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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Fukushima people feel like "kimin"

January 6, 2013



Looking back over a year of Fukushima reporting


The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant is seen in the distance behind farmland now covered in weeds in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 24, 2012. (Mainichi)


In a few months, two years will have passed since the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster. As time goes on, Fukushima Prefecture residents have increasingly voiced worries that they have been discarded or forgotten. Having been in charge of a Mainichi news project on these residents and how their lives have been affected by the nuclear catastrophe, I strongly feel that the true battle to convey the state of Fukushima lies ahead of us.

The Mainichi news project has covered people from various walks of life: a woman angry at no one taking responsibility for the disaster and calling for a group lawsuit; a family that gave up on returning home and moved away; the former mayor of Okuma where the crippled nuclear plant is located; a fisherman who set up a decontamination company and vowed to see the revival of his hometown; a deputy secretary-general at a teachers union who continued to warn about the dangers of radiation while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their situations were different, but they shared the grief of having their hometowns stolen from them. They also shared distrust toward a national government that had steamed ahead with a policy of promoting nuclear power.

An enormous amount of radioactive material was released in the nuclear accident. According to calculations made public in August 2011 by the then Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the level of cesium-137 alone reached 15,000 terabecquerels. That's 168 times the radioactivity of the cesium-137 released from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Unlike the bomb, which was designed as a weapon to kill vast amounts of people, the Fukushima disaster did not kill anyone with acute radiation poisoning. However, radioactive material spread from Fukushima, and areas with levels of cesium contamination that should have warranted their establishment as radiation controlled zones extend northwest of the plant and to the reaches of the Tohoku region's Abukuma River. People living in the 20-kilometer no-go zone around the plant were forced to leave, while others outside the zone who feared the health effects of radiation also evacuated to other areas. As of November 2012, 58,608 people had evacuated out of Fukushima Prefecture, and 98,680 people had evacuated to other locations within the prefecture.

Due to differences in people's thinking about the risks of radiation, residents splintered over what food they should eat, whether they should evacuate or return to their homes, and whether or not they should let their children play outside. Beyond the tsunami-hit coastal areas, beautiful, calm countryside remained, but the people's hometowns, where they had spent their whole lives, were snatched away from them.

The national government has invested 1.5 trillion yen to lower radiation levels in a process that continues. Radiation levels have been lowered at grade schools and preschools, which has allowed children to return to playgrounds. Some places have agreed to be surveyed as candidate locations for the construction of mid-term containment vessels for contaminated soil -- a necessary part of decontamination efforts. However, critics have raised doubts about the effectiveness of decontamination efforts, saying that radioactive materials seeping from forests will only result in recontamination.

A Diet panel report on the nuclear calamity clearly labeled it a "man-made" disaster, while stating it was possible that the disaster was caused not only by tsunami-damage on March 11, 2011, but also by damage from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that triggered the tsunami. The national government announced that the plant had achieved a cold shutdown, but a true wrap-up of the catastrophe is still nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel continue to grow the longer nuclear power plants remain in operation. The dangers posed by this situation came under scrutiny following temperature rises in the Fukushima No. 1 plant's fuel pool at its No. 4 reactor. No methods to dispose of this waste have yet surfaced.

On Dec. 7, 2012, a magnitude-7.4 earthquake struck off the Sanriku coast, and a one-meter tsunami was recorded. Experts warn of an aftershock of yet larger magnitude, together with the possibilities of huge plate-based quakes in the Tokai, Tonankai, and Nankai regions, and a large quake on the Sea of Japan side of the country. It is said that the Japanese archipelago has entered into a period of quake activity. Yet despite being one of the world's most earthquake-prone nations, Japan is home to more than 50 nuclear reactors -- and a host of unsolved problems accompanying them.

Toshiki Kokubun, deputy secretary-general of the Fukushima Prefecture Teachers Union, said that the people of Fukushima Prefecture have been treated as "kimin," or abandoned people, by the national government. That term is often heard in discussions about the pre-World War II policy of development in and immigration to northeast China that produced Japanese war-displaced children.

That issue and what has gone on in Fukushima Prefecture cannot be treated the same way. But, as we leave the second New Year since the disaster behind us, I want politicians to seriously reflect on the fact that this ominous term has entered the hearts of people living in Fukushima as they fear the risks of radiation. (By Shigeki Yutani, Regional News Department)

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