginning of the Japanese school year.

Every morning, cafeteria workers measure the radiation in fresh ingredients used in lunches. In some grades, as few as six students take their lessons in classrooms built to accommodate as many as 30. There are not enough junior high students to field a baseball team on the new field next to the school.

Yet the return of the schoolchildren, the youngest of whom were born the year of the disaster, has been a powerful sign of renewal in this town, which is in the original 12-mile exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant.

Reopening the school “is very, very meaningful,” said Sachiko Araki, the principal of the junior high school. “A town without a school is not really a town.”

The new, $18 million two-story building has shiny blond wood floors, spacious classrooms, two science labs, a library filled with new books and a large basketball gymnasium. A balcony at the back of the building overlooks the sea.

Many emotions fueled the decisions of the families who returned to Naraha. It was always a small town, with just over 8,000 people before the disaster. So far, only one in five former residents has come home.

2The library at Naraha Elementary and Junior High School. The school was being built when the disaster hit, so workers started over, removing mounds of dirt in an effort to decontaminate the site.

A bank, post office and medical clinic are now open, but a supermarket is still under construction. Because neighborhoods have stood empty for so long, wild boars sometimes roam the streets.

With thousands of bags of contaminated soil piled high in fields around town and radiation meters posted in parking lots, the memory of the nuclear disaster is never distant.

At the Naraha school, which was being constructed when the disaster hit, workers destroyed a foundation that had just been laid and started over, removing mounds of dirt in an effort to decontaminate the site.

Today, radiation is regularly monitored on the school grounds as well as along routes to the building. The central government, based on recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, set a maximum exposure of 0.23 microsieverts an hour, a level at which there is no concrete scientific evidence of increased cancer risk. (Microsieverts measure the health effects of low levels of radiation.)

Still, some teachers say they are extra careful. Aya Kitahara, a fifth-grade teacher, said she and her colleagues had decided it was not safe to allow children to collect acorns or pine cones in the neighborhood for art projects, for fear that they would pick up small doses of radiation.

Nearby, a nursery school and day care center was built mostly with money from the nuclear plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, in 2007 and reopened this month. Keiko Hayakawa, the principal, said she was surprised that the city had pushed to bring back children before all bags of contaminated soil had been cleared from town.

We had to start and keep moving to open this facility as soon as possible,” Ms. Hayakawa said on a morning when 3- and 4- year-olds romped in a large playground, climbing a jungle gym, riding scooters and digging in a sandbox. “Otherwise, there was a fear that people might never come back.”

3A class of elementary students. In some grades, as few as six students take their lessons in classrooms built to accommodate as many as 30.

Calculations of radiation exposure are imprecise at best. They may not detect contaminated soil from rain runoff that can collect in gutters or other low-lying crevices. Risk of illness depends on many variables, including age, activities and underlying health conditions.

I don’t want to accuse anyone of being consciously disingenuous,” said Kyle Cleveland, associate professor of sociology at Temple University in Tokyo, who has written about the psychological effects of the Fukushima disaster. But government officials “have every incentive to downplay the level of risk and to put a positive spin on it.”

Reviving the towns of Fukushima is also a priority for the central government. With the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to deliver on his promise that the Fukushima cleanup effort is “under control.”

It is really up to the individuals whether they would accept the current environment or not,” said Kentaro Yanai, the superintendent of the Naraha school district. “But for us, we did the best that we could have done so far in order to reduce radiation levels.”

For young families, factors other than radiation risks weighed on the calculus of whether to return. Some longed to go back to the town that had been their home for generations, while others assumed they could afford more space in Naraha.

And as national compensation payments for evacuees are set to expire next year, some residents secured jobs working for the town government or for contractors involved in the reconstruction work. Still others are employed by Tokyo Electric, which is coordinating the huge cleanup at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Ayuka Ohwada, 29, had originally thought she and her family would stay in Iwaki, a city of about 340,000 more than 20 miles south, where many Naraha residents lived during the evacuation period. But once her parents moved back to their old home, Ms. Ohwada and her children, now 8 and 6, began visiting on weekends.

4Day care workers and children in Naraha. The town now has a bank, a post office and a medical clinic, but a supermarket is still under construction.

