East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) announced July 28 it will resume regular train runs Dec. 10 on another stretch of the Joban Line damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. To be reopened is a 22.6-kilometer portion between Soma Station in Soma city, Fukushima Prefecture, and Hamayoshida Station in Watari town, Miyagi Prefecture.
It follows the resumption of train services on a 9.4-kilometer stretch of the line between Odaka and Haranomachi stations in Minamisoma city on July 12 when an evacuation order was lifted in most parts of the Fukushima Prefecture city hit by the tsunami-caused nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. The Soma-Hamayoshida link will thus connect Minamisoma’s Odaka district to the Miyagi prefectural capital Sendai by rail.
The Soma-Hamayoshida stretch includes an 18.2-kilometer route between Komagamine Station in Shinchi town and Hamayoshida, with tracks for 14.6 kilometers of the route moved inland from an area close to the coastline. The Shinchi Station structure that was washed away by the tsunami is being rebuilt at a location about 300 meters southwest. The route was initially scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2017 but the date for resumption has been moved up following faster-than-expected progress in land purchases.
The last suspended stretch, from Tatsuta Station in Naraha town to Odaka Station, will remain closed for the present due to its location close to the crippled nuclear plant but JR East plans to reopen it gradually by the end of fiscal 2019 on March 31, 2020.
The Environment Ministry is set to have completed by the end of fiscal 2017 through March 2018 the demolition of dilapidated residences in 11 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture where residents have been evacuated since the 2011 nuclear accident, according to ministry officials. It was the first time that the ministry has specified the date for completing work to dismantle evacuated houses in accordance with requests from residents.
The national government has made clear its policy to lift evacuation orders in all the affected municipalities by next March except for areas where permanent returns are deemed difficult due to still high levels of radiation from nuclear fallout stemming from the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Against that background, the ministry sees the need to accelerate the demolition work, step up the restoration of a living environment and pave the way for the homecoming of evacuees.
Covered by the ministry project are the cities of Tamura and Minamisoma, the towns of Kawamata, Naraha, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and Namie, and the villages of Kawauchi, Katsurao and Iitate. Evacuees had applied for the demolition of about 8,800 houses as of June this year. Of the total, residences in Tamura and Kawauchi have been dismantled, leaving some 5,600 others yet to be demolished, according to the ministry.
Demolition work is to be finished by the end of fiscal 2016 on a total of 2,230 houses in Minamisoma, Naraha and Katsurao, where the removal of evacuation zones has made progress, and on 400 homes in Futaba, Okuma and Kawamata, where the number of demolition applications is relatively small. The ministry is set to accomplish demolition of 2,970 residences by fiscal 2017 in Namie, Tomioka and Iitate, where applications are in excess of 1,000 each.
About 70% of residents returning to their homes in three of the municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture evacuated after the 2011 nuclear accident will be exposed to radiation of 1 millisievert or less a year, a level set as a long-term goal for decontamination, according to an official survey undertaken by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). The survey covered selected residents in the towns of Kawamata and Tomioka and in the village of Katsurao, assuming that they resumed daily lives at their homes. The results were announced at a press conference at the Fukushima prefectural government office in Fukushima city on July 6 by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which cooperated in the undertaking.
The survey was conducted in the fall of 2015 covering selected evacuees from the three municipalities which had requested it. Surveyed were 29 evacuees from Kawamata, 25 from Tomioka and 11 from Katsurao. They were asked about daily activities before the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. The NRA measured radiation dosages in places frequented by the residents such as farmland and community roads based on the hearings from them, and estimated each resident’s annual dosage on the basis of the hours of stay there and other factors.
The survey estimated the average annual dosage at or less than the 1-millisievert level for 21 people in Kawamata or 70% of the residents covered, 15 or 60% for those in Tomioka and nine or 80% in Katsurao. The maximum dosage was 2.62 millisieverts in Kawamata, 1.78 millisieverts in Tomioka and 1.84 millisieverts in Katsurao. Additional exposure to radiation in evacuated areas has become relatively small in the wake of progress in cleanup work and other factors, according to the JAEA.
Miyako Kumamoto longs for the days of sharing fresh home-grown produce with her friends in the clean mountain air of Fukushima Prefecture.
But now, the 73-year-old fears she will be forced to live alone on the streets of Tokyo under government policies concerning evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“It is wrong for the central government to say ‘return home’ and to lift evacuation orders even though its own declaration of an emergency situation for the nuclear accident remains in place,” Kumamoto told a protest rally of about 780 people at Tokyo’s Hibiya Park on March 2.
Saying the government is ignoring their opinions and safety concerns about radiation levels, the protesters slammed Tokyo’s push for evacuees to return to their homes near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. They later marched near government offices and in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the nuclear plant.
The rally was hosted by a national organization called Hidanren, which comprises plaintiffs in lawsuits against the central government and TEPCO, and joined by Fukushima residents who are still living in evacuation nearly five years after the nuclear disaster started in March 2011.
Before the rally, Hidanren gave a government official a letter addressed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The letter demanded a retraction of policies that “abandon the nuclear victims.”
The central government plans to lift evacuation orders around the Fukushima nuclear plant by the end of March 2017, except for “difficult-to-return” zones where annual radiation doses still exceed 50 millisieverts.
Fukushima residents who were not living in evacuation zones but still fled after the nuclear disaster unfolded have been provided free housing by the Fukushima prefectural government. The prefecture has decided to terminate that program for the “voluntary” evacuees in April 2017.
