Reconstruction continues to be hampered in areas of Fukushima Prefecture affected by the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant four years ago. Nearly 120,000 residents of Fukushima remain displaced within and outside the prefecture — compared with 135,000 a year ago. In some of the municipalities around the plant once rendered off-limits by the radiation fallout, the return of local residents reportedly has proceeded slowly even after evacuation advisories were lifted over the past year.
Tepco continues to struggle in its attempt to clean up the mess at the No. 1 plant. Managing the massive flow of radiation-contaminated underground water remains a huge challenge, and the work to decommission the crippled plant — estimated to take decades to complete — is still in its initial stage. Huge volumes of radioactive soil and other waste collected during the decontamination of areas hit by the fallout are still kept in flexible containers and piled up in hundreds of temporary repositories or even in housing premises across the prefecture, waiting to be shipped to a giant storage facility to be built around the No. 1 plant.
Having reversed the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led government’s policy of phasing out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, the Abe administration is now pushing to reactivate nuclear reactors idled since the 2011 disaster once they have cleared the safety screening of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly pledges to reduce the nation’s energy dependency on nuclear power as much as possible through energy-saving efforts and the introduction of more renewable energy, his administration contemplates measures to help maintain nuclear power even in the upcoming wave of power retail deregulation.
The administration needs to look at what’s happening in Fukushima and weigh the real cost of nuclear power —not only the economic cost but also the impact on people’s lives in the event of severe accidents.
In April last year, a district in Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, became the first area inside of the former exclusion zone within 20 km of the Tepco plant to see evacuation advisories for residents lifted since the 2011 disaster. Such advisories were also lifted for parts of Kawauchi and Minamisoma in October and December, respectively. While those steps removed administrative hurdles for townspeople to once again take up residence in their communities, the return of former residents is said to be proceeding slowly.
The town of Naraha — much of which also lies within the 20 km zone — is seeking to enable the return of its roughly 7,400 residents sometime after this spring. Last month, the municipal office moved some of its functions — temporarily transferred to the city of Iwaki when local residents were forced to evacuate after the 2011 disaster — back to the town. The government’s decontamination of houses and roads were finished a year ago and electricity and water supplies are nearly restored. In a survey carried out by the town and the Reconstruction Agency last fall, about 45 percent of the residents indicated that they want to return. But many of the younger people said they have no plan to go back, some of them citing radiation fears.
The same survey showed that a growing proportion of the evacuated former residents in the towns of Futaba and Okuma — the host municipalities of the Tepco plant — have given up returning to their hometowns and decided to resettle elsewhere. Much of Futaba and Okuma are designated as areas where residency will remain difficult for many years due to high levels of radiation. Last month the two towns gave the go-ahead for a trial shipment of decontamination waste — a fraction of the estimated total 22 million cubic meters in volume — into a planned facility where it would be stored for 30 years. But it remains uncertain when the facility will be completed and ready to begin full operations as negotiations between the government and roughly 2,400 local landowners for the purchase of their land are proceeding slowly.
Four years on, there’s still a long road ahead before life in the affected areas of Fukushima Prefecture can return to normalcy.