I started thinking that maybe the countryside is a much better environment for my children,” said Ms. Ohwada, whose parents offered her a piece of land to build a new house. Ms. Ohwada, who was employed as a convenience store clerk before landing a job at town hall, said she and her husband, who works in a nearby town at a company involved in decontamination, could never afford a stand-alone house in Iwaki.

In Naraha, the school is doing as much as it can to cushion the return for young families.

The building, which was originally designed for the junior high school, now houses two elementary schools as well. Extra counselors talk students through lingering anxieties, and the fifth- and sixth-grade classes have two teachers each. All students will receive tablet computers, and lunch and school uniforms are provided free.

Yuka Kusano, 37, said her children had grown accustomed to large classes while they were evacuated in Iwaki. But after enrolling in the Naraha school this month, she said, they benefit from individualized attention rare in Japanese schools.

Her 12-year-old daughter, Miyu, is in seventh grade with just five other classmates, and her son, Ryuya, 9, is in a fourth-grade class of 13 students.

It is really luxurious,” Ms. Kusano said. Still, with so few children in Naraha, she drives Ryuya to Iwaki on weekends so he can continue to play on a softball team.

Hints emerge of the turmoil the students have endured in the six years since the disaster. During a recent presentation for parents, one girl with thick bangs and large black glasses said she had struggled with frequent moves.

I am doing O.K.,” she said. “I just want to keep stability in my life.”

Such stability is one reason many families with young children have chosen not to return.

5Uninhabited houses in Naraha. The town numbered just over 8,000 before the disaster. So far, only a fifth of the former residents have returned.

Tsutomu Sato, a nursing home manager with three daughters, 9, 5 and 2, said the family had moved seven or eight times after being evacuated from Naraha.

I just want to build a base for my family as soon as possible,” said Mr. Sato, who bought a house in the Yumoto neighborhood of Iwaki. He said his oldest daughter cried whenever he raised the possibility of moving back to Naraha, where his parents and grandmother were restoring their house and planned to move back next year.

In exile, he maintains a fierce attachment to his hometown and has formed a volunteer group, Naranoha, to stage cultural events to bring together the diaspora of former residents around the region. He said that if his parents grew too frail to take care of themselves, he would consider moving back.

With or without the disaster, we have to make life decisions based on our circumstances,” he said.

In Naraha, the mayor, Yukiei Matsumoto, said surveys showed that just under three-quarters of former residents wanted to return eventually.

In order to clear the stigma that people have,” he said, “we are back now to show the rest of the country and the rest of the world that we are doing well.” But he acknowledged that if more young people did not return, the town had a dim future.

Kazushige Watanabe, 73, said he had come back even though his the tsunami had destroyed his home and his sons lived outside Fukushima Prefecture.

He has moved into a compact bungalow built by the city in a new subdivision in the center of the town, where he has lived alone since his wife’s death in January.

He pointed out a house around the corner where a family with three children had moved in recently. “I can hear the children’s voices,” he said. “That is very nice.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/world/asia/japan-fukushima-nuclear-disaster-children.html

April 21, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , | Leave a comment

Six years after Fukushima nuclear disaster, residents trickle back to deserted towns

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Tamotsu Baba, mayor of Namie town, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in the town’s temporary town office in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, February 27, 2017.

 

NAMIE, Fukushima Workers repair a damaged home nearby, and about 60 employees busily prepare for the return of former residents in the largely untouched town hall. Not far away, two wild boars stick their snouts in someone’s yard, snuffling for food.

Signs of life are returning nearly six years after panicked residents fled radiation spewed by the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, when it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami.

Still, only several hundred of the original 21,500 residents plan to return in the first wave, estimates Hidezo Sato, a former seed merchant who helped draw up a blueprint to rebuild the town.

“As a person who used to sell seeds for a living, I believe now is a time to sow seeds” for rebuilding, said Sato, 71. “Harvesting is far away. But I hope I can manage to help bring about fruition.”

For a graphic on Fukushima returnees, click here tmsnrt.rs/2lv77E6

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Since November, people who registered have been allowed to spend nights in the town, but residents will not need permission to stay round the clock after Japan lifts evacuation orders for parts of Namie and three other towns at the end of March.

