OKUMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Norio Kimura lost his wife, father and 7-year-old daughter, Yuna, in the March 2011 tsunami.
Now he fears he may lose his land, too, as the central government wants to build a sprawling radioactive waste storage site in the shadow of the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Like many in Okuma, Kimura is angry that the government plans to park 30 million tons of radioactive debris on his former doorstep. Few believe officials’ assurances that the site will be cleaned up and shut down after 30 years.
“I can’t believe they’re going to dump their trash here after all we’ve been put through,” said Kimura, 49, standing near the weathered planks on a shrub-covered hill that represent all that’s left of his home.
Kimura was forced to abandon searching for his family in the frantic hours after the tsunami and ordered to evacuate after explosions rocked the nuclear complex, just 3 km from his home.
Months later, he found the bodies of his wife and father. But all he has left of Yuna are her mud-soaked pink skirts, a pair of striped leggings and a blackened soft toy he found tangled in a heap of debris.
Four years after the earthquake and tsunami disasters, Kimura still returns to his hometown and combs the deserted beach for Yuna’s body in five-hour stints — the maximum allowed under radiation health guidelines.
The tsunami tore through coastal towns and set off the three meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No 1 plant, which sits partly in Okuma.
The government has since allocated more than ¥1.8 trillion to an unprecedented project to lower radiation in towns around the plant, including Okuma. Every day across Fukushima Prefecture, teams of workers blast roads with water, scrub down houses, cut branches and scrape contaminated soil off farmland.
That radioactive trash now sits in blue and black plastic sacks across Fukushima, piled up in abandoned rice paddies, parking lots and even residents’ backyards.
The government plans to build a more permanent storage facility over the coming years in Okuma and Futaba, the other town that borders Fukushima No. 1 — over the opposition of some local residents.
“This land has our blood and sweat running through it and I can’t just let go of it like that,” said Koji Monma, 60, an Okuma resident who heads a local landowners’ group.
Fukushima’s governor agreed to take the waste facility after the central government said it would provide ¥300 billion in subsidies and promised to take the waste out of the prefecture after 30 years.
The mayors of Futaba and Okuma have since agreed to host the 16-sq.-km facility — about five times the size of New York’s Central Park — which will wrap around the nuclear plant and house multiple incinerators.
Some 2,300 residents who own plots of land in Futaba and Okuma needed for the waste plant face what many describe as an impossible choice. The storage site will be built if the government can lease or buy enough land — whatever concerns the last holdouts may have.
In a dozen town hall meetings organized by the Environment Ministry last year, angry landowners confronted junior officials over then-minister Nobuteru Ishihara’s remark that any agreement with landowners simply comes down to money.
Only half of the area’s registered landowners attended the meetings, and there have been no agreements reached between any of the residents and the government.
Distrust of government promises runs deep among residents here. In more than four decades of nuclear power plant operations Japan has yet to set up a permanent storage site for the nuclear fuel piled up at plants like Fukushima.
“I’m sure they’re considering this site as a final storage destination for radioactive trash. I can’t trust them, no one can, about what will happen in 30 years’ time,” said Takashi Sugimoto, 73, an Okuma landowner.
In a law passed in November, Japan Environment Storage and Safety Corp, a taxpayer-backed group with no experience in dealing with nuclear radiation, was put in charge of operating the facility, with a promise to shift the radioactive trash out of Fukushima after 30 years.
“We understand that residents have concerns. But we have made this promise at the highest level,” the Environment Ministry said, adding it would do its utmost to meet that deadline.
The ministry has hired around 140 real estate representatives to negotiate sales with individual owners.
Kimura, who has moved to Nagano Prefecture, knows it’s only a matter of time before they knock on his door. He has vowed not to take their deals.