Japan wants Fukushima evacuees to go home. They’re not so sure.

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About 160,000 people left their homes in 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Today, the government says it’s safe for many to return. But regaining residents’ trust remains a challenge.
February 21, 2018 Yonezawa, Japan—For Toru Takeda, the best and worst parts of life in Yonezawa are the same: snow. Located in the mountains 150 miles north of Tokyo, the city typically lies under a few feet every winter. It snows so much that many streets in Yonezawa are equipped with sprinklers that spray warm underground water to keep them clear.
Mr. Takeda is still getting used to the sheer amount of snow and the inconveniences that come with it. Train delays. Slow traffic. Shoveling. It doesn’t snow nearly as much in Fukushima City, his hometown, an hour-long drive away in good weather.
But snow has its benefits when it melts. “The soil here is rich because the snow melts slowly,” Takeda says one morning at a diner in downtown Yonezawa. He’s certain that the gradual thaw makes the fruits and vegetables grown in the region some of the best in Japan. Taking a sip of coffee, he adds solemnly, “The water and soil in Fukushima [Prefecture] is still contaminated.”
It’s been almost seven years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The cleanup is projected to cost $200 billion and take up to 40 years. Yet already many of the area’s 160,000 evacuees have started to return.
The Japanese government says it’s safe, but Takeda isn’t convinced. His faith in authority was shattered by the botched response to the meltdown. Today, he remains suspicious of everything from regulatory agencies to utility companies, to say nothing of food safety and, of course, nuclear power. Whether the government is able to regain Takeda’s trust – and the trust of thousands of others like him – is an important test of its ability to revive the cities and towns of Fukushima.
“We don’t believe the government anymore,” Takeda says, speaking for himself, his wife and daughter, and about 20 other evacuees he knows who have refused to leave Yonezawa. “I’ll do anything and everything I can to make sure we can stay,” he declares. That includes going to court.
Man on a mission
It all started last March, when the Fukushima prefectural government ended unconditional housing subsidies to nearly 27,000 people who left areas not designated as mandatory evacuation zones – including Takeda and many others in Yonezawa. Faced with the choice of returning to areas they fear are still unsafe or paying rent many can’t afford, they’ve chosen neither. Instead, they’ve stayed in their apartments and refused to pay rent. The local public housing agency tolerated this for a while. Then, in September, it filed an eviction lawsuit against the so-called voluntary evacuees, who quickly hired a team of lawyers in response.
“The Japanese government and Tepco caused the disaster,” Takeda says, referring to Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “They should have to pay.”
Since moving to Yonezawa in April 2011, Takeda, a 77-year-old retired high school English teacher, has emerged as the de facto leader of the city’s evacuee community. He organizes social gatherings and frequently meets with local government officials. He and his wife even set up a learning center in their small, three-room apartment for evacuee children. The center closed after two years, and now Takeda spends most of his time on the lawsuit. He does everything from fundraising to meeting with lawyers.
“The government hates me,” he says. “If not for me then the evacuees would have already gone back.”
While the lawsuit in Yonezawa continues, some victims have already found redress. In October, a district court in Fukushima ruled that the Japanese government and Tepco must pay damages totaling $4.4 million to about 2,900 people. It was the third case in which a court found the company negligent in not preventing the meltdown. 
‘It breeds distrust’
Yonezawa, which lies 60 miles northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was once home to as many as 3,900 evacuees from Fukushima. There are fewer than 500 now left, according to government figures. Some have returned home, either out of financial necessity or because they believe it’s safe, but many have refused. In a survey conducted last April by the Fukushima government, 80 percent of voluntary evacuees living in other parts of Japan said they had no intention of going back.
The government has worked hard to assuage any lingering fears. But Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace, says officials have played down the potential health risks because of the pressure they feel to put a positive spin on the situation. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to deliver on his promise that the Fukushima cleanup effort is “under control.”
“Having zones where people can’t live is politically unacceptable for the government,” Mr. Burnie says. “It creates the impression that a nuclear disaster can destroy whole communities for a long time.”
As the government rushes to revitalize Fukushima, it may run the risk of deepening public distrust, diminishing the respect for authority that is deeply rooted in Japanese society. A 2017 Pew survey found that 57 percent of Japanese have at least some trust in the national government to act in the country’s best interests, though just 6 percent have a lot of trust in national leaders.
Timothy Jorgenson, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, wrote in a 2016 online commentary that one of the government’s mistakes was its decision to increase the maximum limit of radiation exposure from 1 microsievert to 20 microsieverts per year. (Microsieverts measure the effects of low-level radiation.)
“To the Japanese people, this raising of the annual safety limit from one to 20 mSv appears like the government is backpedaling on its commitment to safety,” Dr. Jorgenson wrote. “This is the problem with moving regulatory dose limits after the fact to accommodate inconvenient circumstances; it breeds distrust.”
Jorgenson wrote that the government would be better off to just explain what the health risks are at various radiation doses and leave it at that. Armed with such information, evacuees could decide for themselves if they want to return home.
For now, the government appears poised to further cut housing subsidies to evacuees. Its current plan would remove 5,000 households from the roll by March 2019. Advocacy groups are pressuring it to reconsider. In a written statement submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Feb. 2, Greenpeace and Human Rights Now, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization, called on the government to “provide necessary housing support to all Fukushima evacuees, including those who evacuated from outside the government designated areas, as long as needed to ensure their ability to freely choose where they will live without pressure to return areas where their health or life would be at risk.”
If the Japanese government were to take such advice, the lawsuit in Yonezawa could end. Takeda says it’s a tempting thought, but rather than waiting for the government to change its plan, he’s busy preparing for his next court appearance on March 20.
“I don’t have much time left,” Takeda says. “I can’t go home.”
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Threat of forced evacuation from Fukushima pushed 102yo to take his own life, judge rules

