The central government is considering permitting residents in the wholly evacuated town of Namie to begin temporary stays at their homes this fall in preparation for the lifting of an evacuation order issued after the 2011 nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. The move was unveiled at the first meeting with Namie residents held in Tokyo on June 23 as part of efforts to end the town’s evacuation. The government also showed a plan to allow residents “special” temporary home stays in mid-August ahead of the preparatory lodging and indicated that it will specify by the turn of the year when to lift the evacuation order.
At the meeting, government officials explained that a formal decision on the schedule will be taken on the basis of opinions expressed at the gathering after consultations with the town office and municipal assembly. After the meeting, Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba told reporters that it would be difficult to carry out the proposed special stays in mid-August because of the time required for hearings with residents and talks with the assembly, adding that the municipal authorities are “considering implementing the trial home stays around mid-September.”
The meeting was attended by about 100 residents. Municipal and national government officials briefed them on several issues, including the outline of a report on the removal of the evacuation order submitted by a study committee comprising experts, the town’s efforts for post-disaster reconstruction, and progress in decontamination and reactor-decommissioning work. Some residents expressed concern about the level of radiation dosage while others complained of difficulties preparing for preparatory and permanent returns due to dilapidation of their residences.
Plans to build new public apartments for the nuclear refugees in Fukushima Prefecture are stalling because the prefectural government is struggling to attract bids from contractors.
On Jan. 31, Fukushima announced that a project for a 16-unit concrete apartment complex in the city of Aizuwakamatsu in the western part of the prefecture failed to attract bidders. It failed because the eight private contractors who participated didn’t make offers that matched the prefecture’s budget amid surging demand for labor and materials in disaster-hit Tohoku.
It was Fukushima’s second public housing project to attract bids. Last August, an offer for a 20-unit apartment block in the city of Koriyama also failed twice. The prefecture finally found a contractor after raising the initial price twice.
Efforts to acquire land for new apartments are also stalling as negotiations with landowners are taking longer than expected. Of the 3,700 units scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015, only 60 percent, or 2,360, were ready to be built, unhindered by land acquisition problems.
Because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that unfolded in March 2011, six towns and villages that had to be evacuated — Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba, Namie, Katsurao and Iitate — plan to build “out-of-town” communities where reinforced public apartments play a central role. The prefecture plans to build 4,890 units to house people from these and 13 other municipalities.
The prefecture has not come up with good ideas to expedite public housing, and the evacuees are facing the very real possibility they could be in temporary lodging for years to come. The fastest project to be completed so far is the 20-unit complex in Koriyama, which won’t start accepting residents until October.
When the evacuees move in, the prefectural government plans to let groups of residents who formed close ties in the shelters occupy neighboring units at the new apartments so those relationships can be preserved.
This is a lesson learned from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when the shift to permanent public housing severed bonds the evacuees had formed in its aftermath, leaving them socially isolated and leading to a surge in solitary deaths.
NAMIE, Japan — Every month, Hiroko Watabe, 74, returns for a few hours to her abandoned house near the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant to engage in her own small act of defiance against fate. She dons a surgical mask, hangs two radiation-measuring devices around her neck and crouches down to pull weeds.
She is desperate to keep her small yard clean to prove she has not given up on her home, which she and her family evacuated two years ago after a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami devastated the plant five miles away. Not all her neighbors are willing to take the risk; chest-high weeds now block the doorways of their once-tidy homes.
“In my heart, I know we can never live here again,” said Ms. Watabe, who drove here with her husband from Koriyama, the city an hour away where they have lived since the disaster. “But doing this gives us a purpose. We are saying that this is still our home.”
While the continuing environmental disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has grabbed world headlines — with hundreds of tons of contaminated water flowing into the Pacific Ocean daily — a human crisis has been quietly unfolding. Two and a half years after the plant belched plumes of radioactive materials over northeast Japan, the almost 83,000 nuclear refugees evacuated from the worst-hit areas are still unable to go home. Some have moved on, reluctantly, but tens of thousands remain in a legal and emotional limbo while the government holds out hope that they can one day return.
