21st January 2020
Irresponsible tactics are being used to bury social and environmental problems associated with the Fukushima nuclear disaster as Olympics approach in Japan.
Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe assured the International Olympic Committee in 2013 that “the situation is under control” in and around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.
Now, with the 2020 Summer Olympics approaching, and some events scheduled to be held in Fukushima prefecture, all sorts of irresponsible and cruel tactics are being used to bury a myriad of social and environmental problems associated with the nuclear disaster.
Most evacuation orders have been lifted around the Fukushima plant, but 337‒371 sq kms remain classified as restricted entry zones or ‘difficult to return’ zones. There are hopes that all remaining evacuation orders could be lifted within a few years.
Lifting an evacuation order is one thing, returning the area to something resembling normality is quite another. Only 23 percent of those living in nine areas that were declared off-limits after the Fukushima disaster had returned as of March 2019, according to government figures.
Most people aged under 50 who used to live in the towns of Futaba, Namie and Tomioka have no plans to return, an official survey found in early 2019.
The partial lifting of evacuation orders in the town of Okuma in April 2019 illustrates how the rhetoric of progress masks inconvenient truths. Even after the lifting of the order, about 60 percent of the town’s land area ‒ covering 96.5 percent of the pre-Fukushima population ‒ remains off-limits.
About 17 million cubic metres of contaminated waste material has accumulated during decontamination work according to the Japanese ministry of the environment. A new occupant in Okuma is a ‘temporary storage facility‘ for some of the contaminated waste.
Decontamination work (outside of the Fukushima nuclear plant) has cost an estimated ¥2.9 trillion (US $26.5 billion). A report by the European Geosciences Union, based on approximately 60 scientific publications, gives this assessment of decontamination efforts.
“This synthesis indicates that removing the surface layer of the soil to a thickness of 5 cm, the main method used by the Japanese authorities to clean up cultivated land, has reduced cesium concentrations by about 80 percent in treated areas. Nevertheless, the removal of the uppermost part of the topsoil, which has proved effective in treating cultivated land, has cost the Japanese state about €24 billion.
“This technique generates a significant amount of waste, which is difficult to treat, to transport and to store for several decades in the vicinity of the power plant, a step that is necessary before it is shipped to final disposal sites located outside Fukushima prefecture by 2050. By early 2019, Fukushima’s decontamination efforts had generated about 20 million cubic metres of waste.
“Decontamination activities have mainly targeted agricultural landscapes and residential areas. The review points out that the forests have not been cleaned up ‒ because of the difficulty and very high costs that these operations would represent ‒ as they cover 75 percent of the surface area located within the radioactive fallout zone.
“These forests constitute a potential long-term reservoir of radiocesium, which can be redistributed across landscapes as a result of soil erosion, landslides and floods, particularly during typhoons that can affect the region between July and October.”
Greenpeace coordinated a study in the exclusion zone and lifted evacuation areas of Namie and Iitate and published the results in March 2019. The study found high levels of radiation ‒ ranging from five to over 100 times higher than the internationally recommended maximum of 1 mSv/yr ‒ in both exclusion zones and in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted.
The Greenpeace report documents the extent of the government’s violation of international human rights conventions and guidelines, in particular for decontamination of workers and children (who are more vulnerable to radiation-related diseases than adults).
Associate Professor Tilman Ruff, an Australian public health expert and co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons gives a sense of the scale of the risk.
He states: “To provide a perspective on these risks, for a child born in Fukushima in 2011 who was exposed to a total of 100 mSv of additional radiation in its first five years of life, a level tolerated by current Japanese policy, the additional lifetime risk of cancer would be on the order of one in thirty, probably with a similar additional risk of premature cardiovascular death.”
Moreover, there is evidence of sinister behaviour to give artificially low indications of radiation levels, for example by placing monitoring posts in areas of low radiation and cleaning their surrounds to further lower the readings.
Maxime Polleri, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at York University, wrote in The Diplomat: “In the end, state-sponsored monitoring and decontamination are remedial measures that manage the perception of radiation in the environment.
“However, this does not imply that radioactive contamination is gone – not at all. When we look at the official maps of radiation of northeastern Japan, levels are low, but there are many ways to make them appear low.”
Ryohei Kataoka from the Tokyo-based Citizens Nuclear Information Centre said: “The government’s insistence in lifting evacuation orders where heightened radiation-related health risks undeniably exist, is a campaign to show that Fukushima is ‘back to normal’ and to try to make Japan and the world forget the accident ever happened.”