Threat of forced evacuation from Fukushima pushed 102yo to take his own life, judge rules
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Mieko Okubo, shown here in 2013, would regularly visit the home where her father-in-law took his life.
 
The family of a 102-year-old man who took his own life after being ordered to leave his home following the Fukushima disaster has won a bid for compensation.
Fumio Okubo told his family he had “lived a bit too long” and took his life one day after realising he would be forced out of his home.
His family filed a lawsuit seeking more than $700,000 in compensation, claiming Mr Okubo — the oldest resident of his village 40 kilometres from the tsunami-hit Daiichi power plant — took his life because of the evacuation order.
Judge Hideki Kanazawa said Mr Okubo had lived in the village his entire life and suffered unbearable pain over the evacuation order, as he felt he would likely die before he could return home.
The court acknowledged his suicide was linked to stress at the idea he would have to move and his fear that he would be a burden to his family.
Mieko Okubo, 59, said her father-in-law took his own life because he could not stand to end his life somewhere else.
“It took a long time to get here but I didn’t give up because I am the only one who can let people know how my father-in-law is feeling,” Ms Okubo said.
“I hope he will now rest in peace.”
The family’s lawyer Yukio Yasuda said it was a landmark ruling.
“The court acknowledged the causal relationship between the suicide and the nuclear disaster,” Mr Yasuda said.
Mr Okubo was one of 160,000 people ordered to leave their homes around the plant after the government announced an evacuation.
TEPCO, the reactor’s operator, has been ordered to pay $180,000 to the family and is yet to respond to the ruling.
The operator has been forced to pay damages over two other suicides involving former Fukushima residents who killed themselves after fleeing their homes.
 
Fukushima operator told to compensate for suicide of 102-year-old
20 Feb 2018,
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A Japanese court on Tuesday ordered the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant to compensate relatives of a 102-year-old man who killed himself at the prospect of fleeing his home.
The Fukushima District Court ordered Tokyo Electric Co (TEPCO) to pay 15.2 million yen ($143,400) in damages to the family of Fumio Okubo, according to their attorney Yukio Yasuda.
Okubo was the oldest resident of Iitate village, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan’s northeast coast, which sparked the world’s worst atomic accident in a generation in 2011.
He took his own life after the government ordered area residents to flee in April 2011, a month after tsunami waves sent the plant’s reactors into meltdown.
“I lived a bit too long,” he told his family soon after he learned of the government-ordered evacuation from a news report.
The court acknowledged his suicide was linked to “strong stress” at the prospect that he would have to flee and his fear that he would be a burden to his family, the attorney said.
“It is significant that the court recognised the eldest man in the village who would have lived out his final days in his homeland was hit by such a terrible tragedy,” he told AFP on the phone.
The compensation ordered by the court was smaller than the 60 million yen the bereaved family had demanded, but they do not plan to appeal, he added.
TEPCO said it would examine the latest ruling before it decides on its response
The firm has already been ordered to pay damages over two other suicides involving former Fukushima residents who killed themselves after fleeing their homes.
Iitate was one of a number of areas the central government declared off-limits due to concerns at the effect of long-term exposure to radiation.
The killer tsunami, triggered by a 9.0-magnitude offshore earthquake on March 11, 2011, swamped the emergency power supplies at the Fukushima power plant, sending its reactors into meltdown as cooling systems failed.
Many of the tens of thousands of people who evacuated their homes and farms are unlikely to return to their ancestral properties due to radiation dangers.
While the quake and tsunami killed nearly 18,000 people, no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the atomic catastrophe.
 