Just 4 km (2.5 miles) away from the wrecked plant, Namie is the closest area cleared for the return of residents since the disaster of March 11, 2011.

But the town will never be the same, as radiation contamination has left a big area off limits. And it may never be inhabitable.

More than half – 53 percent – of former residents have decided not to return, a government poll showed last September. They cited concerns over radiation and the safety of the nuclear plant, which is being dismantled in an arduous, 40-year effort.

OLD FOLKS

More than three-quarters of those aged 29 or less do not intend to return, which means old people could form the bulk of the town’s population in a future largely devoid of children.

“Young people will not go back,” said Yasuo Fujita, a former Namie resident who runs a restaurant in Tokyo, the capital. “There will neither be jobs nor education for children.”

Fujita said he did not want to live near a possible storage site for contaminated soil, now being systematically removed.

Radiation levels at Namie town hall stood at 0.07 microsieverts per hour on Feb. 28, little different from the rest of Japan.

But in the nearby town of Tomioka, a dosimeter read 1.48 microsieverts an hour, nearly 30 times higher than in downtown Tokyo, underscoring lingering radiation hotspots.

For the towns’ evacuation orders to be lifted, radiation must fall below 20 millisieverts per year. They must also have functioning utilities and telecoms systems, besides basic health, elderly care and postal services.

HUNTING BOAR

Namie, which used to have six grade schools and three middle schools, plans to eventually open a joint elementary-junior high school. So children will need to commute to schools elsewhere initially.

A hospital opens later this month, staffed with one full-time and several part-time doctors.

Reconstruction efforts may create some jobs. The town’s mayor, Tamotsu Baba, hopes to draw research and robotics firms.

Prospects for business are not exactly bright in the short term, but lumber company president Munehiro Asada said he restarted his factory in the town to help drive its recovery.

“Sales barely reach a tenth of what they used to be,” he said. “But running the factory is my priority. If no one returns, the town will just disappear.”

Shoichiro Sakamoto, 69, has an unusual job: hunting wild boars encroaching on residential areas in nearby Tomioka. His 13-man squad catches the animals in a trap before finishing them off with air rifles.

“Wild boars in this town are not scared of people these days,” he said. “They stare squarely at us as if saying, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ It’s like our town has fallen under wild boars’ control.”

Some former Namie residents say the evacuation orders should remain until radiation levels recede and the dismantling of the ruined nuclear plant has advanced.

But it is now or never for his town, Mayor Baba believes.

“Six long years have passed. If the evacuation is prolonged further, people’s hearts will snap,” he said. “The town could go completely out of existence.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-fukushima-returnees-idUSKBN16F083

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , | 2 Comments

Financial crunch time looms for Fukushima’s ‘voluntary evacuees’

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People march through the city of Fukushima in December to protest the impending end of housing subsidies for those who fled the nuclear disaster from areas other than the government-designated evacuation zones.

This month, housing subsidies run out for those who fled the Fukushima nuclear disaster from areas other than the government-designated evacuation zones, and as the clock ticks down, evacuees have had to decide whether to return or move once again.

Many of these so-called voluntary evacuees are mothers seeking to avoid risking their children’s health while their husbands remain in radiation-hit Fukushima Prefecture, according to freelance journalist Chia Yoshida.

This is why the term “voluntary evacuee” is misleading, as it gives the impression that they fled Fukushima for selfish reasons, Yoshida told a news conference in January in Tokyo.

At the same news conference, another journalist proposed using the term “domestic refugee” to describe them.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government has been paying the cost of public and private housing for voluntary evacuees under the Disaster Relief Act since the reactors melted down at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The number of evacuees from the disaster, including those from mandatory evacuation areas, peaked at 164,865 as of May 2012, according to the prefectural government.

Its latest tally, conducted earlier this year, shows that 11,321 out of the 12,239 voluntary evacuee households had already decided where to live after April, while 250 had not.

It was back in June 2015 when Fukushima announced the plan to end the rent subsidy this month, saying that decontamination work in the prefecture had advanced and food safety had been achieved.

Still, the central government’s evacuation orders have not been lifted in “difficult-to-return zones,” which include the towns of Futaba and Okuma, home to the crippled nuclear facility.

