Who dares? population resettlement at Fukushima

Micrograph of thyroid cancer. image from wikipedia

By the time Fukushima prefecture finishes the task of decontaminating houses and farmland around the Dai-ichi plant, it will have spent an estimated $50 billion on the work.  Some argue it would have been wiser to have spent the money on resettling former residents elsewhere. Already many of the 80,000 or so people displaced from the areas around the plant have begun new lives. Those moving back are mainly elderly. Local officials expect that half of the evacuees, especially those with children who are more vulnerable to radiation, may never return.

Fear of radiation, and distrust of data from the government and from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the Dai-ichi operator, on the risk it poses, are the biggest reasons. On October 20th, 2015 it was announced that a worker who had helped to contain the accident had developed cancer linked to the meltdown. It was the first such diagnosis, but a recent medical study found a huge leap in cases of thyroid cancer among children and adolescents in Fukushima prefecture since the catastrophe.

Public faith in Japan’s institutions suffered a severe blow as a result of the government’s bungled response to the accident in 2011. So when officials of Tamura city wanted to open the Miyakoji district in 2013, residents resisted and demanded more decontamination work.

A year after the lifting of the evacuation order on his village, Yuko Endo, the mayor of Kawauchi, says distrust is so widespread that he doubts his community will return even near to its former size. But he has visited the area around Chernobyl in Ukraine, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster 29 years ago. He says the sight there of abandoned villages resembling graveyards has stiffened his resolve to rebuild. Those who have now returned are still deeply sceptical about the assurances they receive. Many ask why, for instance, if the soil is safe, they must take their locally grown produce to be checked for radiation.

There is a particular ray of hope in Naraha—more of one than is evident in Miyakoji and Kawauchi. The town will benefit from jobs related to the decommissioning of the nearby nuclear plants, including Dai-ni, which got through the earthquake and tsunami relatively unscathed. Another of Naraha’s immediate projects is to erect new streetlights. It will be helped by dollops of government aid. Mr Matsumoto, the mayor, talks of luring people back by making his town much more attractive than it was before. But for now, many streetlights do not even work. It is dark at night and the atmosphere is eerie.

Nuclear Power in Japan: Back to the Nuclear zone, Economist, Oct. 24, 2015, at 39

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