The startling effects of the passage of time come into sharp focus in aerial images taken of Fukushima’s “difficult-to-return zones” in the seventh summer since the March 2011 nuclear disaster.
The bird’s-eye view pictures were captured in abandoned areas near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Okuma and Futaba in Fukushima Prefecture.
The disaster unfolded after the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake spawned a tsunami that devastated coastal areas of the Tohoku region, including Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.
The Okuma outlet of Plant-4, a large shopping mall located 3 kilometers away from the nuclear plant along National Route No. 6, had been bustling with visitors before the disaster.
Today, weeds grow from the cracks of the asphalt-surfaced mall parking lot, slowly creeping through the expanse of space.
One striking image shows the exterior of the TEPCO-owned condominium building, which housed its employees in Futaba, is becoming covered with rampant weeds that have reached the second floor.
Another photo shows cars that cannot be recovered are partially buried, appearing as if they are sinking into a sea of green.
The so-called “difficult-to-return” areas are colored in grey
The government is set to inject some 30 billion yen in public funds into work to decontaminate so-called “difficult-to-return” areas whose annual radiation levels topped 50 millisieverts in 2012 due to the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster, it has been learned.
While the government had maintained that it would demand plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) cover the decontamination expenses based on the polluter-pays principle, the new plan effectively relieves TEPCO from the hefty financial burden by having taxpayers shoulder the costs.
The new plan is part of the government’s basic guidelines for “reconstruction bases” to be set up in each municipality within the difficult-to-return zone in Fukushima Prefecture from fiscal 2017, with the aim of prioritizing decontamination work and infrastructure restoration there. The government is seeking to lift evacuation orders for the difficult-to-return zone in five years.
However, the details of the reconstruction bases, such as their size and locations, have yet to be determined due to ongoing discussions between local municipalities and the Reconstruction Agency and other relevant bodies.
The government is set to obtain Cabinet approval for the basic guidelines on Dec. 20 before submitting a bill to revise the Act on Special Measures for the Reconstruction and Revitalization of Fukushima to the regular Diet session next year. The 30 billion yen in funds for the decontamination work will be set aside in the fiscal 2017 budget.
In the basic guidelines, the government states that decontamination work at the reconstruction bases is part of state projects to accelerate Fukushima’s recovery and that the costs for the work will be covered by public funds without demanding TEPCO to make compensation. The statement is also apparently aimed at demonstrating the government’s active commitment to Fukushima’s restoration.
Under the previous guidelines for Fukushima’s recovery approved by the Cabinet in December 2013, the government had stated that it would demand TEPCO cover the decontamination expenses of both completed and planned work. However, it hadn’t been decided who would shoulder the decontamination costs for the difficult-to-return zone as there was no such plan at that point.
Masafumi Yokemoto, professor at Osaka City University who is versed in environmental policy, criticized the government’s move, saying, “If the government is to shoulder the cost that ought to be covered by TEPCO, the government must first accept its own responsibility for the nuclear disaster, change its policy and investigate the disaster before doing so. Otherwise, (spending taxpayers’ money on decontamination work) can’t be justified.”
Privatized profit, socialized risk and clean up
The government plans to use state funds to finance the radiation cleanup in the areas most seriously contaminated by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, government sources said Friday.
It is the first plan to decontaminate the “difficult to return to” zones, including a large portion of the two towns hosting the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and parts of other nearby municipalities in the prefecture.
The move is intended to expedite the cleanup process but may draw criticism because it will effectively reduce the financial burden on Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the utility responsible for the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Under the current legal framework, the decontamination costs are first shouldered by the state, with Tepco told to reimburse the expenses over time. But since the costs are expected to far exceed the ¥2.5 trillion estimated earlier, the utility has requested more financial support.
The government plans to conduct decontamination in the difficult-to-return-to zones, which comprise about 337 sq. km of land where around 24,000 people used to live, the sources said.
The work within the designated “reconstruction bases” will include removing buildings, replacing soil and paving roads.
Tepco will only be asked to shoulder the costs of cleaning existing facilities and infrastructure that will continue to be used within the reconstruction bases.
The government hopes to officially endorse the plan this month, the sources said.
The Fukushima disaster, triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, prompted the government to issue evacuation orders to 11 municipalities near the plant.
The areas have been reclassified into three categories based on radiation level — a zone where evacuation orders are ready to be lifted, a zone where human habitation is restricted, and a zone where residents will have difficulty coming back to for a long time.
The areas subject to evacuation are gradually being reduced, with the government setting a goal of lifting all the remaining orders apart from the difficult-to-return-to zones by next March.
In the heavily contaminated zones, the government plans to conduct costly and intensive radiation cleanup efforts that will allow it to lift the evacuation orders in five years’ time.