‘We were driven out’: Fukushima’s radioactive legacy

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In March 2017, the government lifted its evacuation order for the center of Namie.
“This is the worst time, the most painful period.” For the people of Namie and other towns near the Fukushima plant, the pain is sharpened by the way the Japanese government is trying to move beyond the tragedy, to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a symbol of hope and recovery, a sign that life can return to normal after a disaster of this magnitude.
If we give up, we would lose our town, and as mayor, I will work with all my heart to prevent that.” But many residents say the central government is being heavy-handed in its attempts to persuade people to return, failing to support residents’ efforts to build new communities in places like Nihonmatsu, and then ending compensation payments within a year of evacuation orders being lifted.
In other towns around the nuclear plant, people have complained that arbitrarily decided compensation payouts — more for people deemed to have been in radiation-affected zones, far less for tsunami victims, nothing for people just a mile outside the zone most affected — have divided communities and caused resentment and friction.
“This is a place desperate to attract people to return, but this reduces our attractiveness for young people,” said Riken Komatsu in the fishing port of Onahama, who is working to rebuild a sense of community and raise awareness about problems with the reconstruction effort.
The biggest tragedy now is the high rate of suicides.” Kazuhiro Yoshida, the embattled mayor of Namie, said fears about radiation are not the only reason people aren’t returning; many complain the deserted town lacks amenities.
“The scale of the problem is clearly not something the government wants to communicate to the Japanese people, and that’s driving the whole issue of the return of evacuees,” said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace.
It says radiation levels in parts of Namie where evacuation orders have been lifted will remain well above international maximum safety recommendations for many decades, raising the risks of leukemia and other cancers to “unjustifiable levels,” especially for children.
In the rural areas around the town, radiation levels are much higher and could remain unsafe for people beyond the end of this century, Greenpeace concluded in a 2018 report. Greenpeace has been taking thousands of radiation readings for years in the towns around the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“The idea that an industrial accident closes off an area of Japan, with its limited habitable land, for generations and longer — that would just remind the public why they are right to be opposed to nuclear power.”
Four-fifths of Namie’s geographical area is mountain and forest, impossible to decontaminate, still deemed unsafe to return.
When it rains, the radioactive cesium in the mountains flows into rivers and underground water sources close to the town.
Komatsu says reconstruction has been imposed from above, a problem he says reflects, in a broader sense, what Japan is like.
Today, Namie’s former residents are scattered across all but one of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
“For the past eight years, we have seen the destruction of the area, the destruction of the community, and it will be difficult to bring people back,” he said.
With young people moving away, the elderly, who already feel the loss of Namie most acutely, find themselves even more alone.
Now, the damage is more severe because young people are not returning. The elderly who come back feel pessimism and depression.
Six Olympic softball games and a baseball game will be staged in Fukushima, the prefecture’s bustling and radiation-free capital city, and the Olympic torch relay will start from here.

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