Although clear signs of recovery are emerging for agricultural and marine products from Fukushima Prefecture, consumer fears founded on harmful rumors about radiation are proving difficult to banish.
The local fishing and farming industries were brought to their knees by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. Now, four years on, the number of fish species being caught off the Fukushima coast on a trial basis has steadily increased, and every bag of rice grown in the prefecture in 2014 was checked and has cleared the national standard for radioactive substances. These and other products have been proven safe. Despite this, many retailers and consumers remain reluctant to buy them.
On March 6, ships unloaded a constant stream of boxes of Pacific cod at the Matsukawaura fishing port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. Pacific cod is a winter delicacy, and the harvest impressed the fishermen.
At the end of January, Pacific cod was added to the list of species of marine life permitted to be caught in these waters on a trial basis. While the cod was being packed into boxes at this port north of the 20-kilometer no-entry zone around the nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative Association checked the fish for radioactive cesium in a nearby shed. All 16 species of fish examined on this day recorded results of “no radiation detected.”
Fishing on a trial basis began in June 2012. Currently, fishermen are able to work in waters off Fukushima Prefecture, except for the area within a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear plant, and some other areas. Species of fish that have continually recorded radioactive cesium levels well below the government-set threshold of 100 becquerels per kilogram in ongoing monitoring surveys conducted by the prefecture are eligible to be caught on a trial basis.
All other fishing remains prohibited. Initially, three species were declared safe to be caught, and this has since expanded to 58.
In June 2011, three months after the nuclear accident, 50 percent of specimens caught were found to have cesium levels above the safe level. All specimens caught in February this year were within safe levels.
However, the volume of fish from coastal fishing unloaded at ports along the prefecture’s coast in February was about 60 tons, barely 5 percent of that posted in February 2011.
The Tsukiji market in Tokyo was the biggest destination for many products from the prefecture before the nuclear accident. But these days, many brokers at the market steer clear of any goods bearing a Fukushima label.
“Even if a product is of good quality, many consumers will avoid it when they hear it comes from Fukushima,” one broker said.
At the end of February, it was discovered that contaminated rainwater at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had been leaking into the ocean around the crippled plant.
“We’d been conducting strict checks and confirming that our products were safe, and then this happened,” said a visibly annoyed Hiroyuki Sato, 59, chief of the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative Association. “Now consumers might become reluctant to buy from us again.”
Rice checks to continue
The Consumer Affairs Agency regularly surveys about 5,000 people in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other locations about this issue. According to a survey conducted in February, 17.4 percent of respondents said they hesitate to purchase food products from Fukushima, a figure down only slightly from the 19.4 percent recorded in the survey conducted in February 2013. These findings underline the fact that consumers’ radiation fears will not be easily changed.
The impact is also evident in the price of agricultural and livestock products. At the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the retail price for peaches grown in Fukushima Prefecture — the nation’s No. 2 producer of the fruit, according to volume — was ¥358 per kilogram last year, more than 20 percent cheaper than the average price for domestic peaches.
The price for beef from the prefecture was ¥1,685 per kilogram, about ¥300 cheaper than the national average. The value of agricultural products shipped from the prefecture was ¥204.9 billion in 2013, which was still below the ¥233 billion level reached before the nuclear accident.
The prefectural government has conducted exhaustive screenings for radioactive substances since March 2011. Over this period, samples have been taken from about 130,000 food products and tested. In 2012, contamination checks began on every bag of newly harvested rice in the prefecture.
Seventy-one bags were found to have exceeded the government-set safety standards that year. However, countermeasures such as sprinkling potassium in paddies, which prevents rice from absorbing cesium, have proven highly effective. As a result, all of the about 11 million bags of rice produced in the prefecture in 2014 had radiation levels below the government-set standard. This news was warmly welcomed by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, with one official saying, “The safety of all rice harvested in Fukushima Prefecture is guaranteed.”
The prefecture plans to continue testing every bag of rice harvested in 2015. Screening every bag over the past three years has cost about ¥20 billion, but people involved in the industry point out that the price of koshihikari rice grown in the Hamadori region of eastern Fukushima Prefecture in 2014 was more than 20 percent lower than the national average for this brand.
