Five years on, Japan’s nuclear evacuees are still fighting to return

By Takehiko Kambayashi, dpa

March 8, 2016

About 100,000 people have not been able to return home since Japan’s worst nuclear disaster at Fukushima forced them to leave five years ago. And still more are choosing to move away of their free will.

Okuma, Japan (dpa) – Without leaving her car, Masumi Kowata pointed through the trees at the home that she and her family have not been able to live in since Japan’s worst nuclear accident five years ago,

“That’s our house,” the diminutive woman said through her face mask, sounding resigned, as she drove around the abandoned town, 3 kilometres inland from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in north-eastern Japan.

Nobody has lived in Okuma since it was evacuated in 2011 following the triple meltdown at the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power.

“That’s where we used to grow rice,” Kowata said, looking to the other side of the street.

The mother of three grown-up children said her family had worked in the fields before the disaster. After the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011, they had to give up that life.

“We will get a house in Aizu,” she said flatly, referring to Aizuwakamatsu city, about 80 kilometres west of the plant, where she has been living in temporary housing with her husband.

About 100,000 residents like Kowata have had their lives put on hold since the accident, despite the government’s efforts to decontaminate affected areas.

Reports have said the prolonged evacuation has taken a toll on their health, with fatalities indirectly linked to the nuclear disaster rising 11 per cent from a year earlier to 1,368 in 2015, according to a survey conducted by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper and published Sunday.

Kowata said she has always told fellow Okuma residents they would not be able to return.

“When I said so soon after the nuclear accident, I received an earbashing. Now more people are listening,” said Kowata, who was elected an Okuma town councilor last year.

The councilors of the evacuated town are kept busy with the problems of the former residents, many of whom are in temporary housing. They also work on the progress of reconstruction projects in Okuma.

It is expected to take the operator 40 years or more to complete the decommissioning of all six reactors at Fukushima.

Kazuo and Eiko Furuyama are two other residents forced to flee Okuma, abandoning the 3.3-hectare pear orchard that the couple tended for more than half a century.

“I cannot talk about it without tears,” Eiko said, showing an aerial photo of the property.

Their house and the orchard are to be demolished to build a base for reconstruction, Eiko said.

“It is heartbreaking,” she said. “I cannot sleep well these days. I worked there for 60 years.”

Four generations of the Furuyamas used to live together and the pear farm had already been taken over by their son. But they have been split up by the disaster.

The couple, now in their 80s, have been in a cramped temporary house in the coastal city of Iwaki for more than four years, while their son has moved to Koriyama, 60 kilometres away, where he works for a transport firm.

Kazuo said they will be reunited with the son’s family when a new house is completed.

Authorities have given no indication of when the evacuation of Okuma might be lifted, but the government has allowed residents to return to Naraha, 10 kilometres further south, despite strong opposition from residents and critics.

The government has plans to lift the evacuation order for other parts of the area. Residents whose homes are no longer under such orders cease to receive compensation payments.

“It seems such moves have accelerated,” said Hisayo Takada of Greenpeace Japan. “The government apparently wants to make an impression of the progress of reconstruction.”

“This is the government which has claimed that nuclear power is necessary and pushed forward the restarts of nuclear reactors,” she said.

Since August, Japan has restarted four nuclear reactors. All of the country’s plants were idled in the wake of the disaster.

Despite the publicity around Tokyo’s decision to reopen Naraha six months ago, only 459 residents, or 6.2 per cent of the population, have returned, a town official said.

People have been put off by the lack of repairs to infrastructure, or even the failure to clean up and staff public buildings, locals said.

“‘Rebuilding efforts’ have been trumpeted in major media outlets over and over again. But if you come here, you will get to know how little progress has actually been made,” Kowata said.