Sunday, September 06, 2015

Japanese Peace Movements #13: Ever or Never to Return

When I was in Fukushima I saw a map of the areas around the nuclear power plant which were affected by radiation. There were different colors bleeding out, being darkest and reddest close to the plant, but becoming lighter and orange and yellow as it moved further northwest, until it became just white like the rest of the prefectures in the Tohoku region of Japan. It was interesting seeing the discourse change as conversation with people moved from one area to the other around that map. In Fukushima, where the radiation levels were considered safe enough that no one was evacuated, but dangerous enough that all the dirt in the city is being dug up and stuffed into trash bags, no one was evacuated. I visited Iitate Village, featured in the New York Times article below, where people were warned and evacuated a month after the earthquake and meltdown, and may have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation during that delay. In Iitate people are allowed to return, but cannot stay overnight. Within a year, the people are supposed to be able to return, as the decontamination process, which features the digging up of fields and yards continues daily. But as I talked to more people and heard more stories, the redder and closer to the power plant one got, the more one was reminded about the issues with nuclear power and energy that few want to remember. In the red zones, some people have chosen to continue living there, although the government has stated that they may not be safe for continuous human life for several hundred years. This is a haunting reminder of what sort of unbelievable stain and wound on the world nuclear power can create. There are some places where nuclear testing has been carried out, where people may not be able to safely live for thousands of years. People a thousand generations or ten thousand generations into the future may finally be able to return to those places, but such a possibility lies outside of our ability to even adequately imagine or stretch our cognitive map around and towards. This is the danger of nuclear energy, it has the ability to make human life impossible. Not only to kill it through the fire of the blast or kill it slowly through the radiation and how it deforms human tissue. It has the ability to make it so that humans cannot live in parts of the world, make it uninhabitable, unsafe for healthy humans to live there.

Below are two articles about the returning of people to radiated areas in Tohoku, Naraha and Iitate.


Japan lifts evacuation order for radiation-hit Fukushima town
September 5, 2015

Tokyo (AFP) - The Japanese government on Saturday lifted the evacuation order for the first town near the crippled Fukushima reactors, more than four years after ordering mass relocations near the tsunami-wrecked nuclear plant. 

Among communities where the entire population was forced to evacuate after the nuclear crisis started in March 2011, Naraha is the first town to allow all of its residents to return home permanently. 

It is seen as a pilot case for nearby areas, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government aiming to lift a raft of evacuation orders by March 2017. 

But only about 10 percent of 7,368 registered residents of Naraha were expected to return home due to fears over continued nuclear contamination and uncertainty over whether enough locals -- particularly young people -- would come back to restart the community. 

Local mayor Yukiei Matsumoto pledged Naraha's rebirth would finally be able to commence.
"The true reconstruction of our town will begin now," he said during a televised speech to his staff at the town hall.

"Let us work together for the creation of a new Naraha." 

Meltdowns in three of the reactors -- 20 kilometres (12 miles) away -- blanketed vast tracts of land with isotopes of iodine and cesium, products of nuclear reactions that are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled or absorbed.

Evacuation orders have already been lifted for selected spots of regional cities, with the government saying decontamination work has reduced radiation levels. 

Former Naraha residents held a candlelight vigil overnight to mark the rebirth of their town. However, the town's future remains uncertain at best.

Many young people have found new jobs and started lives in cities far away from the crippled reactors, since leaving more than four years ago. 

Naraha restaurateur Satoru Yamauchi, a father of four who relocated to Tokyo after the meltdown, has expressed his profound attachment to his home but said he cannot see himself restarting his business there. 

"There is nothing good about going back," he told AFP in a recent tearful interview. 

But authorities say Naraha is now safe after years of decontamination work, in which crews removed topsoil, washed exposed road surfaces and wiped down buildings. 

Government data has also shown contamination levels are relatively lower in Naraha, which effectively resides upwind from the site of the nuclear disaster. 

The end of the evacuation order is "based on citizens' real voices and plans to accelerate reconstruction," mayor Matsumoto said in a statement released in July, adding a "prolonged evacuee life is not desirable". 

