Last year, while talking about the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Sanae Takaichi, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said, “We don’t have a situation where the accident is causing deaths.”
But radiation is not the only factor that is threatening the lives of people who have been evacuated from their homes in areas around the crippled nuclear plant.
The number of deaths indirectly related to the March 2011 triple meltdown–caused by poor physical health due to living as evacuees or suicides triggered by severe stress and other factors–keeps growing.
In Fukushima Prefecture, where many people are facing the gloomy prospect of having to live as evacuees for many years, there were 1,660 indirectly related deaths as of the end of January. That’s more than the 1,607 deaths directly caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami in the prefecture. Fukushima accounts for nearly 60 percent of all indirectly related deaths in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
In Fukushima, 30 or so people still die every month because of causes that are officially recognized to be linked to the calamity. Also called “nuclear accident-related deaths,” these tragic losses of life throw into sharp relief the dire consequences of a severe nuclear accident that forces many people to live as evacuees for a prolonged period.
In the summer of 2012, the Reconstruction Agency announced the challenges that result from dealing with indirectly related deaths along with measures to deal with them. But last spring the agency carried out a fresh survey to obtain more detailed information about the reality evacuees are facing in Fukushima, where such deaths are showing no signs of decreasing.
The survey covered 35 indirectly related deaths that occurred one year or more after the disaster. It found that most of the victims grew gradually weak from fatigue and stress due to relocation and prolonged evacuation, or because of a deterioration in their health care situation. They had to move as many as seven times on average because of a series of changes in evacuation zones and other reasons.
One factor makes the plight of evacuees in Fukushima much worse than the situation of their counterparts in Iwate or Miyagi prefectures. That is their deep anxiety about the possibility that they may never be able to return home in their lifetimes. That’s the assessment of experts included in the agency’s report on the survey.
The death rate in the three months through February 2012 at the welfare facility where the survey was conducted increased by 20 percent from the same period a year earlier.
The report said it should be assumed that the overall risk to their health had increased and pointed out that the recognized indirectly related deaths were just “the tip of the iceberg.”
There are more than 130,000 evacuees in Fukushima Prefecture. The biggest challenge in preventing deaths among these evacuees is how to enable them to rebuild their lives.
With decontamination work in areas polluted by radiation turning into a drawn-out battle, there is still a long way to go before the shattered lives of evacuees can be rebuilt.
Local governments in disaster-hit areas are trying to help evacuees deal with their hardships by arranging for public health nurses and livelihood support advisers to visit temporary housing and other facilities where they live. These regional authorities need to do all they can do now to help evacuees maintain their physical and mental health.
The Abe administration is keen to restart offline nuclear reactors. But the government needs to prepare evacuation plans for emergencies before bringing reactors back on stream.
It is, of course, important to work out plans for swift evacuations to avoid exposure to radiation. But it is equally important to figure out how to prevent indirectly related deaths among evacuees.
Fukushima evacuees, who have already suffered greatly from the nuclear disaster, now have to face the risk of dying because of their current circumstances. Policymakers should confront the distressing predicament of these citizens.