FUKUSHIMA – The government on Wednesday proposed lifting by around mid-August the evacuation order for one of the towns in Fukushima Prefecture that has stood empty since the nuclear crisis began in 2011.
Most of the town of Naraha sits within 20 km of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, but radiation cleanup efforts have been under way in a bid to return around 7,500 residents to their homes.
Naraha is one of 10 remaining municipalities still subject to evacuation orders. The government estimated as of last October that about 79,000 people were unable to return to their homes.
The proposal for Nahara came after the government decided recently to lift all evacuation orders by March 2017 except for areas radiation levels are expected to remain high.
The government told the Naraha Municipal Assembly on Wednesday that it hopes to lift the evacuation order by the mid-August Bon holidays. Yosuke Takagi, senior vice industry minister who is dealing with nuclear disaster issues added that the government does not intend to “force” residents to return home.
“Whether to return is up to each person. . . . Even if we lift the order, we want to continue working substantially on measures to rebuild Nahara,” he said.
A local assembly member said the plan to lift the order by Bon was “abrupt,” while another member pointed out that the town has not recovered to a point where people can return without worrying about food safety or their homes.
As part of preparations, residents have already been allowed to enter the town and stay there for short periods, officials said.
The Fukushima Prefectural Government, aiming to encourage residents to return to areas they evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, announced on June 15 its intention to end free rent for voluntary evacuees in March 2017, while continuing to provide limited support for a time.
Among such evacuees are families living in poverty, and the prefectural government intends to listen to the needs of these families while deciding on the details of its policy.
Many voluntary evacuees are living in private apartments, and their rent is free. Just like with forced evacuees from areas with evacuation orders placed on them, voluntary evacuees have had their free rent extended on a yearly basis, in accordance with the Disaster Relief Act.
At a press conference on June 15, Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori said, “The construction of publically-managed recovery homes (for evacuees) has made progress, and it will be difficult to maintain the emergency aid being offered under the Disaster Relief Act.”
As replacements for free rent, some measures the prefecture plans to offer evacuees include: financial assistance starting this fiscal year for moving into Fukushima Prefecture; financial rent assistance for low-income evacuees starting in fiscal 2017 and lasting a few years; and preparation of publically-managed homes both in and out of the prefecture for evacuees to move into. The prefecture will seek financial assistance from the national government in order to provide these services.
Starting in July, the prefectural government plans to open consultation meetings in regions with large numbers of voluntary evacuees regarding lifestyle support and returning to evacuated areas.
“We will think of a framework that allows us to respond to everyone’s individual wishes. We want to enrich the contents of our support policies,” said Gov. Uchibori.
The exact number of voluntary evacuees is unknown, but at the end of last year, the Fukushima Prefectural Government estimated there were 25,000 people, across 9,000 households. Five thousand, across 2,000 households, are believed to be in the prefecture, and 20,000, across 7,000 households, are believed to be outside of the prefecture. This year the Fukushima Prefectural Government and the central government, which pays for the free evacuee rent, have been in talks about how much longer to extend the free rent. Since last month, the prefectural government has been exchanging opinions with municipalities with voluntary evacuees in them. The Fukushima government reached the conclusion that, with radiation decontamination work having moved forward and living conditions in evacuated areas improving, in order to encourage evacuees to move back and become independent it is necessary to end the free rent.
The Fukushima Prefectural Government has also decided for now to set the end of the residing period for forced evacuees living in temporary housing structures at March 2017, with what to do after then to be dependent on factors including whether evacuation orders on restricted areas have been lifted.
A plan to end rent subsidies for some evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has come under fresh fire, as it emerged that those subsidies are costing at most 8.09 billion yen this fiscal year.
The evacuees under consideration for having their subsidies cut — at the end of fiscal 2016 — are voluntary evacuees living in homes other than temporary housing structures built for evacuees. The total Fukushima Prefecture relief budget for disaster evacuees this fiscal year, including non-voluntary evacuees, is over 28.8 billion yen, so the subsidies being considered for being cut account for less than 30 percent of the relief budget.
One expert knowledgeable about evacuees says, “The reason that a plan to end these subsidies has arisen even though the financial burden is not large may be that government officials want to try and force voluntary evacuees to return to their homes, without respecting evacuees’ own judgments on the matter.”
Voluntary evacuees are people who evacuated from areas outside of those where the government ordered evacuations. Until November 2012, Fukushima Prefecture did not allow them to use emergency temporary housing set up for evacuees in the prefecture, and many voluntary evacuees moved outside of the prefecture.