Still, activists have pointed out that many areas show high levels of contamination, and many are unfit for habitation. 


4 Years After Fukushima Nuclear Calamity, Japanese Divided on Whether to Return
by Martin Fackler
New York Times
August 8, 2015

IITATE, Japan — For four years, an eerie quiet has pervaded the clusters of farmhouses and terraced rice paddies of this mountainous village, emptied of people after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 25 miles away, spewed radiation over a wide swath of northeastern Japan.

Now, Iitate’s valleys are filled again with the bustle of human activity, as heavy machinery and troops of workers wearing face masks scoop up contaminated soil into black garbage bags.
They are part of a more than $10 billion effort by the central government in Tokyo to clean up fallout from the 2011 accident and allow many of the 80,000 displaced residents of Iitate (pronounced EE-tah-tay) and 10 other evacuated communities around the plant to go home.

Last month, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed to take a big step toward that goal by adopting a plan that would permit two-thirds of evacuees to return by March 2017, the sixth anniversary of the disaster.
But while some evacuees have cheered this chance to return, many more have rejected it. Thousands from Iitate and elsewhere have joined lawsuits or organized groups to oppose the plan by the government, which they say is trying to force residents to go back despite radiation levels that are still far above normal.

They accuse Tokyo of repeating a pattern from the early days of the disaster of putting residents at risk by trying to understate the danger from the accident. They say the central government is trying to achieve its own narrow political interests, such as restarting the nation’s powerful nuclear industry, or assuring the world that Tokyo is safe enough to host the Summer Olympics in 2020.

“If the national officials think it is so safe, then they should come and live here,” said Kenichi Hasegawa, a former dairy farmer in Iitate who has organized more than 3,000 fellow evacuees — almost half the village’s pre-disaster population — to oppose the return plan. “The government just wants to proclaim that the nuclear accident is over, and shift attention to the Olympics.”

This grass-roots rebellion of sorts underscores a deep disconnect between victims in Fukushima and the government in Tokyo, a schism that has plagued Japan’s response to one of history’s worst nuclear disasters.
While the government has undertaken a vast and costly cleanup to undo the effects of the accident and allow residents to return, many evacuees reject this course, complaining it was chosen without consulting them.
In fact, polls show a majority do not even want to go back. In a telling move in a country where litigation is relatively rare, more than 10,000 have joined some 20 class-action lawsuits to demand more compensation so they can afford to choose for themselves whether to return, or to build new lives elsewhere.
This has become an increasingly pressing issue for the tens of thousands of evacuees whose lives remain on hold, living in temporary housing and making ends meet with monthly stipends of about $800 per adult from the nuclear plant’s operator.
They have endured this situation since being evacuated from their homes after a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 knocked out vital cooling systems at three of the Fukushima plant’s nuclear reactors, causing multiple meltdowns that spewed radioactive fallout over the surrounding farming villages and coastal towns.

Within months of the accident, Tokyo was already drawing up plans to clean up an entire countryside polluted by invisible contaminants, something even the central planners of the former Soviet Union could not accomplish around Chernobyl, after the disaster there in 1986.

The Abe government’s new timetable, adopted on June 12, calls for accelerating the pace of this cleanup with a “concentrated decontamination effort” over the next two years.
It also sets for the first time a clear target date for lifting the evacuation orders on most areas around the plant: about 70 percent of the current evacuation zone — the less-contaminated areas color-coded green and yellow on official maps — would be reopened to human habitation by March 2017. (The most contaminated red-colored areas will remain closed indefinitely.)

However, the plan has been met with skepticism, and resistance.

A survey last month by the pronuclear newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun showed that eight of the mayors of the 11 evacuated towns dislike the 2017 return date, though some said they had no choice but to accept it. Other mayors, such as Tamotsu Baba of the town of Namie, have offered alternative proposals that push back the return date, and offer more financial support to those who do not want to return.

