A Buddhist priest prays on a beach in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, in March 2017. The area was hit hard by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.
There are fewer and fewer headlines these days about the catastrophe resulting from the triple core meltdown in March 2011 at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But participants at a recent symposium stressed that the disaster’s lingering effects continue to weigh heavily on people and municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture.
“In the post-disaster reconstruction, Miyagi Prefecture had to start from zero,” said former Fukushima University President Toshio Konno, who is from Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, and lost five relatives in the town when it was hit by tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. “But Fukushima Prefecture had to start from a negative point because of the additional impact of the nuclear calamity. It is really hard for Fukushima to reach the zero point.”
During the symposium at Tokyo’s Waseda University on Saturday, Konno — who served on a Fukushima Prefectural Government committee tasked with judging whether deaths in the years following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami were disaster-related — said that as of Sept. 30 last year, there were 3,647 such cases in Japan, of which Fukushima Prefecture accounted for 60 percent.
What’s more, Fukushima is the only prefecture among the three disaster-hit Tohoku prefectures that still sees people die from related causes. Since March 2016, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which were also hit by the quake and tsunami, have suffered no disaster-related deaths, while Fukushima has seen 50, Konno said.
He also said that the number of disaster-related suicides in Fukushima has grown over time compared with Iwate and Miyagi. Fukushima saw 10 such suicides in 2011, 13 in 2012, 23 in 2013, 15 in 2014 and 19 in 2015. Corresponding figures in Iwate and Miyagi, respectively, are 17 and 22 in 2011, eight and three in 2012, four and 10 in 2013, three and four in 2014 and three and one in 2015.
Takao Suami, a Waseda professor heading the university’s efforts to provide legal support for the reconstruction, said the government’s Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation was fairly helpful in addressing compensation issues until around the spring of 2014. But Suami said cases have emerged recently in which the utility, now known as Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., refuses to accept reconciliation proposals put forward by the committee.
Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer working with some 3,000 residents of the village of Iitate on the compensation dispute resolution process, said that even though residents suffered exceedingly high levels of external radiation exposure immediately after the meltdowns — measuring 7 millisieverts on average — due to a delayed evacuation order, the committee proposed in December that only people whose exposure was 9 millisieverts or higher should be entitled to compensation, a threshold which covers just 200 people. (Nuclear power stations are legally required to limit the yearly radiation exposure for residents living nearby to 1 millisievert or less.)
Michitaro Urakawa, a professor emeritus of law at Waseda who says he supports the restart of nuclear plants, said the compensation system for victims of the nuclear disaster has a fundamental flaw. Tepco, he said, is benefitting from the injection of funds for compensation from the central government, while consumers — including low-income people in Fukushima Prefecture who did not have assets worth compensation — are helping the utility return the injected money to the government in the form of increased electricity bills.
Kaido and other lawyers called for reconstruction policies that truly meet the needs of Fukushima people, because compensation cannot cover damage that does not have a monetary value, such as the loss of communities, friendship, business ties and fears about the future, including the threat of health problems due to radiation exposure.
Another problem highlighted at the symposium was the unhealthy financial state of disaster-hit municipalities in Fukushima. Waseda professor Yoshihiro Katayama, a former Tottori governor who was internal affairs minister for the Democratic Party of Japan administration at the time of the meltdowns, said the municipalities will end up with excess personnel, creating a financial burden over the long term.
Disaster-hit municipalities in the prefecture are already facing financial strain. The town of Namie — roughly half of whose area lies within 20 km of the nuclear plant — saw its revenue grow from ¥9.48 billion in 2010 to ¥20 billion in 2016. But the portion of the funds from the central and prefectural governments increased to 87.2 percent from 68.6 percent, reducing the percentage of internal revenue to 12.8 percent from 31.4 percent.
Further, if the municipalities decide to end contracts commissioning administrative services to private firms, the local economy will suffer, Katayama said. He also expressed fear that the municipalities may have lost the know-how to assess the value of real estate, the basis of real estate taxes, an important revenue source.
Katayama also said the aging population will lead to a deep and serious problem in disaster-hit areas because many young people who evacuated will not return, causing such problems as difficulty maintaining the public health insurance system as well as city water and sewage systems. There will also be a shortage of nursing care workers and schools will be forced to close, he warned.
“Although the revenue of disaster-hit municipalities enormously expanded, the time will come when their administrative services have to shrink,” Katayama said. “Currently, the central government is taking special measures. But both the central government and the municipalities concerned must think about how to achieve a soft landing.”