“Wholesalers in other prefectures very much want the checks on every rice bag to continue,” one industry insider said. “At a time when there is a nationwide surplus of rice, we must ensure that rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture is completely safe so that more shops are willing to sell it.”
According to the agriculture ministry, at least 12 nations and territories had suspended imports of marine products, milk, feedstuff and other produce from Fukushima and other prefectures as of March 3
TOMIOKA, Japan (AP) – Whenever Kazuhiro Onuki goes home, to his real home that is, the 66-year-old former librarian dons protective gear from head to toe and hangs a dosimeter around his neck.
Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.
Above all, radiation is everywhere.
It’s difficult to imagine ever living again in Tomioka, a ghost town about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the former Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant. And yet more than three years after meltdowns at the plant forced this community of 16,000 people to flee, Onuki can’t quite make the psychological break to start anew.
His family lived here for four generations. Every time he goes back, he is overcome by emotion. Especially during that brief time in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.
“They flower as though nothing has happened,” he said. “They are weeping because all the people have left.”
The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone around the plant as it can. Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of April 1, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.
Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Will it really be safe? Others among the more than 100,000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima’s reactors into meltdown.
If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen ($1,000) they receive from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the Fukushima plant.
A survey last year found that 16 percent of Tomioka residents wanted to return, 40 percent had decided never to return, and 43 percent were undecided. Two-thirds said they were working before the disaster, but only one-third had jobs at the time of the survey, underlining the challenges to starting over.
Former resident Shigetoshi Suzuki, a friend of Onuki, is outraged the government would even ask such a question: Do you want to go back?
Of course, we all want to return, he said. People like him were effectively forced into retirement, the 65-year-old land surveyor said. If he hadn’t evacuated to a Tokyo suburb with his wife, he would have continued working for his longtime clients.
“It is a ridiculous question,” Suzuki said. “We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can’t be measured in money.”
In protest, he has refused to sign the forms that would allow his property to undergo decontamination.
The government has divided the no-go zone into three areas by radiation level.
The worst areas are marked in pink on official maps and classified as “difficult to return.” They are still enclosed by a barricade.
Yellow designates a “restricted” area, limiting visits to a few hours. No overnight stays are allowed.
The green zones are “in preparations to lift evacuation orders.” They must be decontaminated, which includes scrubbing building surfaces and scraping off the top layer of soil and is being carried out throughout the zones.
Tomioka has all three zones within its boundaries.
The green zones are those where authorities have confirmed radiation exposure can be brought below 20 millisieverts a year.
The long-term goal is to bring annual exposure down to 1 millisievert, or the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays, which was considered the safe level before the disaster, but the government is lifting evacuation orders at higher levels. It says it will monitor the health and exposure of people who move back to such areas.
In the yellow restricted zone, where Sukuki’s and Onuki’s homes lie, a visitor exceeds 1 millisievert in a matter of a few hours.
During a recent visit, Onuki and his wife Michiko walked beneath the pink petals floating from a tunnel of cherry trees, previously a local tourist attraction.
The streets were abandoned, except for a car passing through now and then. The neighborhood was eerily quiet except for the chirping of the nightingales.
“The prime minister says the accident is under control, but we feel the thing could explode the next minute,” said Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home. “We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead.”
Both wore oversized white astronaut-like gear, which doesn’t keep out radioactive rays out but helps prevent radioactive material from being brought back, outside the no-go zone. Filtered masks covered half their faces. They discarded the gear when they left, so they wouldn’t bring any radiation back to their Tokyo apartment, which they share with an adult son and daughter.
Junji Oshida, 43, whose family ran an upscale restaurant in Tomioka that specialized in eel, was at first devastated that he lost the traditional sauce for the eel that had been passed down over generations.
He has since opened a new restaurant just outside the zone that caters to nuclear cleanup workers. He recreated the sauce and serves pork, which is cheaper than eel. He lives apart from his wife and sons, who are in a Tokyo suburb.
