Creator slams removal of pro-nuclear signs from Fukushima ghost town



A few months before the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear crisis, a town near the plant began removing two signs that unintentionally became ironic reminders of how Japan once blindly worshipped atomic power.

A slogan above a street in Futaba town center since 1988 read “Nuclear power: the energy for a bright future.” The town is now radioactive and empty, with all of its residents evacuated.

The signs are historic, but the municipality does not like them. It called them “decrepit” and decided to dismantle them because parts might fall.

Evacuee and father-of-two Yuji Onuma regrets this. He wrote one of the slogans: It was a school homework task, and his entry won a competition. He warns the move could be perceived as an attempt to “cover up” a shameful past.

“The signs should have been kept at the original places to continue reminding people, especially the younger generation, about what the town has gone through. . . . If things are removed just because it does not suit reality, we could repeat the same mistakes,” said the 39-year-old Onuma. He was speaking in Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture, where he has lived since May 2014.

Onuma wrote the slogan in 1987 as part of his sixth-grade school homework. To his surprise, it won an award in a contest and was used for one of the two pro-nuclear banners set up in the town.

The contest was held to encourage local support for nuclear power, the town said. Futaba was already a co-host of the six-reactor Fukushima No. 1 plant by that time, and there had been calls inside the town to bring in more units — along with the hefty subsidies offered for doing so.

Onuma said even as a child he was aware of the risks of nuclear accidents. The 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe was still a fresh memory and that European ordeal fueled fears of radiation in Japan.

But at the same time he had relatives working at the Fukushima No. 1 complex and knew that local inns and shopping areas were flourishing as clients such as staffers of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. came and went. “There was an atmosphere of not speaking critically of nuclear power when someone next to you could be in a related job. It was a small town, with a population of about 8,000,” Onuma said.

At one point he left Futaba, but returned in 2005 at the age of 29. While working for a real-estate company, he built two apartments — one just next to the signboard bearing his slogan — and rented them mainly to Tepco employees to earn additional income.

The 16-meter-long sign was a source of pride. He recalls showing it to his wife, Serina, 40, and her parents when they toured the town on the day of their engagement ceremony in 2010.

“I told them about the sign, which showed how people in the town lived side by side with the nuclear plant,” he said. He also told them he believed his financial future was secure with Tepco and his apartment rentals business.

But his life plan was ruined by one of the world’s worst nuclear crises, triggered by the huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. He and his wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, fled their home. It was about 4 km from the complex.

Even in the midst of the confusion, Onuma was reminded repeatedly of the sign because television and other media used it as a symbol of the town.

He felt embarrassed: “The accident changed my way of thinking completely,” Onuma said, adding he thought that, in the end, nuclear power had brought a “doomed” future rather than a “bright” one.

Regretting his earlier support for atomic power and in a gesture toward pulling the plug on it, Onuma began using solar power at his home in Ibaraki. He even turned it into a business by purchasing cheap land and installing over 1,000 solar panels with the help of a loan.

Onuma has also taken on the de facto role of guardian of Futaba’s nuclear promotion signs after he noticed last March that they were on the verge of being dumped by the town. The municipality earmarked ¥4.1 million in the fiscal 2015 budget for their removal.

Onuma organized a petition, collecting 6,502 signatures calling for this negative legacy to be preserved in the town. In response, Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa maintained that the signs would be taken down but promised to “carefully preserve” them and “put them on display” again when the town recovers from the crisis.

A town official said a planned disaster memorial park may be one possible location, although nothing has been decided yet.

Seeing his slogan being removed from the sign in December, Onuma was disappointed that long-familiar scenery was changing before his eyes.

While the radiation cleanup is making progress in some parts of the town, Onuma admitted there is still no clear prospect of returning.

“Buildings don’t seem to have changed much in appearance, but I’m not sure whether people can live there without worries even after the decontamination is finished,” he said.

  • Roy Warner

    “Japan once blindly worshipped atomic power.” It is deceitful to state this in the past tense. While the public now opposes nuclear power, the bureaucracy and LDP remain financially in its thrall.

  • TimS

    It is necessary an involving environmental campaign to get Japanese people brainwashed, as in German, so that they will blindly support ecologically friendly bird choppers covering large natural areas, backed by fossil fuels to compensate intermittency as they phase out the carbon-free nuclear power which has killed nobody in Fukushima.

    • 151E

      Your bird choppers are estimated (at the upper end) to kill up to 600,000 birds per annum in the US. So I suppose you’re also a vocal opponent of glass windows, being estimated (again at the upper end) to be responsible for 988 million bird deaths per annum in the US. Which is to say nothing of domestic cats!

      • TimS

        Domestic cats do not kill eagles and other endangered species in midair as wind/solar does.

      • 151E

        Conventional solar panels don’t kill birds (as far as I’m aware), but you are correct that there are issues (which can be mitigated) with the design and location of concentrated solar power stations. And while it’s also true that the Fukushima meltdown may not have resulted in any fatalities, it’s certainly been a disruptive, costly mess that has displaced tens of thousands of people.

        Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best intentions, we have no ideal power source for our modern energy intensive society. Nuclear is certainly carbon free (and so an attractive option in helping to mitigate global warming) and it can be relatively safe depending on design and location. But nuclear power is no panacea. There is still no safe method for long term disposal of spent nuclear fuel. What’s more, even if we disregard all storage and operational safety concerns and all concern over nuclear weapons proliferation, given the limited capacity for nuclear reprocessing, at current global rates of use, the Australian Uranium Association estimates we have only enough economically recoverable uranium to last another 70 years.

        So until we develop commercially viable nuclear fusion then, I suspect we’ll need to continue to rely on a mix of technologies – each with their own benefits but none of them completely benign.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        The problem with Nuclear is that to fund cheap profits it borrows from society – the cost of insurance – and borrows from the future – the cost of waste management. Those problem could be mitigated by (1) increasing the safety margins and paying insurance premiums high enough that international insurance agencies would be willing to insure, and (2) processing and storing the waste as it produced.

        But then nuclear would probably have to give up the mantra of “cheapest power”.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    The are increases in early deaths from stress, sickness, and suicide from those who lose their livelihoods and social networks.

    • TimS

      Thanks to fear-mongers.
      The fear-mongers induce abortions, anxieties/heart-attacks, suicides, provoking millions of deaths among misinformed civilians by spreading misleading information. Fear-mongers and sensationalist mass media induce massive deaths, not the radioactivity.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        All an information conspiracy? The irony of what TEPCO management didn’t (even want to) know as they, from the safety of Tokyo, gave plant manager Yoshida Masao, at ground zero, the order to turn off the seawater cooling for #1 was that #1’s core was already melting. It wasn’t until two months later that TEPCO management learned of Yoshida’s insubordination of ignoring the command and keeping the cooling seawater going at #1. Yoshida Masao received an official reprimand for that, a black mark on his career record. Yes, a reprimand for having prevented worse damage, possibly much much worse damage, which would have been the result of turning off the seawater in penny-wise pound-foolish attempt to save the reactor from being rendered unusable by the corrosive seawater which would have corroded its plumbing.