Compensation awarded over 102-year-old’s suicide amid Fukushima crisis
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Mieko Okubo, the daughter-in-law of Fumio Okubo, who hanged himself at age 102 after learning he had to evacuate from his home in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear disaster, speaks to reporters in front of the Fukushima District Court on Tuesday.
 
FUKUSHIMA – A court awarded Tuesday ¥15.2 million ($142,000) in damages to the family of a 102-year-old man who killed himself in the face of an order to flee from his home as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis was unfolding.
The Fukushima District Court ordered Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, to pay compensation, recognizing the relationship between the suicide of Fumio Okubo and the nuclear disaster.
Three of Okubo’s family members had sought a total of ¥60 million from the utility known as Tepco. The man, who had never lived outside of his hometown of Iitate, was found to have hanged himself in his room on April 12, 2011, a day after learning the government was set to issue an evacuation order for the village.
After a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear complex on March 11, 2011, the plant suffered multiple meltdowns, becoming the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and prompting the government to instruct neighboring residents to evacuate.
The village of Iitate, located about 30 kilometers northwest of the plant, was designated as an evacuation zone on April 22, 2011. The order was lifted in most parts of the village in March last year as decontamination work has helped lower the level of radioactive contamination there.
Presiding Judge Hideki Kanazawa said Okubo “suffered unbearable pain as he was highly likely to die without being able to return home” if he had been evacuated, referring to his advanced age.
In similar lawsuits in 2014 and 2015, Tepco was also ordered to pay compensation by the Fukushima court over suicides linked to the nuclear disaster.
According to the lawsuit in the latest case, Okubo learned of the impending evacuation order through a television news program on April 11, 2011, and told his daughter-in-law Mieko, 65, “I don’t want to evacuate.” He sat in front of the TV for two hours and also said, “I think I have lived a bit too long.”
The plaintiffs argued that Okubo had lived his whole life in Iitate and suffered mental anguish trying to imagine his life as an evacuee.
Tepco denied a causal relationship between Okubo’s suicide and the nuclear disaster and claimed that even if there was some kind of connection, his poor health condition might have affected his decision to take his own life.
Born into a farmer’s family in the village, Okubo became a farm worker soon after leaving elementary school. He kept cattle and horses, cultivated land, grew leaf tobacco and bred silkworms.
“For grandpa, the evacuation order was the same as being told to ‘die,’ ” Mieko Okubo said. After the ruling was handed down, she told reporters, “We won (the compensation) due to everyone’s support. I will go to grandpa’s grave to report” on the court decision.

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Fukushima fruit exports to Southeast Asia peachy as contamination fears dissipate

