Yoshihisa Kanagawa, a senior member of the Higashishirakawa forestry cooperative in Fukushima Prefecture, visits a forest in the area.

Feb 21, 2022

Almost 11 years since the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant meltdown, the forestry industry in Fukushima Prefecture is still suffering serious difficulties, with mountains and forests once contaminated by radioactive fallout left untouched.

In addition to declining demand for lumber, lingering worries over the effect of the radiation from the plant hit by the March 2011 quake and tsunami have seen the local forestry industry face acute labor shortages.

Yoshihisa Kanagawa, 65, of the forestry cooperative in the county of Higashishirakawa, still remembers a comment made by a local resident a few years ago.

“Don’t drop anything with radiation,” the resident told him, pointing to bark that had fallen to the ground from a truck loaded with logs Kanagawa was transporting from nearby mountains.

Kanagawa said he felt the deep-rooted mistrust among residents about the effect of the nuclear disaster. “(I was shocked to know) some people were still thinking that way,” he recalled.

Airborne radiation levels in the prefecture’s forests rose immediately after the nuclear disaster at the Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. plant but have declined over time. The average radiation level at 362 sites in the prefecture was 0.18 microsieverts per hour in the year beginning April 2020, down by 80% from the level in the year through March 2012, according to a prefectural survey.

Under the prefecture’s standards, trees can be felled and transported from a forest if the radiation level in the air at the felling site is at 0.50 microsieverts or less per hour.

The bark that fell from Kanagawa’s truck was from logs in forests with radiation levels within prefectural limits.

There was a time when reducing the exposure of forestry workers to radiation was cited as an issue in the local forestry industry.

“Although few people talk about it, some people are (still) concerned about (any potential health effect of) the radiation,” he said. “It would be a shame if this has had something to do with the drop in forestry workers.”

Manahata Ringyo, a forestry firm based in the town of Hanawa, mainly deals with state-owned forests in the area. The town was the biggest lumber producer in the prefecture in 2018.

While more than 90% of the company’s sales are to businesses in the prefecture, the company attaches the results of radiation tests on waste from the logs when dealing with customers outside of the prefecture, as such tests are requested by some of them.

The practice continues even now, after almost 11 years.

The reasons behind the labor shortage in the forestry industry are said to be the hard nature of the work and a decline in demand for lumber.

Masato Kikuchi, 61, president of Manahata Ringyo, believes that the nuclear accident may have exacerbated the situation. “I want (the central government) to do more to secure human resources for the forestry industry in Fukushima Prefecture,” he said.

The number of people newly employed in the forestry industry in the prefecture has decreased by two-thirds in the 10 years since the Fukushima No. 1 disaster. The number of new workers was 242 in 2010, but it began to decline in 2011 and dropped to 78 in 2020, or only 32.2% of the number a decade earlier.

Alarmed by the situation, the prefecture will open a new training facility inside the prefecture’s Forestry Research Center in Koriyama in April to train people in field work and forest management.

The training facility, Forestry Academy Fukushima, will offer a long-term training course of one year for high school graduates who wish to work in the forestry industry and short-term training for municipal employees and forestry workers.

In the one-year program, trainees will cover forestry-related knowledge and skills, as well as acquire practical skills at a training field in a mountain forest. The facility will be equipped with a simulation room for forestry machines, in addition to classrooms and a building for practical training.

Fifteen applicants who have been accepted into the program will begin their one-year training in April.

At the end of the training period, the prefecture will encourage the trainees to find employment at forestry cooperatives and other forestry-related businesses in Fukushima.

“We will try to develop human resources who will be engaged in the forestry industry over the long term,” an official from the forestry promotion division of the prefecture said.