Those no-entry areas are subject to radiation of over 50 millisieverts per year, compared with the government’s long-term annual target of less than 1 millisievert after decontamination work.

Rika Mashiko, 46, is a voluntary evacuee living in Tokyo. She has decided to rent a house near the Fukushima-paid apartment where she and her daughter, now in elementary school, are currently living so that her daughter will not miss her friends.

Mashiko and her daughter fled Fukushima about two months after the nuclear crisis started, leaving behind her husband in their house in Miharu, located in the center of the prefecture.

Mashiko said many women evacuated from Fukushima with their children, compelled by their instinct as mothers to avoid danger.

Maybe nothing might have happened, but if it had, it would have been too late,” she said.

Mashiko, who first moved to a house in Higashiyamato in eastern Tokyo that was leased for free, said mothers like her who fled the nuclear disaster feel they shouldn’t have to pay their housing costs and are angry at being “victims of the state’s nuclear policy.”

Many voluntary evacuees are financially struggling as they have to cover the double living costs in their hometowns, where typically the fathers remain, and the new places where the mothers and children moved.

In that sense, the free housing has been a “lifeline” for them, particularly in the Tokyo metropolitan area where housing costs are high, according to journalist Yoshida.

In an attempt to extend support to those families, Makoto Yamada, a veteran pediatrician in Tokyo, established a fund with ¥3 million out of his own pocket to help them rent new houses, for example by covering the deposit.

The initiative was the latest example of the support he has been providing to evacuees. Three months after the disaster, he held a counseling session in the city of Fukushima that attracted some 400 people concerned about radiation exposure. He has continued to hold similar sessions in Tokyo.

Yamada, 75, says poor understanding of the plight of voluntary evacuees has also played a role in bullying cases involving evacuee children that have been reported across Japan since last year.

In one high-profile case, a first-year junior high school student in Yokohama was called a “germ” at school, in reference to his supposed exposure to radiation.

Society appears to generally feel that voluntary evacuees have received a lot of money on top of the one-time compensation payment made by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the operator of Fukushima No. 1.

Yamada says if people understood that voluntary evacuees had no wish to leave but felt they had to, such bullying would disappear.

The first financial support from Yamada’s fund went to 10 mothers and their children on Jan. 15. He was surprised to see the recipients shed tears of joy upon receiving ¥200,000 or ¥300,000 each.

Yamada said the government has tried to reduce the number of evacuees from Fukushima in order to claim that their ranks have decreased and that the disaster has been overcome.

Yoshida echoed that view, describing the voluntary evacuees as “people who will be eliminated from history as the government seeks to trivialize the damage from radiation contamination and say their evacuation was unnecessary.”

As long as there are evacuees living outside Fukushima, they will remain a symbol showing the situation has yet to be solved, Yamada said.

If you say ‘we will not forget about Fukushima,’ you should never forget the terror of radiation, bearing in mind that people will not live in safety as long as nuclear plants exist in the world,” he said. “So, I want to continue to think about the evacuees.”

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/07/national/social-issues/financial-crunch-time-looms-fukushimas-voluntary-evacuees/

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

Survey: Fewer evacuees want to return to Fukushima

 

A Japanese government survey shows that fewer people who fled the 2011 nuclear accident want to return to their hometowns in Fukushima Prefecture. Many younger people are reluctant to go back.

The Reconstruction Agency and other institutions conduct an annual survey of the residents of areas where an evacuation order remains in place. The fiscal 2016 survey covered 5 municipalities — the towns of Tomioka, Futaba, Namie and Kawamata, and Iitate Village.

Compared with the fiscal 2014 survey, the number of people who do not wish to return increased in all 5 municipalities.

In Futaba, the number rose 6.6 percentage points to 62.3 percent. Tomioka saw an 8.2-point increase at 57.6 percent. The figure for Namie was up 4.2 points, or 52.6 percent. Kawamata saw an increase of 8.5 points, or 31.1 percent. In Iitate, the figure rose 4.3 points, or 30.8 percent.

More than 50 percent of people under the age of 40 in these municipalities said they do not want to go back. Some said they have concerns about the quality of health care services in their hometowns. They also think their lives would be less convenient. Some said they have already settled elsewhere.