According to the Fukushima Prefectural Government, for this fiscal year it allocated about 20.73 billion yen for the temporary homes of non-voluntary evacuees within the prefecture, and 8.09 billion yen for those of evacuees outside the prefecture. The evacuees outside the prefecture include non-voluntary evacuees, but the exact numbers are not known. A Fukushima Prefectural Government official says, “Non-voluntary evacuees have been using compensation for their lost real-estate to buy homes, and most of the people getting rent subsidies outside of Fukushima Prefecture are probably voluntary evacuees.”
Within the prefecture, voluntary evacuees live in around 300 homes, which are not temporary housing structures, but subsidies for their rent are included in the “out-of-prefecture” budget, so the 8.09 billion yen covers all voluntary evacuees from the prefecture.
According to the Cabinet Office, as of April 1 this year, there were evacuees living in 18,742 homes in Fukushima Prefecture other than temporary housing structures, and according to the Fukushima Prefectural Government, evacuees were living in around 10,000 such homes outside of the prefecture. Both numbers include voluntary and non-voluntary evacuees. Neither the Fukushima Prefectural Government nor the central government has yet released exact figures on the number of homes for voluntary evacuees other than temporary housing built after the disaster, nor have they released exact numbers for the total rent paid for them.
Currently, evacuee homes are set to be subsidized until the end of March 2016, with a decision on whether to extend this to be made soon after discussions between the Fukushima Prefectural Government and the Cabinet Office. A plan to end subsidies for voluntary evacuees would extend the deadline for one more year, to the end of March 2017, after which voluntary evacuees would no longer receive them. Although Fukushima Prefecture has money budgeted for subsidizing voluntary evacuees, this money is in effect all paid for by the central government. Tokyo Electric Power Co. has expressed reluctance to pay for voluntary evacuees’ rent, and so far the central government has not billed them for such.
Meanwhile, this fiscal year’s Fukushima Prefecture budget for radiation decontamination measures is 64.39 billion yen, up 13.35 billion yen from the previous fiscal year. The Ministry of the Environment released an estimate in December 2013 that the total costs for decontamination and mid-term storage for radioactive waste would be 3.6 trillion yen.
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Business operators that evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster criticized plans to end compensation payments, citing the destruction of their normal bases of operation and the time needed to attract new clientele.
“It is premature to stop paying compensation,” said Ikuo Yamamoto, 56, who used to be a rice dealer in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, all of whose residents were forced to evacuate. He currently lives in Iwaki.
The central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, decided to terminate compensation for nuclear-related financial losses in fiscal 2016.
About 8,000 business operators that have left areas around the plant have received such payments over the four years until fiscal 2014.
Yosuke Takagi, state minister of economy, and TEPCO President Naomi Hirose explained the new compensation policy to local officials and business owners at a meeting June 7 in Fukushima city.
They said the government and TEPCO will pay compensation for an additional two years until fiscal 2016, and then end the lump-sum reparation payments.
They also stressed that intense support measures to rebuild businesses will be introduced over the coming two years to help affected business operators establish themselves without depending on compensation money.
However, municipal leaders called on TEPCO and the government to carefully consider the new policy.
Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe said that business owners who have evacuated from the town must win new customers where they currently reside because most areas of Okuma are still designated in the difficult-to-return zone.
“I hope (the government and TEPCO) will provide generous assistance for reconstruction of local businesses on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
All residents of Naraha have also been forced to live outside the town since the nuclear disaster unfolded in March 2011.
Kumiko Hayakawa, 48, said she has yet to decide whether to reopen the beauty salon that she ran with her 74-year-old mother in Naraha, even though the evacuation order for the town is expected to be lifted by year-end.
“It is inappropriate for us to just rely on compensation for so long,” Hayakawa said. “But I suspect people may not return to the town, and I cannot make a decision (on restarting the salon).”
Masaki Yatsuhashi, 43, who used to run a bakery in Naraha, opened a bread shop in May in Iwaki, where he now resides.
Although he sold bread at a makeshift store near temporary housing in Iwaki after the nuclear accident, the business was always in the red.
Yatsuhashi said he decided to open a new bakery because he wanted to end his dependence on government assistance.
However, he said the business situation surrounding evacuees will not be completely restored even if Naraha residents are allowed to return to their homes.
“The damages from the disaster will not be repaired just in one or two years,” he said.