The massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, exacted a huge toll on Minamisoma, leaving hundreds dead or missing and much of the city of 70,000 people destroyed. However, the tragedy for the coastal city was just beginning.
Minamisoma’s location 25 km north of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant put it in the direct path of a sinister invisible danger after three of the plant’s tsunami-hit reactors experienced nuclear meltdowns. More than 60,000 of the town’s residents evacuated as fears grew over radiation that was released into the air from the crippled nuclear plant. Speaking to an audience five years later at a news conference in Tokyo, Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, said his city has still not fully recovered from the nuclear disaster.
Amid calls to toughen safety measures in Japan’s nuclear industry following the accident, all reactors across the country were subsequently halted. Last year saw the restart of three idled nuclear reactors in Fukui and Kagoshima prefectures after those facilities passed new tougher safety tests instituted in the wake of the disaster. Later this year, Tepco is hoping to reactivate two reactors at its mammoth Kashiwazaki-kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, which would be the company’s first restarts since the Fukushima meltdowns.
“As a citizen and as a resident of an area affected by the nuclear power plant disaster, I must express great anger at this act,” said Sakurai. “When we are looking at how all the affected areas of Japan, including Minamisoma, can rebuild following the disaster, it is necessary for all of Japan to change its way of thinking, and its way of life too — to move to become a society like Germany, which is no longer reliant on nuclear power.”
Sakurai briefly became one of the most famous faces of the 3/11 triple disaster after posting an 11-minute video on YouTube on March 24, 2011, begging for supplies and support for his town to prevent its people from starving to death.
Five years on, the city’s population has rebounded to 57,000, 80 percent of its pre-3/11 size, but many younger people of working and child-bearing age who fled have not come back. Families are afraid to return because of lingering worries about high radiation levels or fear that compensation from the government will be cut or withdrawn completely, Sakurai said. This is having social as well as economic implications, as the town is short of workers able or willing to work in kindergartens and day care facilities, for example.
“Our hope is for as many people as possible to be able to return to Minamisoma and also join or become involved in the ongoing recovery process,” Sakurai explained. “However, we are also faced with the reality that, now that five years have passed since the disaster, particularly those from younger generations who have moved away from the area have built new homes and new lives in their places of evacuation, or in the places they have moved to.”
In March of last year, Minamisoma declared itself to be a “nonnuclear city,” something Sakurai says his city within the 30 km evacuation zone is the first in Japan to do. Turning to the use of solar and wind power in agricultural projects, in tandem with energy-saving measures, Sakurai is aiming for the city to be completely self-reliant in terms of energy by 2030.
“Within a situation where there is so much suffering around the world, what people around the globe are really hoping for are safe communities and safe societies in which they can live,” said Sakurai. “Of course, this is the same for Minamisoma, and so having experienced this disaster, which we take very seriously, I would like to pledge to everybody that the city and I personally need to work to create an environment which is safe for people to live in,” said Sakurai.
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