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Until four years ago, Tetsuzo Tsuboi was an established shiitake grower in Miyakoji, part of the city of Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, shipping 2 tons of fresh mushrooms and 800 kg of dried ones annually. He also sold oak logs, on which the fungi can be grown, to other farmers.

The March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which spewed radioactive materials across the prefecture and beyond, including around his home and farm some 18 km west of the complex, completely ruined his business. He had to vacate the farm he built from scratch 37 years ago and has been in limbo ever since.

Today, Tsuboi barely scrapes by with compensation payments from Tepco.

“These days, I wake up and read the newspaper, and then go out to tend the trees in the farm — you can always find things to do, like cutting down overhangs,” Tsuboi, 66, said with a tinge of bitterness. “I just want to keep myself busy, you know. It’s better than doing nothing.”

Like Tsuboi, many farmers and business owners who were uprooted from their homes and business bases after 3/11 remain dependent on Tepco’s compensation for their livelihoods, living with anxiety and not knowing how long they will be able to receive the payments, lawyers who support nuclear disaster victims say.

After the evacuation order for Miyakoji residents was lifted last April, Tsuboi, who lives with his wife and his mother, were finally able to return home after spending three years in temporary housing in a nearby town.

But restarting his mushroom-farming business would cost ¥10 million, and even if he got the farm up and running again, he is pessimistic that his mushrooms, even if tended with the greatest care to reduce radiation exposure, would ever be accepted by consumers.

Mushroom grower Tetsuzo Tsuboi of Miyakoji in the city of Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, examines oak logs in late February on which shiitake once grew on his farm. | ATSUSHI KODERA
Mushroom grower Tetsuzo Tsuboi of Miyakoji in the city of Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, examines oak logs in late February on which shiitake once grew on his farm. | ATSUSHI KODERA

As the crisis unfolded, the government designated an area within a 20-km radius from the plant as a no-go zone, and another 30-km area encircling it as a “planned evacuation” zone where people were eventually ordered to leave within a month.

These areas covered the eastern part of Tamura, including Tsuboi’s house and farm, forcing his family to leave.Left without a clear path to resume normal life, Tsuboi and his family have been surviving on the “mental suffering” payments issued by Tepco since last April, about ¥300,000 per month. Before that, he was being compensated under another category that covered lost profits, disposal of produce and the inability to farm. He also receives about ¥670,000 a year in national pension payouts.

“What do they want? Do they want us to relocate or what?” Tsuboi asked. “It wasn’t my fault.”

According to the Fukushima Prefectural Government, 71,755 people had evacuated to other parts of the prefecture as of March 5, while those who left Fukushima came to 47,219 as of Feb. 12, with 50 evacuees’ whereabouts unknown.

Akihiro Konno, a lawyer in the city of Fukushima who is an administrative chief of an attorney group backing evacuees in the city, said he still receives calls from victims who want to know how they can secure compensation from the utility.

“People have submitted various required documents to receive business damages compensation, but it’s been a long time (since the start of the disaster) and Tepco is still requiring people to submit more documentation to validate their damages claims,” he said. “It’s not like Tepco is refusing to pay, but these days people are complaining that it’s taking too long to receive compensation.”

Fraudulent claims have also contributed to Tepco’s stiffer attitude, he said.

Tetsuzo Tsuboi, a mushroom grower in Miyakoji in Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, walks past a dump site for radiation-tainted soil, located right next to his farm, in late February. The site used to be a rice paddy. | ATSUSHI KODERA
Tetsuzo Tsuboi, a mushroom grower in Miyakoji in Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, walks past a dump site for radiation-tainted soil, located right next to his farm, in late February. The site used to be a rice paddy. | ATSUSHI KODERA

While radiation leaks from the Fukushima plant have not killed anyone directly, they have severely affected mass numbers of people in countless occupations and locations, both financially and psychologically.

People were forced to abandon their homes, surroundings, communities, businesses and livelihoods. Plus, as it takes years for radiation levels to fall, many must live in temporary locations for a long time.

As of March 6, Tepco had accepted applications for 2.3 million claims from individuals and corporations over losses incurred from the Fukushima disaster, and paid ¥4.7 trillion in compensation. The amount is far beyond the utility’s ability to pay. Tepco’s net profit for the year ending in March 2010, the fiscal year prior to the disaster, was ¥133.8 billion.

To expedite payments, the government loans compensation money to the utility through the state-funded Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommission Facilitation Corp.

Tepco, for its part, has set up an office for accepting and screening applications and uses it to distribute the money.

Claimants can apply for redress under 10 categories, including damages related to product shipment limits or harm to the reputation of their business, lost or reduced property value, and mental suffering.

Since people rely heavily on redress through this scheme, any signs the utility might terminate any of the compensation categories can stoke anxiety.

In a meeting with officials of the Fukushima Federation of Societies of Commerce and Industry, a prefectural federation of local commercial and industrial associations, in Koriyama last December, Tepco and government officials presented a draft plan suggesting the utility would seek to terminate the part covering business-related damage next February.

Participants of the local business lobby protested on the spot, and although the meeting was conducted behind closed doors, the news immediately spread. After barraged with protests, Tepco announced this month that it will shelve its decision on when to terminate the payouts.

“The end of the evacuation and completion of radiation cleanup within the 20-km radius from the nuclear plant are not in sight yet, and yet they suggested terminating the compensation scheme,” fumed Hideki Endo, a federation official.

Akihiro Konno, a member of an attorney group supporting evacuees from the Fukushima meltdowns, says the group's work will set the standard for compensation payments for future nuclear disasters. | ATSUSHI KODERA
Akihiro Konno, a member of an attorney group supporting evacuees from the Fukushima meltdowns, says the group’s work will set the standard for compensation payments for future nuclear disasters. | ATSUSHI KODERA

Endo said only 1,319, or about half, of the 2,544 businesses belonging to commercial and industrial associations in the hot zone, have restarted. The remainder have yet to draw up plans to resume business.

Some people unhappy with the utility’s compensation framework have turned to a separate scheme called alternative dispute resolution, in which a government-initiated body mediates to establish an out-of-court settlement.

Reflecting frustration with Tepco’s scheme, filings for ADR mediation have jumped, especially due to an surge in group applications by evacuees.

The ADR scheme was launched in September 2011 and had drawn 521 applications by December 2011. But in 2014, ADR applications stood at 5,217, versus 4,091 in 2013.

The number of ADR applications filed in total stood at 15,208 as of March 6, with 10,335, or 68 percent, settled.

Knowing that the anxiety over when Tepco might terminate its compensation scheme has driven victims to take the ADR route, Konno expressed reservations about the surge in filings. “If Tepco terminates any type of compensation being offered now, people will lose a source of income, and will turn even more to ADR. But the number of filings could become very large,” he said.

A flood of filings could mean long waits for resolution and delayed payments, he said.

“That would mean people who are scraping by on compensation money may remain unable to reconstruct their lives, restart their businesses, return to their original locations of business or start a new business in a new location. It would be a vicious circle,” Konno said.

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