Feb 18, 2018
Fukushima Prefecture’s Governor campaigning abroad to push sales of Fukushima’s produce despite the health risks
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Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori (right) promotes Fukushima-made peaches with officials from local agricultural cooperatives at a supermarket in Kuala Lumpur in August. | FUKUSHIMA MINPO
Among peaches Japan exported to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia last year, those produced in Fukushima Prefecture led the way, retaining their No. 1 status for two years in a row.
According to the prefectural government, 48 tons of Fukushima peaches were shipped to the three countries in 2017, up 57 percent from the previous year, thanks to efforts by local producers and distributors to acquire new customers.
With bans from the Fukushima nuclear disaster still in place around Asia, however, Fukushima officials said they will continue calling on the central government to negotiate with biggest customers of Japanese peaches, Hong Kong and Taiwan, to encourage them to lift bans on produce from the prefecture.
According to data compiled by the prefectural government based on Finance Ministry trade statistics and transaction data from local farm co-ops, Thailand topped the list of Fukushima peaches importers for two years in a row, with shipments in 2017 totaling 31.1 tons, or 1.5 times higher than the previous year. Fukushima peaches accounted for 94.8 percent of its peach imports from Japan.
Exports to Malaysia reached 15 tons, making up 72.5 percent of its Japanese peach imports, while exports to Indonesia totaled 1.5 tons, or 51.7 percent of its Japanese peach imports. Both amounts more than doubled from a year ago.
In Thailand, the number of stores selling Fukushima peaches rose to 70 from roughly 50, mainly in Bangkok, after the prefectural government entrusted a local importer to take steps to bolster sales, such as by dispatching staff to the stores when the peaches are in season.
Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori visited Malaysia in August to promote the fruit, resulting in a deal to export 15 tons to the nation last year.
Produce other than peaches has been making headway in Southeast Asia as well, especially in nations with high economic development and relatively fewer negative rumors about Fukushima.
Fukushima exported 77 tons of rice to Malaysia in 2017, up from none a year before, and 16.3 tons of persimmons to Thailand.
To accelerate exports of local produce, the prefectural government will put together a new strategy before the end of March. It plans to analyze different preferences and consumers’ purchasing power by nation and region and set target markets for each item.
It will then draw up measures to create production systems that meet the needs of those markets and find ways to promote the products.
“The efforts of people involved, including producers, farm co-ops and importers, have produced good results,” an official with Fukushima’s division for promoting local produce said. “We will continue working on developing effective sales channels to win the support of overseas consumers.”
This section features topics and issues from Fukushima covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. It was previously called Fukushima File. The original article was published on Feb. 2.

After 3 years of taint-free rice, Fukushima mulls review of checks

February 16, 2018
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A harvested rice bag is certified as having passed a radiation level inspection in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 5, 2016.
FUKUSHIMA–Authorities are weighing random checks instead of blanket radiation testing of rice grown in the prefecture as three years have passed without incident.
There has not been a single case during that time of tainted rice exceeding the national safety standard, officials explained.
Blanket checks were introduced in 2012 in response to the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant the year before and consumer concerns about food safety.
Harvested rice is checked bag by bag for certification before shipment. The safety threshold is set by the government at 100 becquerels per kilogram.
But some farmers’ groups and other parties remain wary of a switch to random inspections due to lingering suspicions that rice from Fukushima Prefecture remains hazardous.
Since blanket checks began, prefectural officials have inspected 60 million or so bags of rice totaling 2.1 million tons. Not a single instance of tainted rice has emerged since 2015.
Given that exhaustive steps have been taken to reduce the absorption in crops of radioactive substances and that the inspection process places a burden on farmers and related parties, officials are trying to find the best timing to implement a review of the testing method.
Fukushima Prefecture announced plans in January to review the process, but for the time being will keep blanket checks in place.
Discussions are being held to introduce random inspections in as early as three years. A decision will be announced in fiscal 2018.
Authorities also plan a publicity blitz to put lingering safety concerns to rest about grain from Fukushima.
Other agricultural products from the prefecture are subject to random testing.
Agricultural experts and others have no qualms about switching to random testing, but the Japan Agricultural Cooperative in Fukushima is calling for discussions to first elaborate on what random inspections will entail to help alleviate safety concerns and restore the reputation of rice grown in the prefecture.
In 2010, before the nuclear disaster unfolded, Fukushima Prefecture ranked fourth in terms of rice production with annual output at around 445,000 tons.
Even after the disaster, it has ranked within the top 10.
However, the wholesale price of Fukushima rice has not returned to pre-disaster levels in spite of the blanket inspections.
A survey by a consumer affairs group in the prefecture in 2017 found that 66.2 percent of 1,550 respondents favor continued blanket testing.
Although the figure was 6.9 points lower than a survey the previous year, it still shows that food safety concerns remains a major issue.