As they wait, many are growing bitter. Most have supported the official goal of decontaminating the towns so that people can return to homes that some families inhabited for generations. Now they suspect the government knows that the unprecedented cleanup will take years, if not decades longer than promised, as a growing chorus of independent experts have warned, but will not admit it for fear of dooming plans to restart Japan’s other nuclear plants.
That has left the people of Namie and many of the 10 other evacuated towns with few good choices. They can continue to live in cramped temporary housing and collect relatively meager monthly compensation from the government. Or they can try to build a new life elsewhere, a near impossibility for many unless the government admits defeat and fully compensates them for their lost homes and livelihoods.
“The national government orders us to go back, but then orders us to just wait and wait,” said Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of this town of 20,000 people that was hastily evacuated when explosions began to rock the plant. “The bureaucrats want to avoid taking responsibility for everything that has happened, and we commoners pay the price.”
For Namie’s residents, government obfuscation is nothing new. On the day they fled, bureaucrats in Tokyo knew the direction they were taking could be dangerous, based on computer modeling, but did not say so for fear of causing panic. The townspeople headed north, straight into an invisible, radioactive plume.
Before the disaster, Namie was a sleepy farming and fishing community, stretching between mountains and the Pacific. These days, it is divided into color-coded sections that denote how contaminated various areas are, and how long former residents can stay during limited daytime-only visits. They are issued docimeters on their way in, and are screened on their way out. Next to one checkpoint, a sign warns of feral cows that have roamed free since fleeing farmers released them.
Inside the checkpoints, Namie is a ghost town of empty streets cluttered with garbage and weeds, unheard-of in famously neat Japan. Some traditional wooden farmhouses survived the earthquake, though they have not survived the neglect. They collapsed after rain seeped in, rotting their ancient wooden beams. Their tiled roofs spill into the roads.
Through gritty shop windows, merchandise that fell off shelves in the quake can still be seen scattered on the floor. In the town hall, calendars remain open to March 2011, when the disaster struck.
Officials have reoccupied a corner of the building for their Office for Preparation to Return to the Town, though their only steps so far have been to install portable toilets and post guards to prevent looting. The national government hopes to eventually deploy an army of workers here to scrape up tons of contaminated soil. But officials have run into a roadblock: they have found only two sites in the town where they can store toxic dirt; 49 would be needed.
Just last month, the government admitted that such travails had left the cleanup hopelessly behind schedule in 8 of the 11 towns, which they originally promised would be cleaned by next March. Even in the places where cleanup has begun, other troubles have surfaced. Scouring the soil had only limited success in bringing down radiation levels, partly because rain carries more contaminants down from nearby mountains.
The Environmental Ministry now says the completion of the cleanup in the eight towns, including Namie, has been postponed and no new date has been set.
In Namie, a town hall survey showed that 30 percent of residents have given up on reclaiming their lives in their town, 30 percent have not, and 40 percent remained unsure.
Ms. Watabe’s visits have been emotionally painful, and scary. She says her husband’s car dealership was robbed. Her yard was invaded by a dangerous wild boar, which she managed to chase off. She considers weeding her driveway so risky that she waved away a visitor who offered to help, pointing to her dosimeter showing readings two and a half times the level that would normally force an evacuation.
She reminisced about her once close-knit community, where neighbors stopped by for leisurely chats over tea. She raised her four children here, and her 10 grandchildren were regular visitors; their stuffed animals and baby toys lie amid the debris on the dealership floor.
Her youngest son, whose own family had shared the house and who was supposed to take over the family business, has vowed never to return. He moved, instead, to a Tokyo suburb, worried that even the taint of an association with Namie could cause his two young daughters to face the same sort of discrimination as the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“The young people have already given up on Namie,” Ms. Watabe said. “It is only the old people who want to come back.”
“And even we will have to give up soon,” her husband, Masazumi, added.
While their chances of making it back seem low, their former neighbors in the town’s mountainous western half are even less likely to return anytime soon. The Watabes’ house sits in the orange zone, indicating mid-level radiation. Most of the west is a red zone, the worst hit.
The road that winds up a narrow gorge of roaring rapids from the main town seemed idyllic on a recent visit, except for the bleating of a radiation-measuring device. Cleanup here was always expected to be harder, given the difficulties of trying to scrape whole mountainsides clean.
