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

"We are not guinea-pigs!"

April 18, 2012


Official 'decommissioning' of Fukushima reactors brings locals no peace



At the stroke of midnight on April 19, Japan's nuclear reactor count will officially drop from 54 to 50, as the ruined No. 1-4 reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant will be formally retired.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) submitted the decommissioning paperwork to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry at the end of March this year, and the necessary legal procedures have been progressing quietly ever since. While the operational lives of the shattered reactors may be officially over, however, they continue to be the source of significant problems, as well as of a serious threat to the lives and livelihoods of many across Japan.

The load is particularly heavy on those who have been literally dislocated by the March 2011 meltdowns, forced from their homes by radioactive contamination, such as the people of Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture.

"How will you extract the melted fuel from the reactors?" "How can we believe you when you say, 'It will be safe after decontamination' even while radioactive material leaks continue?"

These were just a few of the angry comments and questions posed by Naraha townspeople at an April 11 central government information session in the prefectural city of Iwaki, where they now live as nuclear disaster refugees. Most of Naraha is currently covered by the 20-kilometer no-go zone around the Fukushima No. 1 plant, and the entire town was evacuated. The April 11 meeting was held to tell residents they would soon be able to go home, as the entire town -- with local radiation doses at 20 millisieverts per year or less -- was to be re-designated for preparation for lifting the evacuation order.

Happy news, one might think, but residents' anger became obvious during the question and answer section.

"We need safe air and water for our children," one person said. "We are not guinea pigs!" cried another. Kensuke Tomita, the government's representative at the meeting and deputy head of the Cabinet's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, finally replied that "TEPCO and the government will take responsibility for restoring local infrastructure, decontamination and (nuclear disaster) compensation," but he emerged from the encounter shocked.

"I never thought there'd be this much of a backlash," he said. The town government, meanwhile, has given up on plans to have Naraha re-designated before the end of April.

One of the main reasons for the townspeople's anger is the continued problems at the ruined nuclear plant, despite the government's December 2011 declaration that it was in "cold shutdown."

Just in April, there has been another contaminated water leak (April 5), a breakdown in the No. 4 reactor's spent fuel pool cooling system (April 12), and a halt in the flow of nitrogen gas to the No. 1-3 reactors, necessary to prevent further hydrogen explosions (April 13).

Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato told an April 16 meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters that the problems at the plant were "stirring anxiety among the people of the prefecture," and once more demanded the government supervise operations there thoroughly.

The official decommissioning of the plant's No. 1-4 reactors appears to be one step towards fulfilling the prefecture's demands that all nuclear reactors in its jurisdiction be shuttered, but "our goal in demanding reactors be shut down is the protection of our residents' safety," a Fukushima prefectural official told the Mainichi.

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