One of the biggest complaints about the new return plan is that it is intended to force evacuees to return by cutting off compensation payments. A provision in the new plan calls for ending monthly payments by March 2018 in favor of subsidies to help them return. Many evacuees say cutting off the monthly payments would compel them to return, since many, particularly those over 50 or so, have failed to find new livelihoods since the disaster.
“This is all being done coercively, without listening to the desires of the victims,” said Izutaro Managi, a lawyer who is handling one of the lawsuits, filed on behalf of more than 4,000 people, mostly residents of Fukushima, seeking more compensation.

Central government officials and the local leaders who support the new return plan say those fears are misplaced. They say the plan gives residents the right to freely decide for themselves whether to go back, and will offer unspecified financial support to those who choose not to. They say the goal is to help the region around the plant recover as quickly as possible by allowing evacuees to end dependence on government handouts and regain economic autonomy.
Despite the disagreements, the decontamination effort is now in full swing in the green and yellow evacuation zones.

In Iitate, a small farming community once proclaimed one of the most beautiful villages in Japan before the accident, the narrow valleys are filled with workers scraping off the top two inches of soil, which is then put into black bags that are stacked into man-made hills.

Across the entire evacuation zone, workers have already filled 2.9 million bags, which will be stored for at least the next 30 years at toxic waste sites that the government is building inside the zone.
Even with the massive cleanup, only about one-fifth of the 6,200 displaced residents of Iitate are willing to return, according to a recent head count by village officials.
Most of the families with young children, who are at most risk from the radiation, have already restarted lives elsewhere, and express no intention of going back. But even many older evacuees, who say they do not fear the radiation as much, call it too early to return without the prospect of being able to restart their rice or dairy farms in the contaminated soil.
One of the village’s most vocal opponents of the return plan is Mr. Hasegawa, 62, whose distrust of the central government remains so deep that he visits his former dairy farm once a month to conduct his own measurements of radiation levels using a Geiger counter.

He says his results are consistently higher than those from government monitoring posts, and are not falling anywhere near quickly enough, despite the decontamination efforts, to allow him to restart his dairy farm within two years.
At several points near Mr. Hasegawa’s empty home and barns, government inspectors have tied pink ribbons around hot spots where radioactivity remains particularly high. Inside one of the barns, a white board hangs with the names of his herd of 50 cows before the accident. About two-thirds of the names have red circles around them, meaning those cows were sold off after the accident. However, the other third have been crossed off in red ink, meaning those cows were killed on government orders after abandoned cows at other farms started starving to death.
Nearby stood a small wooden tablet with a handwritten Buddhist prayer for the dead animals.
“Sending us back is just another ploy by officials to avoid taking responsibility for what happened,” said Mr. Hasegawa, who now lives with his aging parents in a cramped, prefabricated apartment an hour from the evacuation zone.
Mr. Hasegawa’s opposition has had a personal cost, ending his lifelong friendship with the mayor of Iitate, Norio Kanno, one of the return plan’s most fervent supporters.
Mr. Kanno is the leading voice of the minority of villagers who feel the fears of radiation are overblown, and who want to return to their ancestral homes as soon as possible. While Mr. Kanno admits that farmers will probably not be allowed to grow food in Iitate for many years to come, he said the village was drawing up plans to help them switch to flowers and other crops not for human consumption.
He said he wanted to lead about 1,000 of the villagers most determined to go back. Once they show that the radiation levels are not so harmful, he said, other residents will follow.
He said a quick return was the only way to save the village, more and more of whose residents either die or move away with each year that passes.
“Our village’s fight is against the threat of radiation, and everyone reacts differently to that,” said Mr. Kanno, 68, also a former dairy farmer. “Let’s let people decide for themselves whether to go back. This is the way to make Japan a model for how to recover from a nuclear accident.”
Correction: August 16, 2015
An article last Sunday about the reluctance of many Japanese to return home to the towns that were evacuated in 2011 after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant misstated, in some editions, the given name of a dairy farmer from Iitate, one of the towns. He is Kenichi Hasegawa, not Kenji. The error was repeated in two picture captions.
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

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