“There is no sense in looking back,” Oshida said, still wearing the eel restaurant’s emblem on his shirt.
Older residents can’t give up so easily, even those who will never be able to return – like Tomioka city assemblyman Seijun Ando, whose home lies in the most irradiated, pink zone.
Ando, 59, said that dividing Tomioka by radiation levels has pitted one group of residents against another, feeding resentment among some. One idea he has is to bring residents from various towns in the no-go zone together to start a new community in another, less radiated part of Fukushima – a place he described as “for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“I can survive anywhere, although I had a plan for my life that was destroyed from its very roots,” said Ando, tears welling up in his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suffering. I’m just worried for Tomioka.”
FUKUSHIMA–Nearly half of households that evacuated following the Fukushima nuclear disaster have been split up while close to 70 percent have family members suffering from physical and mental distress, a survey showed.
The number of households forced to live apart exceeds the number that remain together, according the survey, the first by the Fukushima prefectural government that attempted to survey all households that evacuated.
The results were announced on April 28.
Between late January and early February, Fukushima Prefecture mailed the surveys to 62,812 households living within and outside the prefecture.
Of the 20,680 respondents, 16,965 households, or 82 percent, originally lived in the evacuation zone near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, while 3,683 households, or 18 percent, lived outside the zone but voluntarily evacuated after the nuclear accident unfolded in March 2011.
It was unclear if the remaining 32 households were originally within the evacuation zone.
Some 44.7 percent of the households still lived with all family members at their new homes. The figure included single-person households.
But 48.9 percent of households said their family members now live at two or more locations, including 15.6 percent whose family members are scattered at three or more locations, according to the survey.
The results showed that many households in municipalities near the nuclear plant originally contained many family members, but they were forced to give up living together as their lives in evacuation continued.
Families are often divided over the degree of fear about radiation contamination. Locations of workplaces and schools also split families, while many members end up living in separate temporary housing.
The prolonged life in evacuation, now in its fourth year, is taking a toll. The survey revealed that 67.5 percent of all households had family members showing symptoms of physical or psychological distress.
More than 50 percent said the cause of their ailments was that they “can no longer enjoy things as they did before” or they “have trouble sleeping.”
“Being constantly frustrated” and “tending to feel gloomy and depressed” followed, at over 40 percent.
More than one-third of respondents, or 34.8 percent, said their “chronic illness has worsened” since they entered their lives as evacuees.
The government panel responsible for deciding compensation levels for the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster said Nov. 22 that people who face prolonged evacuation from their homes will receive additional sums.
Lump-sum damages will primarily be paid to residents of the “difficult-to-return zones,” where annual radiation levels exceed 50 millisieverts. In these areas, the government evacuation order is expected to remain in place for the foreseeable future, and full-fledged decontamination and infrastructure recovery operations have yet to be planned.
The decision reflects a new policy by the government and ruling coalition to bolster support to evacuees on the assumption some will never be able to return to their homes.
The nuclear damage compensation dispute resolution center, set up under the science ministry, will include the new damages in additional compensation guidelines to be compiled in December.
Residents from areas under evacuation orders have already received lump-sum damages to help compensate for mental stress and suffering. Those payments ranged from 1.2 million yen to 6 million yen ($12,000 to $60,000), depending on where they lived.
The additional compensation is also expected to cover people who lived in two other evacuation zones with lower radiation levels in the towns of Okuma and Futaba, which co-host the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The damages will be paid regardless of whether residents eventually return home. Evacuees who are not able to return will receive more than those from areas where evacuation orders are lifted.
The dispute resolution center also proposed that evacuees who bought new homes after they relocated receive additional compensation equivalent to 50-100 percent of the difference between the value of land where they lived before the accident and the newly bought land.
SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture–With a series of leaks of radioactive water at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, fishermen such as Yoshinori Yamazaki are feeling frustrated after being forced to postpone trial operations scheduled to start in September.
Yamazaki, 45, who lives in Soma, about 40 kilometers north of the plant, said time is being wasted as he cannot go to sea with his father Matsuo, 71, and his 23-year-old eldest son.