Fukushima town of Namie to launch radioactive decontamination work around May

February 16, 2018
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Around May, decontamination work will begin in the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, to make some of its most radioactive areas habitable again, the government said.
Namie was hit hard by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011, and entry is effectively prohibited for about 80 percent of it.
By March 2023, the government hopes to lift the evacuation order for three parts consisting of 660 hectares. The areas scheduled for decontamination cover about 3.7 percent of the town.
To rebuild areas tainted by the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power, the government approved a plan submitted by Namie on Dec. 22.
Similar efforts got underway in neighboring Futaba in December and more are scheduled to start in the town of Okuma in March. The two towns cohost the crippled plant. The first round in Namie will cover about 30 hectares.
On March 11, 2011, tsunami inundated the six-reactor plant and knocked out its power supply. This crippled the reactors’ cooling systems, leading to core meltdowns in reactors 1 to 3. It is the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.

Japan to start nuclear cleanup of Fukushima town, Namie, around May

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In this July 27, 2017 file photo, contaminated water storage tanks are seen on the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant grounds, in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture.
 
TOKYO (Kyodo) — Nuclear decontamination work using state funds will begin around May in Namie, a town in northeastern Japan hit hard by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, to make some of its most-contaminated areas habitable again, the government said Thursday.
The government is seeking to lift an evacuation order for three areas in the town, covering about 660 hectares, by March 2023.
The order currently covers about 80 percent of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture, and the areas to be decontaminated make up some 3.7 percent of it where entry is prohibited in principle.
On Dec. 22, the government approved a plan submitted by the town to rebuild the areas affected by meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Similar rebuilding efforts have been underway in the neighboring town of Futaba since December and are also scheduled to begin in the town of Okuma in March.
For Namie, the first round of work covers some 30 hectares of land.
On March 11, 2011, a tsunami inundated the six-reactor plant located in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, and flooded the power supply facilities.
Reactor cooling systems were crippled and the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors suffered fuel meltdowns in the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Japan Ships First Seaweed, Farmed 6 Miles from Fukushima Meltdowns, for Human Consumption

February 14, 2018
 
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Fukushima Prefecture, Japan — On February 5, 2018, a mere seven years after a disastrous triple nuclear meltdown, Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture is once again harvesting and shipping green laver seaweed as a food product. An article in the Japan Times cited “officials” as having said the seaweed had radiation levels far below the safety limit. Local co-op members believe the seaweed is ready to be processed and eaten, but many consumers aren’t so sure.
“Matsukawaura green laver features a good scent,” Yuichi Okamura, a 62-year-old member of a local fishery cooperative told the Japan Times. “It’s as beautiful as before the disaster.”
Approximately 754 kilograms (1659 pounds) of the aqua farmed vegetation was shipped to local processors after being dried to remove pebbles and other objects. It is used primarily for ramen and soy sauce, and in the beginning will only be available locally. The test farming area is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Fukushima meltdown site.
As Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) attempts to decommission the nuclear plant, it has admitted that contaminated water seeping into the ground has caused problems. The Independent reported on February 2, 2018, “the energy firm found eight sieverts per hour of radiation, while 42 units were also detected outside its foundations.”
“Although the radiation levels identified are high, a threat to human health is very unlikely because apart from workers at the site, no one goes there,” Richard Black, Director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, told The Independent.
Not everyone agrees with Black’s assessment of the situation though. Independent energy consultant and lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report Mycle Schneider, told The Independent he sees the possibility of a “global” disaster.
“This can get problematic anytime, if it contaminates the ocean there is no local contamination, the ocean is global, so anything that goes into the ocean goes to everyone,” said Schneider. “It needs to be clear that this problem is not gone, this is not just a local problem. It’s a very major thing.”
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Nori Seaweed
In February of 2017, TEPCO reported radiation levels at Fukushima’s Daiichi No. 1 power plant were the highest they had been able to record in the containment vessel of reactor no. 2 since the disaster. TEPCO explained the extraordinary measurement of 530 sieverts an hour came from a specialized robot that focused on one point and was able to get closer to the melted cores than ever before. The measurement dwarfed the previous high of 73 sieverts per hour. A single dose of one sievert would cause radiation sickness and nausea; a person exposed to one dose of 10 sieverts would be dead in a matter of weeks.
In spite of media reports to the contrary, no amount of exposure to ionizing radiation is safe. According to a National Research Council report released in 2005, any exposure could lead to cell damage and subsequent cancer. EnviroNews has repeatedly documented the danger of any radiation exposure and called out other media resources, which have repeated false assertions that low-level ionizing radiation is safe.