Fukushima voter discontent

Incumbents have suffered one defeat after another in city mayoral elections in Fukushima Prefecture — where more than 140,000 residents remain evacuees some two years and nine months after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The losing streak that happened this year in the cities of Koriyama, Iwaki, Fukushima and Nihonmatsu reflects local voters’ frustration over the lagging decontamination of local communities from the radioactive fallout from the March 2011 nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s crippled plant continues to leak radiation-contaminated water into the environment.

The Abe administration should heed the message voters delivered in the mayoral elections: Local residents are unhappy with the slow pace of reconstruction from the disasters and want the government to make greater efforts.

In the Nov. 18 city election for Fukushima, the prefecture’s capital, the Liberal Democratic Party-backed incumbent Takanori Seto failed in his bid for a fourth term as he gained less than half the votes of independent winner Kaoru Kobayashi. Mayor Keiichi Miho of Nihonmatsu, who won the election four years ago uncontested, saw his third-term bid crushed in the Nov. 24 poll.

Such outcomes in Fukushima Prefecture are in sharp contrast with poll results in other prefectures hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami. Many incumbents have survived the elections held over the past two years. For example, Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai comfortably won a third term in October.

The difference is of course the impact from the nuclear disaster. Tens of thousands of people in Fukushima Prefecture are forced to live away from their hometowns due to the radioactive fallout. Decontamination work is lagging as it often proves difficult to find sites to store contaminated soil.

According to local media reports, roughly 6,000 people in the city of Fukushima — or nearly 2 percent of the city’s population — have moved to Niigata and Akita prefectures out of fear of radiation. Many of these evacuees are young couples with small children — who are most vulnerable to the detrimental side effects of radiation exposure — and they view radiation readings in their hometowns as a key gauge for determining whether they can return.

There is no telling when life will return to municipalities closer to the nuclear power plant. In the town of Hirono — located 20 to 30 km from the Fukushima No. 1 plant — only a quarter of its roughly 5,200 population has returned even after its designation as “evacuation prepared area” was lifted in September 2011. The town’s incumbent mayor was also defeated in a Nov. 24 election.

Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated that the government would consider using taxpayer money to fund decontamination work in Fukushima Prefecture — a change from the earlier position that Tepco would cover all such costs.

The Abe administration says the government will take charge of cleaning up the mess from the nuclear disaster, including the problem of contaminated water leaking daily from the crippled plant. It needs to take Fukushima voters’ discontent seriously and take action — not just offer empty promises.