The Reconstruction Agency says it will provide a good living environment and create jobs in these areas.

https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20170308_01/

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , | Leave a comment

In Fukushima, A Bitter Legacy Of Radiation, Trauma and Fear

Five years after the nuclear power plant meltdown, a journey through the Fukushima evacuation zone reveals some high levels of radiation and an overriding sense of fear. For many, the psychological damage is far more profound than the health effects.

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A radiation monitoring station alongside a road in Namie, Japan.

Japan’s Highway 114 may not be the most famous road in the world. It doesn’t have the cachet of Route 66 or the Pan-American Highway. But it does have one claim to fame. It passes through what for the past five years has been one of the most radioactive landscapes on the planet – heading southeast from the Japanese city of Fukushima to the stricken nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi, through the forested mountains where much of the fallout from the meltdown at the plant in March 2011 fell to earth.

It is a largely empty highway now, winding through abandoned villages and past overgrown rice paddy fields. For two days in August, I traveled its length to assess the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in the company of Baba Isao, an assemblyman who represents the town of Namie, located just three miles from the power plant and one of four major towns that remain evacuated.

At times, the radiation levels seemed scarily high – still too high for permanent occupation. But radiation was just the start. More worrying, I discovered, was the psychological and political fallout from the accident. While the radiation – most of it now from caesium-137, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 30 years – is decaying, dispersing, or being cleaned up, it is far from clear that this wider trauma has yet peaked. Fukushima is going to be in rehab for decades.

I began my journey with Baba, a small bustling man of 72 years, at Kawamata, a town on Highway 114 that is a gateway to the mountains beyond. These mountains are where the fallout was greatest, and the forests that cover most of their slopes have retained the most radioactivity. The mountains make up most of the government-designated “red zone,” where radiation doses exceed 50 millisieverts a year and which are likely to remain uninhabited for many years.

A second “yellow zone” has doses of 20-50 millisieverts, where returning may soon be possible; and a third “green zone,” with less than 20 millisieverts, is deemed safe to live in, and an organized return is under way or planned. Zones are re-categorized as radioactivity decays and hotspots are decontaminated.

To check progress, I took with me a Geiger counter that measured gamma radiation, the main source of radiation for anyone not eating contaminated food.

Beyond Kawamata, the road was largely empty and houses sat abandoned and overgrown. There was no cellphone signal. At first, houses we measured at the roadside had radiation doses equivalent to only around 2 millisieverts per year, a tenth of the government threshold for reoccupation. But within minutes, as we climbed into the mountains, radiation increased as we moved from green to yellow to red zones.

 

A map tracing Japan's Highway 114 through the Fukushima evacuation zone.jpg

A map tracing Japan’s Highway 114 through the Fukushima evacuation zone

Despite the radiation, wildlife is thriving in the absence of people, Baba said. There are elk, wolves, lynx, monkeys, and bears in the mountains. “Nature here is beautiful,” he said, “but we can’t fish or collect bamboo shoots or eat the mountain vegetables that people used to harvest from the forests.”

We stopped by an abandoned gas station in Tsushima, a village in the lee of Mount Hiyama, where wild boar had excavated the soil right by a vending machine that appeared remarkably intact. The bright-red digital display on an official Geiger counter read the equivalent of 21 millisieverts per year, just above the limit for human habitation.

The day after the disaster at the power plant began, 1,400 people from Namie came to Tsushima after being ordered to evacuate. “I was among them,” said Baba. “We had no information. People were just told to come. When we arrived, we went to the village police station and found that the police there were in full protective clothing against the radiation. They said it was a precaution in case they had to go to the power plant, but they had obviously been told that something serious was going on that the population hadn’t been told. That’s when our suspicion about the honesty of the authorities began.”

Tsushima has since become an unofficial shrine to the disaster. In the window of an abandoned shop are posters with bitter, ironic messages, some directed at the nuclear plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power: “Thanks to TEPCO, we can shed tears at our temporary housing,” read one. “Thanks to TEPCO, we can play pachinko.” But one, in English, just said, “I shall return.”

