Chernobyl charity chief encourages residents


The Irish head of a charity for children affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster visited Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, on the one-year anniversary Sunday of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima crisis.

Adi Roche, chief executive officer of the Cork, Ireland-based Chernobyl Children International charity group, met with Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai and delivered a message from Irish President Michael Higgins expressing solidarity with residents of the city, the southern part of which is in the no-go zone.

During her meeting with the mayor, Roche extended “heartfelt condolences” on behalf of the Irish people and victims of the Chernobyl disaster, adding that Sakurai’s “own courage and bravery” in seeking aid immediately after the disaster was admirable.

Sakurai had posted a direct appeal for aid on YouTube criticizing the government’s response to the nuclear accident. The disasters killed or left missing 638 residents of the city, which had a predisaster population of 71,500.

Roche presented a letter from the Irish president and a “shawl for prayer” by those impacted by the Chernobyl disaster as a gift to the mayor.

Sakurai told Roche that, compared with his feelings in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, he feels “rather optimistic” about Minamisoma’s situation.

Sakurai added that transparency about Fukushima was being ensured via the media. The Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine, was downplayed by the government there.

“What we are concerned about now is that people receive too much information on possible health hazards from radiation and get confused,” Sakurai said.

The mayor said that in addition to the 638 victims of the quake and tsunami, about 270 people, including those forced to evacuate after the Fukushima accident, died in the city after their lives were greatly affected by the disaster.

“Reconstructing the hearts of people by regaining confidence and hope for them is more difficult than the reconstruction of physical damage,” Sakurai said.

Referring to a rash of suicides after the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, the mayor said it is “almost criminal” for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., to destroy the future of residents near the Fukushima complex. Sakurai vowed to seek the company’s criminal prosecution to prevent a repeat of Tepco’s alleged mishandling of the accident.

At a memorial ceremony held in the city later Sunday that was attended by about 960 people, Sakurai pledged to rebuild Minamisoma so that “every citizen can live free from fear of radiation.”

The mayor of the city captured attention nationwide and abroad in April 2011 when Time magazine put him on its list of the year’s 100 most influential people in the world.

At the ceremony, Chohachi Kanno, 60, and Tsubasa Yokoyama, 17, talked about the plight of bereaved families and rebuilding the city, but were divided over restarting their lives in Minamisoma.

Kanno, who lives alone in temporary housing in Minamisoma after losing his wife, mother and two children in the disaster, said he sometimes can’t sleep at night and is worried that he could die alone.

“I don’t want to leave Minamisoma at this age. If possible, I’d like to relocate to somewhere in the city with my neighbors and do something to contribute to the city’s reconstruction,” Kanno said.