3rd Area in Japan’s 2011 Evacuation Zone Declared Habitable

Japan Real Estate

Kawauchi Village – 2nd Habitable Area

28 Oct, 2015 –

THE stench of rot and rat excrement fills the living room of Yoshiei Igari, one of thousands of residents who fled the town of Naraha on March 12th, 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami had sent the nearby Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant into meltdown. After Naraha lifted its evacuation order on September 5th, he hastened back to see his former home. While the house had lain abandoned, wild boars had wrecked its ornate garden of tall, curved stones. Yet freshly picked daisies on the family altar inside the decayed interior suggest that Mr. Igari may decide to return to his ancestral home. Naraha’s opening is the first time that a whole town has been declared safe as the government gradually shrinks the evacuation zone around the plant.

“The clock that stopped [in 2011] has now begun to tick,” says Yukiei Matsumoto, the mayor. The plant’s radioactive plume headed north-west. Towns in that direction, such as Namie and Futaba—where annual radiation levels are at more than 50 millisieverts (mSv), well beyond the 20 mSv that is considered safe—will probably stay empty for many decades. Yet thanks to the local wind direction four and a half years ago, and the government’s decontamination efforts, radiation in Naraha and in two other affected residential areas slightly to the north-west is now such that these places are officially deemed habitable again.

In April last year, the Miyakoji district of Tamura city became the first such area to allow people back. Kawauchi village followed last October. Both, however, are well served by shops, hospitals and schools located in areas that never had to evacuate. Naraha—where not long ago starving, abandoned cows wandered the streets—has no such backup. It is having to restart the basic services on which the community will depend. Its railway station reopened last year (it now features a digital radiation counter over the ticket gate). A new junior high school is due to open next year. But so far only 300 people have returned out of a former population of nearly 8,000. Worries still abound.

The government hopes a particularly Japanese attachment to one’s furusato, or home town, will draw people home. By the time of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 it is eager to show the world that the area has recovered. Well before then, it wants to demonstrate the government’s competency as it begins to restart the country’s other nuclear power plants, which were shut down after the nuclear disaster. By the time Fukushima prefecture finishes the task of decontaminating houses and farmland around the Dai-ichi plant, it will have spent an estimated $50 billion on the work.

Some argue it would have been wiser to have spent the money on resettling former residents elsewhere. Already many of the 80,000 or so people displaced from the areas around the plant have begun new lives. Those moving back are mainly elderly. Local officials expect that half of the evacuees, especially those with children who are more vulnerable to radiation, may never return.

Fear of radiation, and distrust of data from the government and from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the Dai-ichi operator, on the risk it poses, are the biggest reasons. On October 20th it was announced that a worker who had helped to contain the accident had developed cancer linked to the meltdown. It was the first such diagnosis, but a recent medical study found a huge leap in cases of thyroid cancer among children and adolescents in Fukushima prefecture since the catastrophe. Public faith in Japan’s institutions suffered a severe blow as a result of the government’s bungled response to the accident in 2011. So when officials of Tamura city wanted to open the Miyakoji district in 2013, residents resisted and demanded more decontamination work.

A year after the lifting of the evacuation order on his village, Yuko Endo, the mayor of Kawauchi, says distrust is so widespread that he doubts his community will return even near to its former size. He visited the area around Chernobyl in Ukraine, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster 29 years ago. He says the sight there of abandoned villages resembling graveyards has stiffened his resolve to rebuild. Those who have now returned are still deeply skeptical about the assurances they receive. Many ask why, for instance, if the soil is safe, must they take their locally grown produce to be checked for radiation.

There is a particular ray of hope in Naraha—more of one than is evident in Miyakoji and Kawauchi. The town will benefit from jobs related to the decommissioning of the nearby nuclear plants, including Dai-ni, which got through the earthquake and tsunami relatively unscathed. Another of Naraha’s immediate projects is to erect new streetlights. It will be helped by dollops of government aid. Mr Matsumoto, the mayor, talks of drawing people back by making his town much more attractive than it was before. But for now, many streetlights do not even work. It is dark at night and the atmosphere is eerie.

(Source – “The Economist“, Pic – Mt. Chokai, Kawauchi / “Douglas Perkins“)

 

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