Back on Highway 114, a car stopped, and a woman got out. Konno Hidiko was driving to Namie – day trips are allowed, but overnight stays banned – to clean her parents’ former house and tidy an ancestral grave before relatives visited during an upcoming religious holiday. “My parents are dead now, but I still clean their house,” she said. “There are mice inside and wild boar have been in. We won’t ever return to live there. But we might build a new house there one day.”

Further along, Baba stopped the car and walked up a path swathed in vegetation. “This is my house,” he said suddenly, pointing to a barely visible building. It was shuttered. But I noticed laundry still hanging to dry in an upstairs window. On a tour of the grounds, Baba showed me his plum trees. “The fruit is too dangerous to eat now, and we can’t drink the water from the well, either.” We found a shed where he and his schoolteacher wife once kept cattle, and a former hay shed where he stored old election banners.

 

 

 

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Baba Isao approaches his abandoned house in Namie.

 

I checked my meter. It read 26 millisieverts per year in the hay shed, but shot up to an alarming 80 in undergrowth outside. That was four times the safe level for habitation. No wonder Baba had no plans to return. “I am just the son of a farmer. I wonder who has a right to destroy our home and my livelihood,” he mused bitterly. “Please tell the world: No Nukes.”

At his local post office, an official monitor by the road measured 56 millisieverts. Mine agreed, but when we pointed it close to a sprig of moss pushing through the tarmac, it went off the scale. “They measured 500 millisieverts here last week,” Baba said. “Moss accumulates radioactivity.”

As we drove on, the roadside was now marked every few kilometers by massive pyramids of black plastic bags, containing radioactive soil that had been stripped from roadside edges, paddy fields, and house gardens as part of government efforts to decontaminate the land. An estimated 3 million bags, all neatly tagged, now await final disposal at facilities planned along the coast. But the task of transporting the soil is so huge that the authorities are building a new road so trucks can bypass the scenic mountain villages along Highway 114.

Through a checkpoint we came at last to Namie town. Just before my visit, major media such as The Guardian and CNN had published images of the town by a photographer who claimed to have gained secret, unauthorized entry to the “ghost town.” He posed in his images wearing a gas mask to show how dangerous it was.

My visit to the town had required a request in advance, via Baba, but no subterfuge. And I found Namie a surprisingly busy “ghost town.” Nobody is yet allowed to live there. But some 4,000 people work there every day, repairing the railway line and roads, building new houses, and knocking down quake-damaged shops, preparing for the planned return of its citizens in April 2017.

There was plenty of earthquake damage, and vegetation pushed through cracks in the roads and the pavement in the front yards. Black bags were everywhere. But the traffic lights functioned, and drivers obeyed them; there was a 7-Eleven and the vending machines had Coke in them. Nobody wore protective clothing or masks. My biggest safety concern was not radiation, but the news, conveyed over the town’s public address system on the afternoon I was there, that a bear had been spotted in the suburbs.

Despite its proximity to the power plant, average radiation levels in the town were down to around 2 millisieverts per year in Namie – lower, in fact, than I recorded in Fukushima City, which was never evacuated.

“I have no idea how many people will come back,” said Baba. “They have a lot of misgivings because of the radioactive contamination. And I think their fears are totally justified. It is totally unthinkable for me to return to my old place, so I cannot encourage them to return to theirs.” He quoted a survey of the town’s 21,000 former residents showing that only 18 percent wanted to come back. That sounded similar to nearby Naraha town, where only a fifth returned after the all-clear was given last year.

 

 

 

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A deserted street in Namie in early 2016.

People especially feared for their children. The biggest concern was reports of an epidemic of thyroid cancer among children exposed to radioactive iodine in the days after the accident. An ultrasound screening program had found an apparent 30-fold increase in cysts, nodules, and some cancers in children’s thyroid glands. It had made headline news.

But at the Fukushima Medical University, doctors and medical researchers insisted that radiation doses were far too low to pose a serious cancer risk, not least because contaminated foodstuffs that could have harbored the iodine were rapidly withdrawn from sale. Ken Nollet, an American who is director of radiation health at the university, insists that the apparent epidemic was evidence only of better searching for disease. He told me a Korean screening study using the same techniques on a non-exposed population found similar rates to those in Fukushima’s contaminated zone.

