FUKUSHIMA – Around 120,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture remain evacuees due to lingering fears of radiation exposure four years after the start of the nuclear crisis.
Although the central government lifted evacuation orders on some areas last year, evacuees have been slow to move back and an increasing number are choosing to rebuild their lives in new places without returning to their old homes.
Of the 120,000 nuclear evacuees, 79,000 are from areas adjacent to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant who were ordered to evacuate because of high radiation levels, according to the Cabinet Office.
The rest left their homes voluntarily.
The number of evacuees currently residing outside Fukushima Prefecture total about 47,000. At least a few are in every other prefecture.
A growing number of the people from areas where residents were ordered to leave are using compensation to find permanent homes in the areas where they now live.
Those still under evacuation orders are entitled to a real estate tax break adopted by the central government to help them buy property.
The number of land purchases using the tax break was only 35 in fiscal 2011 but rose to 356 in fiscal 2012 and 804 in fiscal 2013. In the first half of fiscal 2014, the number of purchases was 593.
As of the end of last September, 1,451 of the deals were for plots in Fukushima Prefecture. The rest were in 29 other prefectures, including 88 in Ibaraki, 69 in Tochigi, 36 in Miyagi and 33 in Saitama.
The number of purchases for other forms of housing under the tax break stood at 28 in fiscal 2011, 323 in fiscal 2012 and 598 in fiscal 2013.
The figures for both land and other housing indicate a growing desire among the evacuees to abandon their old homes.
“As our families and young people have left the town, the environment there has been devastated,” said Naokiyo Suzuki, 63, who fled from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, to Hatoyama, Saitama Prefecture.
Suzuki bought a piece of land in the neighboring city of Sakado, where his house will be completed in August.
Because there are many young families living in the neighborhood, “I don’t know if I can fit in, but I hope to move forward step by step,” Suzuki said.
The population of Fukushima Prefecture has fallen by some 90,000 to below 2 million since the disaster.
In light of this situation, the prefecture started offering rent-free housing in 2012 in some areas where radiation levels are low to encourage voluntary evacuees to return.
However, due to the inflow of workers engaged in reconstruction projects, the housing supply is now tight in the prefecture.
“Support measures are not taking effect due to the housing shortage,” an official at a nonprofit organization helping evacuees said.
Because people who left on a voluntary basis can’t receive compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co. for the damage caused by the catastrophe at its nuclear power plant, many are facing difficulty in putting their lives back together, said a Fukushima Prefectural Government official in charge of evacuee support.
Ritsuko Kamino, a 42-year-old part-time worker, moved from Koriyama to Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, eight months after the nuclear crisis began.
“It’s better not to live in fear,” Kamino said as she recalled nervously checking radiation levels and telling her 7-year-old son not to play outdoors.
With a support measure for covering the rents of evacuees set to expire this spring, however, Kamino has new worries.
“I’m not sure if I can make ends meet on my own,” she said. “I haven’t talked about this very much with my husband in Tokyo.”
A government survey in fiscal 2014 covering 16,600 households in seven municipalities affected by evacuation orders found that 48 percent of the respondents do not plan to return home. They cited concerns over radioactive materials, the lack of progress in managing the buildup of radioactive water at the Tepco plant and other reasons.
“Measures to help evacuees rebuild their lives in new environments should be strengthened as well as those to help them return home,” said Hiroshi Suzuki, a professor emeritus at Fukushima University.
In the town of Namie, which remains empty of people, there are black bags of contaminated soil everywhere, the result of decontamination work. The radiation level inside car generally stands at around 0.3 microsievert per hour, but it surges to nearly 1 microsievert when passing areas that have yet to be decontaminated.
University of Tokyo professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, who has been helping with decontamination in Namie and other areas around the nuclear plant, said that “although it is up to the residents whether they ultimately decide to return or not, it is necessary to create environments where they have a choice.”