The Japanese government is promoting next years’ Olympic Games as the “Reconstruction Olympics”. Hence the haste to lift evacuation orders and to skirt around the truth of residual contamination from radioactive Fukushima fallout and the health risks associated with that fallout.
Approximately 165,000 people were forced to evacuate because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, in addition to an estimated 26,600 ‘voluntary evacuees’.
More than 30,000 of the involuntary evacuees are still unable to return. Those now in permanent accommodation have returned to their former homes (either willingly or because they had no choice), or resettled elsewhere, and some have purchased their previously temporary accommodation.
The number of evacuees has been artificially deflated. For example, the Japanese government’s Reconstruction Agency sent a notice to prefectures in August 2014 stating that only those people who moved to different places because of the nuclear disaster and have the “will” to return to their original homes will be counted as evacuees.
The notice said that if it is difficult to determine people’s will to return, they should not be counted as evacuees. Those who have purchased a home outside their pre-disaster locale, and those in public restoration housing or disaster public housing, are no longer counted as evacuees even if they want to return to their previous homes but can’t for various reasons.
An April 2019 Asahi Shimbun editorial said that the number of people who regard themselves as evacuees is believed to be far higher than the official figure of 40,000 ‒ but nobody knows the true figure.
Akira Imai, chief researcher of the Japan Research Institute for Local Government, told Asahi Shimbun: “This is an act to socially hide the real number of evacuees, which could lead to a cover-up of the seriousness of the incident. The evacuee number is an index that is used to consider measures to support evacuees. The current situation should be reflected properly in the numbers.”
The typical experience of Fukushima evacuees has been a collapse of social networks, reduced income and reduced employment opportunities, endless uncertainty, and physical and mental ill-health.
A growing number of evacuees face further trauma arising from the end of housing subsidies, forcing them out of temporary accommodation and in some cases forcing them back to their original homes against their will.
Around 16,000 people who refuse to return to their original homes had been financially abandoned as of January 2019, according to the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.
In addition to fiddling with the numbers to artificially deflate the number of evacuees, an increasingly hostile attitude is being adopted towards evacuees to pressure them to leave temporary accommodation and thereby to reduce the evacuee count. The reduction and cessation of housing subsidies is the main component of this problem.
Some years ago, the support structure was modest at best, and many evacuees fell through the cracks. Now, evacuees are being forced through the cracks to reduce expenditure and to create a sense of normality ahead of the ‘Reconstruction Olympics’.
The human impact of government policies ‒ national and prefectural governments ‒ are detailed by Seto Daisaku from the Evacuation Cooperation Center. Some evacuees face a doubling of rental payments, some have been deemed “illegal occupants“, some face legal action to have them evicted.
National and local governments promote these policies as necessary to foster independence among evacuees, but as Seto Daisaku notes, “since their income in the places they have evacuated to has dropped precipitously, far from becoming independent they will fall deeper into poverty.”
The April 2019 Asahi Shimbun editorial noted: “After years of living away from home, many evacuees are also struggling with problems such as reduced incomes, the difficulties of finding jobs, deteriorating health and isolation.
“Some are suffering from poverty, anxiety about losing their housing due to the termination of public financial support and physical and mental illness. … The government’s response to the problem has been grossly insufficient.”
In an October 2018 report, United Nations Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak urged the Japanese government to halt the ongoing relocation of evacuees who are children and women of reproductive age to areas of Fukushima where radiation levels remain higher than what was considered safe or healthy before the nuclear disaster in 2011.
Tuncak said the Japanese government’s decision to raise by 20 times what it considered to be an acceptable level of radiation exposure was deeply troubling, highlighting in particular the potential impact on the health and wellbeing of children.
Tuncak said: “It is disappointing to see Japan appear to all but ignore the 2017 recommendation of the UN human rights monitoring mechanism (UPR) to return back to what it considered an acceptable dose of radiation before the nuclear disaster.”
TEPCO is also worsening the evacuees’ plight. Yamaguchi Yukio, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, wrote in March 2019: “Although the fathomless suffering of the people affected by the accident cannot be atoned for by money, TEPCO has shown no intention of taking any responsibility for the consequences of the accident.
“In the incidents surrounding the petitions by Namie Town, Iitate Village and others to alternative dispute resolution (ADR), TEPCO has refused to agree to the compensation amounts, and rejected the mediated settlement proposal.
“The outlook for resolution of the compensation problem is bleak. This is in complete violation of the three pledges proclaimed by TEPCO: 1) Carry through compensation to the very last person, 2) Carry through rapid and detailed compensation, and 3) Respect mediated settlement proposals.”