Thanks to the rapid, if chaotic, evacuation of the area after the power plant began its meltdown, and the controls of foodstuffs, doctors say they believe there are unlikely to be many, if any, deaths among the public from radiation from the Fukushima accident. “A few members of the public got a CT scan’s worth of radiation; almost nobody received more than the dose from a barium meal,” said Nollet.

But there have been deaths nonetheless. Some 60 old people died as a direct result of the evacuation, including several who died of hunger after being left behind, said a doctor at Soma hospital, Sae Ochi. And depression remains widespread among evacuees, she says. There have been around 85 suicides linked to its after-effects. “It’s post-traumatic stress,” said Masaharu Maeda at Fukushima Medical University. “People with very negative views about the risks of radiation are more likely to be depressed. It’s a vicious circle.”

Some doctors told me that while the initial evacuation was necessary, the failure to plan a swift return as radiation levels fell had been disastrous. Apart from a few high-dose areas in the mountains, the psychological risks of staying away exceed the radiological risks of coming back. But the confusion has contributed to a serious loss of trust among the public for medical, as well as nuclear, authorities. “When we try to explain the situation,” says Nollet, “we are seen as complicit in nuclear power.”

It seems increasingly unlikely that the majority of families will return to the abandoned towns as the official all-clear is given. As we drove back from Namie, I dropped in on a group of old women living in an evacuation camp outside Kawamata. One told me they wanted to return to their old homes, but that “most young people simply won’t go back. They fear for their children, but also they have moved on in their lives, with new jobs and their children in new schools.”

And maybe that is not a bad thing. At a kindergarten in Soma City, just outside the exclusion zone, teachers told me that, away from the fear of radiation, there was a baby boom going on there. The crop of new students this year was the largest since the accident.

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/fukushima_bitter_legacy_of_radiation_trauma_fear/3035/

 

September 20, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima residents need time in deciding on their futures

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The central government lifted an evacuation order for the southern part of Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 12 for the first time since the massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a devastating accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

It marks the sixth time that evacuation orders have been lifted for locales in Fukushima Prefecture, following such municipalities as Naraha and Katsurao. The number of local residents affected by the latest move is more than 10,000, higher than in any previous instance.

Residents of such municipalities in the prefecture as Iitate, Tomioka and Namie have yet to be allowed to return to their homes. But the central government plans to lift evacuation orders on all areas of the prefecture excluding “difficult-to-return zones,” where levels of radiation remain dangerously high, by March 2017.

The longer people in disaster-affected areas live as evacuees, the more difficult it becomes for them to rebuild their lives.

The lifting of an evacuation order based on the progress that has been made in decontaminating polluted areas and restoring damaged infrastructure will give local residents an opportunity for a fresh start. In Minami-Soma, residents who have been hoping to restart their former lives have already returned to their homes. Various organizations are expanding their activities in the city to help rebuild the local communities.

In previous cases, however, only 10 to 20 percent of the residents said they would immediately return to where they lived before the catastrophic accident occurred.

In addition to residents who have decided to move to other parts of the nation, there are also many people who find it difficult to return home for the time being due to reasons related to employment, education, nursing care and other factors. Some people want to wait a while longer to see how their communities will be revived.

Sooner or later, all evacuees will face the choice of returning or migrating.

For both groups, measures to support their efforts to rebuild their livelihoods should be worked out. But support should also be provided to people who cannot make up their minds yet.

A situation where evacuees are under strong pressure to make their decisions quickly should be avoided.

Take the issue of compensation paid to local residents in affected areas, for example. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, is paying 100,000 yen ($945) of compensation per month to each of the people affected. But the utility’s cash payments are scheduled to be terminated in March 2018.

A time limit has also been set for the company’s compensation to people who have seen their incomes fall or disappear in the aftermath of the disaster.

Excessive dependence on compensation could hamper the efforts of evacuees to restart their lives.

But there are people who have no prospects of returning to their lives before the accident and therefore have no choice but to depend entirely on a monthly payment from the utility.

A way should be found to keep compensating those who really need the money for a certain period after evacuation orders are lifted, according to the circumstances of individual evacuees.

