Nine years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region, causing the TEPCO Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. The impacts of this nuclear accident continue to this day.

Radiation from the accident contaminated a large area of the Fukushima prefecture. The contamination caused serious impacts to the environment and the livelihoods of local people, especially those who rely on the natural environment as a source of income. The nuclear accident robbed people in the region of not only their livelihoods, but of a purpose in life, community, precious time with friends and neighbors, and peace.

“Nuclear power robbed us of everything. We still can’t go into the forests. Families with children used to go into the forest to gather wild plants and teach about nature. That was a common practice, taken for granted. But today we can’t do any of that.”

Kenichi Hasegawa, a former dairy farmer who is now growing buckwheat (soba).

Meanwhile, in the midst of reconstruction efforts and the upcoming Olympics, the status of the radioactive contamination and damage from the disaster is being held from the public. This has created an atmosphere where people feel that they are unable to talk about health impacts of the disaster or voice any other concerns related to Fukushima. 

“In Fukushima today, the Olympics are being exploited to the maximum in an effort to make it difficult to see the issues facing evacuees from damage from the accident, which continue to this day”

Ruiko Muto, a resident of Miharu Town. 

Lifting of evacuation orders, Olympic torch relay

The Japanese government is slowly lifting evacuation orders from the affected areas in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games. Thus far, the following orders have been lifted:

  • March 4, evacuation orders were lifted from the so-called “difficult-to-return zone” around Futaba Station in Futaba town, on the Joban Line, East Japan Railway Company.
  • March 5, evacuation orders were lifted from the area around Ono Station in Okuma town.
  • March 10, evacuation orders where lifted from the area around Yonomori Station, Tomioka town.
  • March 15, the Joban Line trains will begin running again.

At the end of March, the Olympic torch relay is scheduled to pass through these areas where evacuation orders have been lifted.

According to studies of the Fukushima Prefecture, radiation doses far exceeding the decontamination standard of 0.23 microsieverts-per-hour, have been observed along roads and the Olympic torch route. This includes 0.46 microsieverts-per-hour in Koriyama city and 0.77 microsieverts-per-hour in Iitate.

According to surveys by the Radioactivity Monitoring Center for Citizens (Chikurinsha) and the Fukuichi Area Environmental Radiation Monitoring Project (Fukuichi = TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant), at 69 sites along the torch relay route and surrounding area, radiation readings exceeded 0.23 microsieverts-per-hour at 62% of all survey sites. High levels of soil contamination were also found at seven sites, where readings exceeded one million Bq/m2. Evacuation orders have already been lifted in these areas and in some cases, residents are living there. This suggests that need to protect people from radiation exposure is not being treated seriously enough. 

“Is this what reconstruction looks like?”

Despite evacuation orders being lifted, the return of residents to these areas has been slow. The occupancy rate is currently below 30%. This number even includes decontamination and nuclear plant deconstruction workers, “reconstruction” business-related personnel and new residents. Statistics show that young people are not returning, and in many areas the majority of households consist of only one to two elderly people.

“In my neighborhood, more and more houses are being torn down. There is virtually no trace of the original community. Is this what reconstruction looks like?”

An unnamed 91-year-old man who has returned to live in Tomioka. 

Despite this, housing and other forms of assistance for evacuees is steadily being terminated. In March 2020, the provision of free housing stopped for evacuees from the “difficult-to-return zones,” including the towns of Futaba and Okuma. Among the affected 2,274 households, 221 of them still have no prospect of securing housing for April onwards.

The Fukushima Prefecture have conducted regular thyroid gland testing of people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the accident. From these tests, 237 people were identified as at risk of of thyroid cancer. Surgical procedures confirmed that 186 of these cases were positive for thyroid cancer (numbers based on publicly available materials, up to February 13, 2020). It is believed that many cases have also been overlooked, so the actual figures might be much higher.

A prefectural committee stated that the results of the first and second rounds of testing were “higher than the number of cases estimated from the diseases statistics,” and that “it is difficult to consider the impacts of the accident”. Despite the claims of “over diagnosis”, doctors who performed the surgeries have stated that many of the patients they treated had lymph node metastases and cancer which had spread to surrounding tissue, both conditions require surgical intervention.

Reuse of contaminated soil arising from decontamination work, ocean release of contaminated water

Japan’s Ministry of Environment, has announced a policy to “reuse” 14 million cubic meters of “contaminated soil” ( low-level radioactive material), in public works and agricultural land development projects. The Ministry intends to begin implementing the updated regulations in April. It is not clear whether sufficient information will be disclosed and explanations provided to local residents who may be impacted by the projects.

Residents in many communities have spoken out in opposition of these plans. A demonstration project for an agricultural road in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima, was cancelled due to intense opposition from the community. The Ministry plans on holding another demonstration to use contaminated soil as roadbed, to expand the Joban Expressway to four lanes in Odaka Ward (Minamisoma City), but all heads of the local administrative districts are opposed.

The volume of processed contaminated water from the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant site continues to grow. Already 960 tanks are storing 1.16 million cubic meters of treated water. Alternative proposals have been made to store the contaminated water in large tanks on land, to use mortar solidification, and to expand the current site. However, a government committee that examined the treatment of contaminated water has submitted its final report, concluding that discharge into the ocean is a viable option, even without having adequately considered the alternatives propose.

Need a shift to victim-centered reconstruction efforts

A huge amount of funding is currently being allocated to decontamination and infrastructure work, as well as for roads and sports facilities for which the demand is not even assured. Meanwhile, housing and other assistance for evacuees from the disaster is being terminated, there has been almost no other effort to protect people from radiation exposure, other than a few specific decontamination efforts.

Citizen groups are currently leading the assistance efforts, providing protection or services for victims to rest and recuperate. Nuclear disaster victims are being pushed into the corner in the name of reconstruction, with government efforts to reduce the official numbers of evacuees and to deny the impacts of radiation exposure.

We join call upon the government of Japan to address the current impacts of the nuclear disaster, to implement policies for full compensation for all victims of this nuclear disaster, and for real reconstruction efforts to restore the victims’ lives and dignity. We join people around the world, standing together with the victims, to continue working towards a peaceful world without nuclear power and nuclear weapons, with the aim of ensuring that the catastrophe of a nuclear accident is never repeated.

For more information contact:
Ayumi Fukakusa,
Climate Change and Energy Campaigner,
Friends of the Earth Japan
Email: fukakusa@foejapan.org

The original statement from Friends of the Earth Japan can be found here.

*Cover photo: A herd that survived the 2011 disaster, Ranch of Hope, Namie Town, Fukushima


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