The Abe administration has decided to use taxpayer money for decontaminating areas in Fukushima Prefecture off-limits to people due to fallout of radioactive substances from the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant. The decision, which deviates from the current policy that Tepco should pay for the decontamination efforts, reflects a proposal put forward in August by the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito but never discussed by the government’s council of experts or in the Diet.
The government may want to justify the move as an effort to help accelerate evacuees’ return to their hometown communities. Still, it will be difficult for the administration to evade criticism that the measure is nothing but a taxpayer-funded bailout for Tepco, which is responsible for the nuclear fallout that affected so many people in Fukushima.
By proceeding with the decontamination work, the administration hopes to lift evacuation orders in some of the no-go areas in about five years. It is hoped these areas will serve as bases for activities to promote reconstruction from the nuclear disaster. As the first step, the government plans to set aside ¥30 billion in the fiscal 2017 budget. So far, no full-scale cleanup work has been carried out inside these zones, which straddle seven municipalities around the Tepco plant.
The government’s position is that it is safe for evacuees to return to their communities if the annual cumulative dose there is 20 millisieverts (mSv) or less, although the legal limit allowed for people in normal circumstances is 1 mSv. The millisievert is a measure of the absorption of radiation by the human body. In no-go zones, the annual dose tops 50 mSv and is not expected to fall below 20 mSv in the next five years.
Faithful to the standard polluter pays principle, which was also applied to the Minamata mercury poisoning disaster in the 1950s and ’60s, the special law to cope with the damage from the Fukushima disaster stipulates that Tepco should shoulder the cleanup cost, and when decontamination work is paid for by taxpayer money, the utility must later reimburse the government. Now the government plans to revise the special law on decontamination and other legislation so it can pay for the planned decontamination work in Fukushima. To counter possible criticism that the scheme is intended merely to help Tepco, the government argues that the planned work aims to improve public infrastructure in the no-go zones so evacuees can return. However, the work will include scraping off top soil and cutting down trees, making it no different than decontamination efforts in other areas.
To justify the use of taxpayer money, the government also says that Tepco has paid compensation to evacuees from the no-go zones on the assumption that they would not be able to return to their homes over an extended period. Thus, in a revised guideline for the reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture, the government says it will pay for the planned decontamination without asking for reimbursement from Tepco.
Behind the government’s decision for the use of taxpayer money is the mushrooming expense of decontamination, with the latest estimate rising from the original ¥2.5 trillion to ¥4 trillion, which does not include the cost of cleaning up the no-go areas. The government expects the planned work in those areas to cost roughly ¥300 billion over five years, but the price tag could rise if the work becomes protracted. And the burden on taxpayers may further increase if the scope of government-paid decontamination in those areas is expanded.
In a related move, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has come up with an idea to pass part of the cost of Tepco’s compensation for Fukushima disaster victims on to consumers in the form of higher electricity bills, as the total estimated cost for decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 plant, compensation and decontamination has swollen from the original ¥11 trillion to ¥21.5 trillion. These moves not only increase people’s financial burden but also blur the power company’s responsibility for the devastation it caused. The government may say the measures are necessary to help promote reconstruction in Fukushima. But they could distract public attention from the principle that it is Tepco which must pay for the decommissioning of its reactors, compensation for the victims and cleanup of the contaminated areas.