New Reconstruction Minister Hiromichi Watanabe wants the world to know that, seven years after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Fukushima Prefecture and other disaster-struck areas of the Tohoku region are now safe.
“I know that outside Japan (radiation) stigma still lingers and I believe it’s our mission to destroy,” that notion, Watanabe said in an interview with The Japan Times and other media organizations Wednesday.
In the wake of the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant many countries around the world imposed import restrictions on vegetables, fruits and other food products from Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki, Tochigi, Chiba and Gunma prefectures.
But in recent months the European Union, Brazil and several other countries have eased import restrictions and China reportedly intends to relax the ban. Taiwan is set to hold a referendum next month on whether to keep the restrictions in place.
“First, I want people to learn about the situation in Fukushima, I want them to taste farm and marine produce and last but not least, I want people to visit Fukushima” to see for themselves how it has rebounded, Watanabe said, responding to a question about lingering concerns over safety and slow progress in recovery.
Watanabe believes the 2020 Tokyo Games will be “a golden opportunity” to showcase the disaster-hit region’s advancement.
He referred to a large-scale project in the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, where construction work has already started for what will be one of the world’s largest hydrogen plants.
The plant will use solar power and other energy sources to extract up to 900 tons of hydrogen each year from water for storage and supply.
The hydrogen generated at the plant will be used for fuel-cell vehicles and other purposes during the Olympics and Paralympics.
“Using Fukushima-generated hydrogen in Tokyo would be a great display” of the region’s progress, he said.
“Given that the Olympic torch relay will start in Fukushima, I wish we could use hydrogen to light up the torch as well,” he added, noting that such ideas are being considered.
When the Reconstruction Agency was established in 2012, the government set a 10-year period of intensive efforts to rebuild the devastated areas.
Watanabe said that recovery of housing and public infrastructure is nearing completion, except for in zones with restricted access closest to the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
Watanabe admitted that progress is slower in some areas and he wants to speed up the rate of reconstruction ahead of the Summer Games.
“To better grasp the situation, I will make it my priority to go to those areas. It’s my basic strategy to listen to all requests and demands directly from those regions and to try to respond to them,” he said.
The government will draw up a concrete action plan to complete rebuilding efforts before disclosing them by year-end.
For Watanabe, the clock is ticking as the agency is scheduled to fold in 2021.
“There are only 2½ years left and during this period I am motivated to do the utmost to complete rebuilding,” he said. “Obviously reconstruction of areas devastated by the nuclear disaster should be seen from a long-term perspective and even after the agency is abolished, Japan should make concerted efforts to act on the aftereffects (of the nuclear disaster).”