OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture–A sixth-century stone tower and a Shinto shrine are among local cultural assets the town of Okuma wants to protect ahead of a central government plan to construct temporary facilities to store radioactive waste in the vicinity.
A project got under way April 17 to evaluate the town’s heritage that will enable its officials to urge the central government to protect historical sites when considering areas for the temporary storage sites.
The central government is proposing the construction of interim facilities to store radioactive waste from cleanup work at a site straddling Okuma and Futaba, which co-host the embattled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Education officials and local historians plan to examine each historical site to determine a priority of preservation.
“Having shared cultural heritage contributes to the strengthening of ties between local residents,” said Ryuhei Saeki, a member of the Okuma board of education. “We want to carry out an exhaustive investigation so we can preserve sites of great value.”
An official handling the proposed storage project with the Environment Ministry said that officials in Tokyo will give due consideration to sites of historical interest.
“If the towns decide to accept the construction of the facilities, we will consult with local officials over how to deal with cultural heritage sites,” the official said.
According to the central government’s blueprint, the planned site will occupy 16 square kilometers–11 square km in Okuma, or 15 percent of the town’s overall land area, and 5 square km in Futaba.
The Okuma education board said there are cultural properties in at least 50 locations in the town. Among them are a stone tower that is believed to have been built in the sixth century, an excavation site where pottery shards from the Jomon Pottery Culture (8000 B.C.-300 B.C.) have been discovered and an ancient tomb that has not been fully studied.
The officials and historians will examine the historical sites through late May. They will be required to wear protective gear due to high levels of radiation in the area.
Kiyoe Kamata, a 71-year-old historian from Okuma, said he is taking part in the on-site inspection to help preserve Miwatarijinja, a small Shinto shrine.
Kamata, who runs a pear farm, discovered the shrine hidden in a mountainous area of the town after a 25-year search. Even many locals in the community closest to the shrine were not aware of its existence.
“If we can maintain the shrine, the bond between locals may remain strong,” Kamata said.
The nuclear disaster unfolded after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, about a week before residents were scheduled to have a sunset viewing event at the shrine, which had to be canceled.
All the residents in Okuma and Futaba were forced to evacuate after the onset of the nuclear accident. Although evacuation orders have been lifted in other areas, there is no realistic prospect for when all the evacuees of Okuma and Futaba can return home–if at all.
To keep alive the memory of their local cultural heritage, Kamata, who now lives as an evacuee in Sukagawa in the prefecture, published a book at his own expense and gave 500 copies to Okuma residents who scattered across the nation after the nuclear accident. With a flood of requests for copies, 300 more were printed.
Among Futaba’s cultural assets on the proposed construction site is Koriyama Kaizuka, a shell mound from the early part of the Jomon Pottery Culture, which is among the oldest such sites discovered in the prefecture. The former site of an administrative office from the Nara Period (710-784) to the Heian Period (794-1185), known as Koriyama Goban Iseki, is also in the area.
The Futaba education board plans to investigate the two sites to study cultural activities related to fishing and details of the operation of the administrative office in ancient times. But Futaba education officials have yet to determine when to begin their on-site inspection.
According to the Fukushima prefectural board of education, many cultural heritage sites are also left unattended in other areas, not just Okuma and Futaba, where annual radiation doses are estimated to be in excess of 50 millisieverts.
The interim storage facilities will house soil and other waste from decontamination operations taking place in the prefecture for up to 30 years. The central government plans to permanently dispose of the waste outside the prefecture.
Although the Fukushima prefectural government as well as Okuma and Futaba town halls have yet to decide on the proposed facilities, the central government plans to start shipments of waste in January.