Near the entryway of her three-century-old farmhouse, 84-year-old Jun Owada swept her tatami floor clean of the droppings from the mice that moved in when she moved out. She had returned this day to perform a traditional mourning rite, washing the grave of her husband, who died before the earthquake.
Unlike the Watabes, she has decided to move on, and is living with a son in suburban Tokyo even as she comes back to honor a past she is putting behind her. Every time she visits, she said, she receives a dose equivalent to one or two chest X-rays even if she remains indoors. As she pushed her broom, she pointed out things she could not fix.
The terraced rice paddies are overgrown, and although her home’s thick wooden beams have held out longer than her neighbors’, they, too, are starting to rot.
“One look around here,” she said, “and you know right away that there is no way to return.”
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.
Owners of six small and midsize businesses from Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures opened Roku Farm Atalata on Sunday, a multipurpose facility in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, featuring such services as a restaurant serving ingredients harvested from directly managed farms and an oven that can be used even in times of disaster.
The facility employs local residents who experienced the disaster, among others, and hopes to contribute to their future independence.
The founders of Roku Farm Atalata gathered to help soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 at the call of Masayuki Shimada, 30, an agricultural consultant in Natori. The six had only been slightly acquainted, but they became closer through such activities as serving meals to people affected by the disaster.
Ultimately they agreed to start a joint operation aimed at reconstruction, and settled on the construction and operation of a facility that would contribute to the creation of an agriculture industry handling everything from production through sales, as well as help create jobs.
The group received about ¥600 million in bank financing and purchased about 4,000 square meters of land in Natori. Four wooden buildings with glass walls were constructed, covering a total floor space of about 830 square meters.
“Roku” refers to the six founding members, among other things, while “Atalata” is a word they created based on a French word meaning “to create a bond.” There is a restaurant that serves vegetables from such places as farms directly managed by Natori and Tagajo, also in the prefecture, as well as a soba restaurant that uses buckwheat from Yamagata Prefecture and demonstrates the process of making soba by hand.
Based on the experience of having foodstuffs after the 2011 disaster but not being able to cook them, the project also set up an oven that does not require gas or electricity to work. During normal times, it will be used to make bread.
Also, many community centers and other facilities were washed away by tsunami, leaving residents fewer places in which to gather. Therefore, the members decided to rent out one of Roku Farm Atalata’s buildings as a community facility.
The project has hired 60 people, including local residents who experienced the disaster and disabled persons. They eventually hope to raise the number to 100.
“We’re glad if we can help victims of the disaster be independent. We want to convey the importance of agriculture through food,” said Tetsuya Watanabe, 45, who serves as representative director of the general incorporated association that manages the facility.
Business hours and other details can be found at the Roku Farm Atalata website at http://www. atalata.com.
Tamotsu Baba, mayor of Namie town in Fukushima Prefecture, on Aug. 18 indicated his readiness to accept the central government’s proposal by the year-end to reclassify the town’s evacuation zones into three areas in line with radiation levels.
One of the three areas is classified as difficult to return to for a long period of time due to high levels of radiation. The other two are a residence-restricted area with visitation-only access and an area ready for the lifting of evacuation orders.
Speaking to reporters after attending a symposium in the city of Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, the mayor said, “I’d like to reclassify the town into three areas by the end of the year.” The Namie municipal government had suspended talks with the central government on the reclassification proposal, citing Tokyo’s slow response to the town government’s request on the payment of damages and health supervision for the town’s residents.
Baba, however, has apparently judged the way for settling these issues has been paved, and decided to resume talks with the central government on the reclassification.
The Namie municipal government plans to launch talks with the central government on how to draw the line between the areas for reclassification and to explain the matter to the town assembly and residents where necessary.
During a question-and-answer session at the symposium from residents on the reclassification, the mayor noted the importance of the payment of damages, decontamination work and health supervision for residents.
“The reclassification will be made in the not-so-distant future,” Baba said, adding the central government has reacted to the requests. “Many people wish to resume normal life now that 17 months have passed since the outbreak of the nuclear disaster” at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.