20170306 Japan’s nuclear refugees living in limbo

Niigata, Japan (dpa) – Junko Isogai and her two teenage daughters have long awaited the day they could return home to Fukushima, the site of Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident six years ago.

But with no prospect for doing so, the family members have been forced to remain in Niigata City on the Sea of Japan coast.

They cannot move back to their home in Koriyama City, in Fukushima prefecture, because the place “is not what it used to be” due to radiation contamination, Isogai says. “We’ve lost our hometown.”

Isogai is one of 26,600 so-called “voluntary” evacuees, those who fled areas not designated as mandatory evacuation zones following the March 11, 2011, disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The plant suffered a triple meltdown, spewing radioactive materials into the environment after it was hit by a powerful earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

This month, the Fukushima government will stop providing housing subsidies to those “voluntary” evacuees, saying decontamination work has been completed and food safety secured in their hometowns, according to Norimasa Kobayashi, a local official.

While government officials say they have completed decontamination work in residential areas, critics and some locals argue that doesn’t mean the place is safe to live, especially for children.

Acknowledging high levels of radiation are still found in some areas of Fukushima, local government officials say they will continue to monitor radiation levels. But many evacuees say they no longer trust government officials or plant operator Tokyo Electric Power.

Noriko Matsumoto, a former Koriyama resident, says she is uncomfortable being called a “voluntary” evacuee by government officials and news organizations, saying the term gives an impression that she and others fled their hometowns “in a selfish manner.”

“We are refugees, nuclear refugees,” she says.

Many of the evacuees are mothers who feared the health effects of radiation on their children. A number of couples have disagreed about the impact of radiation. In some cases, such differences have led to separations or even divorce.

Matsumoto has struggled to make ends meet since she and her daughter left their hometown. The two moved to Kawasaki City near Tokyo after the then-primary-school child complained of stomach-ache and nosebleeds following the nuclear fallout.

Matsumoto’s husband has remained in Koriyama, running a restaurant.

The end of the subsidies “has worsened the plight of such evacuees,” says Kanna Mitsuta, a leader of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Japan.

While they believe they were victims of the disaster, these evacuees have not received any compensation from the plant operator Tokyo Electric, which hid the meltdown for the first two months.

Having started a new life following the abrupt relocation, “many fathers and mothers [from Fukushima] have been struggling to put food on the table for their children,” says Katsuhiko Hasegawa, who moved to Fujinomiya City in central Japan.

Hasegawa, who left Fukushima with his pregnant wife and five-year-old son in August 2011, says evacuees were never consulted by government officials about the end of housing subsidies.

“The government at fault in the nuclear disaster forced us to comply with its policies,” he says. “Now our role is to adamantly oppose it.”

Two months after the accident, Isogai’s daughters in Koriyama, about 60 kilometres west of the power plant, began to suffer nosebleeds and developed rashes on their bodies. In 2012, the three fled.

“Our children’s health was hurt,” Isogai recalls. “We all were stressed out.”

The daughters’ health returned after they relocated 130 kilometres north-west to Niigata. But the family has had to bear economic and psychological burdens. Once more, Isogai’s husband remained in their hometown because of his job.

The nuclear disaster came two years after the family’s long-awaited house was built. They continue to pay their mortgage, but the wife and daughters are unlikely to return in the near future.