One idea worth serious consideration is the establishment by lawyers and other experts of a neutral organization to assess the circumstances of evacuees for this purpose. This is an approach modeled on the standard procedures for out-of-court dispute settlements.

The concept of “residents” should also be reconsidered. There are many evacuees who have decided to move to other areas but still wish to maintain their hometown ties. These people say they want to return home someday or to get involved in rebuilding their communities in some way.

Scholars have offered ideas to respect their wishes. One would allow them to have a dual certificate of residence for both their previous and current addresses. Another would permit them to become involved in the efforts to rebuild their hometowns while living in other areas.

These ideas can be useful not just for the reconstruction of disaster-stricken areas but also for the revitalization of depopulated rural areas around the nation.

Reviving communities that have been ravaged by the nuclear disaster will inevitably be an unprecedented and long-term process, which requires flexible thinking.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201607190028.html

July 19, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima evacuees made to feel small if they don’t return

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Makiko Sekine tends flowers at a public housing unit for disaster survivors in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, with her husband, Hiroshi, on June 14. That day, the evacuation order was lifted for parts of the village, including the couple’s home district of Kainosaka.

KAWAUCHI, Fukushima Prefecture–In a rush of sorts, evacuation orders are being lifted from municipalities of this northeastern prefecture that were affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster.

The order was lifted for part of the village of Katsurao on June 12, followed by an area of Kawauchi village on June 14. It will be lifted for a section of Minami-Soma city on July 12.

The central government has decided to have all evacuation orders lifted by March next year, except for in “difficult-to-return” zones where radiation levels remain elevated.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, having toured Katsurao and Kawauchi on June 3, said, “I want to make sure that the livelihood of the communities, as well as family and community ties, is revived as soon as possible.”

Having covered news in Fukushima Prefecture for four years, I cannot believe that everything is so rosy simply because evacuation orders are being lifted.

It is certainly good news that disaster-affected areas are becoming freely accessible again, but I know that some residents are being left behind in the process.

Hiroshi Sekine, 88, and his wife, Makiko, 81, a couple I have known for three years, are from the Kainosaka district of Kawauchi, where the evacuation order has been lifted.

They moved there from the neighboring city of Iwaki in 1959, five years before the first Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.

Deep within the mountains far from the center of the village, the couple reclaimed wasteland and turned it into farmland. They raised four children.

The Sekines, who now live in a public housing unit for disaster survivors elsewhere in Kawauchi, said they are not returning home.

Before the nuclear disaster, Kainosaka, home to 13 households, functioned as a small “community” where people helped out each other.

After five years spent in evacuation, the couple no longer have the energy to restart life in their inconveniently situated home district.

Even if they returned, they would be unable to sustain their life because nobody else is going back to Kainosaka.

“The lifting of the evacuation order is about deregulation,” a central government official told the Sekines. “It is up to you to decide whether you are going back or not.”

Once the evacuation order is lifted, however, the couple’s status switches from “those being forced by the central government into evacuation” to “those choosing to remain in evacuation despite having the option of returning.”

This new status will oblige them to feel apologetic, wary of what others may think of them.

The lifting of evacuation orders scheduled through next spring will allow around 46,000 people to return to their homes.

But many communities, like the Kainosaka district, will never be like what they were before.

How can we prevent people like the Sekines from being made to feel small because the evacuation order has been lifted? That is a complicated question about moral dignity, which cannot be solved with cash.

The Law on Special Measures for the Reconstruction and Revitalization of Fukushima was enacted a year after the onset of the nuclear disaster.

The law designates only “people who have been evacuated from zones under evacuation orders” and “people who have moved back to zones where evacuation orders have been lifted” as those entitled to coverage under the central government’s measures for “ensuring stability.”

When the law was enacted, nobody expected the cleanup of radioactive substances to take so long that it would delay the lifting of the evacuation orders, and that so many residents would choose not to return home after the orders are lifted, a central government official said.

The Sekines will be obliged to continue to live a life different from the one they had before the disaster.

I think people like the Sekines should be given the clearly defined status of “evacuees” by, for example, legally guaranteeing them the right to remain in evacuation.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201606270009.html

June 27, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , , | Leave a comment