Before the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011, the three generations of his family went fishing together.
Matsuo had been excited about his grandson joining in the family tradition.
“We (the family) were doing as well as anyone else,” Yamazaki said. “How many valuable years do we have to lose?”
The city’s Matsukawaura Port had boasted one of the largest fisheries hauls in the Tohoku region before the disaster. For many working at the port, fishing is a family business, with a number of teenagers and those in their 20s deciding to take up the trade each year.
Throughout the season, more than 100 species are caught in the waters off the port. In the morning, the fish market was crowded with the wives of fishermen helping sort the day’s catch.
But the port was devastated by the tsunami, which followed the earthquake on March 11, 2011, and killed 101 members of the Soma-Futaba fishing cooperative association.
In an effort to bounce back from the earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, the association started test operations in June 2012 for “mizudako” (North Pacific giant octopus) and two other species.
Conducting monitoring inspections, the association repeatedly checked samples to confirm safety of the catches.
Association members originally planned to triple the fishing grounds and increase the catch to 16 varieties when the trial operation resumed in September.
Yamazaki was well prepared for fishing for whitebait, a new species that was scheduled to be added in September. The fish, which brings high prices, is a lucrative catch for fishermen.
Fish detectors were showing large schools of whitebait, which have increased in number during the past years of suspension of fishing operations.
Yamazaki bought new fishing equipment, costing about 2 million yen ($20,000), to replace the gear that had been washed away in the tsunami.
The announcement by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, that highly radioactive water has been leaking at the Fukushima No. 1 plant came during such preparation.
Following the March 2011 earthquake, his son obtained a license as a heavy truck driver and a heavy machinery operator. Yamazaki has told him to wait “until things get better.”
“I cannot keep him from leaving home forever,” Yamazaki said. “This coast will be no more if young people are gone.”
His mother, then 65, who supported the family’s fishing operations, was killed in the tsunami while Matsuo piloted his boat to safety in waters off Soma immediately after the earthquake.
“Even three years after the disaster, I cannot operate the boat I had protected in exchange for my wife’s life,” Matsuo lamented. “It doesn’t seem right that I saved the boat.”
Nobuo Shishido, president of the Soma-based supermarket Super Shishido, has also been discouraged by lagging sales apparently due to media coverage about the contaminated water leaking into the ocean.
“Last summer, 10 times more octopus, caught during the trial fishing period, were sold than this year,” Shishido said. “Even if I want to sell, consumers do not respond.”
Of about 200 kilograms of octopus caught in Fukushima waters and stocked in early August, half have been left unsold.
According to the Soma-Futaba fishing cooperative association, octopus caught during the trial fishing period had been shipped to Tokyo and Nagoya. But wholesalers in Nagoya stopped accepting the octopus in late July, a week after TEPCO announced a leak of radioactive water.
Hiroyuki Sato, who heads the association, has also felt frustrated.
“Products we monitored and found to be safe have been given the cold shoulder (by our customers),” Sato, 57, said. “We have done many things until now, but we are right back where we started.”
Fukushima Prefecture has been monitoring radiation levels of fish since April 2011. The levels have shown recovery from the measurements taken immediately after the accident.
The prefecture measures weekly radiation levels of about 150 fish samples at about 40 locations in the waters off Fukushima Prefecture, except the area within a 5-km radius of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant.
In recent months, radiation levels have been at less than the detection limit of around 16 becquerels per kilogram for most species, such as flatfish, marbled flounder and whitebait.
According to the prefecture’s marine products division, the fisheries haul in coastal waters totaled only 122 tons in 2012, when Soma-Futaba started the trial operation, compared with about 26,000 tons, worth about 9 billion yen, each year before the 2011 disaster.
This year saw improvement, with a total of 386 tons of fish caught during trial operations while the concentration of cesium did not exceed the safety limit at many locations off the prefecture.
Aside from the Soma-Futaba fisheries cooperative association, the Iwaki fisheries cooperative, based in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, south of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, planned to launch a test operation in September for the first time since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.