Kenichi Hasegawa, a 62-year-old co-representative of Hidanren, told the demonstrators that government officials showed no intention of changing the policies.
“I felt outrage,” Hasegawa said. “Let’s raise our voices and stand up against them together.”
According to the Fukushima prefectural government, around 165,000 people evacuated their homes due to the nuclear disaster as of May 2012. As of January 2016, 100,000 remained living in evacuation, including around 5,700 in Tokyo.
Kumamoto, whose husband died in 2007, has been living in public housing in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward since April 2011.
She had moved from Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2003. For years in Tamura, she and her husband grew fruits and vegetables in a field. She said cooking and eating the food with her friends was more important than anything else.
The area where she lived in Tamura, between 20 and 30 kilometers from the nuclear plant, was designated an emergency evacuation preparation zone after the meltdowns. The designation was lifted in September 2011, and city workers have since decontaminated the area.
But Kumamoto said the radiation has not been lowered to a level that reassures her that she can safely return home.
The Tokyo metropolitan government has asked Kumamoto to reapply for public housing if she wants to continue living there after April 2017.
“If I am not picked in the lottery, I would have to wander around in the streets,” Kumamoto said.
Yukiko Kameya, 71, has lived with her husband in Tokyo’s Minato Ward since fleeing from Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, after the disaster.
Most areas in Futaba are still designated as “difficult-to-return zones,” with annual radiation doses exceeding 50 millisieverts.
Futaba is also a candidate site for interim storage of soil and debris contaminated with radioactive substances from the nuclear accident.
“Since we cannot return there, I want a place to live to be guaranteed,” Kameya said. “I want the land to be returned to the state before the accident.”
After the rally at Hibiya Park, Kameya led a march in front of a ministry office building and TEPCO’s headquarters.
She shouted, “Return my hometown.”
Aki Hashimoto, 60, who traveled from Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, to attend the rally, said a friend in Tokyo once asked, “Are you still making a fuss over the issue?”
Hashimoto said the frustration and disappointment over that comment have not eased.
“I do not want the nuclear accident to be forgotten,” Hashimoto said.
(This article was written by Miki Aoki, Mana Nagano, and Jun Sato.)
Three-and-a-half years after fleeing to central Japan, a mother received a package from her husband who had opted to remain at their home in Fukushima Prefecture despite the nuclear disaster.
From Tamura, about 35 kilometers west of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the father sent snacks for the couple’s two children. The cardboard box also contained divorce papers.
“I cannot send money to my family whom I cannot see,” the husband told his wife.
She still refused to return home.
Thanks to decontamination work, radiation levels have fallen around the nuclear plant since the triple meltdown caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. And families are returning to their hometowns, trying to resume normal lives.
But many mothers, distrustful of the government’s safety assurances, still harbor fears that radiation will affect the health of their children. As a result of these concerns, families are being torn apart, friendships have ended, and a social divide remains wide in Fukushima communities.
Around 70,000 people are still not allowed to return to their homes located in evacuation zones designated by the central government. And an estimated 18,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture whose homes were outside those zones remain living in evacuation.
The government is pushing for Fukushima residents to return home and trying to counter false rumors about the nuclear disaster.
More families in Fukushima Prefecture are willing to buy food produced in the prefecture–but not all.
A 40-year-old mother who once lived on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture and moved farther inland to Koriyama said she still fears for the health of her 11-year-old daughter.
Her classmates started serving “kyushoku” school lunches containing Fukushima rice and vegetables that passed the screening for radioactive materials. But the fifth-grader has instead eaten from a bento lunch box prepared by her mother.
The daughter says that eating her own lunch led to teasing from her classmates. She heard one of them say behind her back: “You aren’t eating kyushoku. Are you neurotic?”
She does not talk to that classmate anymore, although they used to be friends.
“I now feel a bit more at ease even when I am different from other students,” the daughter said.
Her mother expressed concerns about her daughter’s social life, but protecting her child’s health takes precedence.
“My daughter may fall ill sometime,” the mother said. “I feel almost overwhelmed by such a fear.”
An official of the Fukushima prefectural board of education said a certain number of students act differently from other students because of health concerns over radiation.
“Although the number is limited, some students bring bento to their schools,” the official said. “Some students wear surgical masks when they participate in footraces during outdoor school athletic meets.
“The feelings toward radiation vary from person to person, so we cannot force them (to behave in the same way as other students).”
Sung Woncheol, a professor of sociology at Chukyo University, and others have conducted surveys on mothers whose children were 1 to 2 years old when the nuclear disaster started. The mothers live in Fukushima city and eight other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture.
Of the 1,200 mothers who responded to the survey in 2015, 50 percent said they had concerns about child-rearing in Fukushima Prefecture.
Nearly 30 percent said they avoid or try to avoid using food products from Fukushima Prefecture, compared with more than 80 percent six months after the disaster.
But for some mothers, the passage of nearly five years since the disaster unfolded has not erased their fears of radiation.
The 36-year-old mother who received the divorce papers from her husband in autumn 2014 continues to live with her children in the central Japan city to which she had no previous connection.
A month after the nuclear disaster, she fled with her then 1-year-old son and her daughter, 10, from their home, even though it was not located in an evacuation zone.
She said she left Fukushima Prefecture because she “could not trust the data released by the central government.”
The mother still has not told her children that their parents are divorced.
“I believe I could protect the health of my children,” the woman said. “But my family has collapsed.”