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.
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The town of Naraha hosted a community festival at the newly completed Naraha Junior High School and other venues on March 21 to pray for its reconstruction and recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. Many residents who have evacuated to other municipalities returned to their hometown for the occasion and the event was filled with joy and laughter from the participants.
It was the town’s first large-scale event since the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The organizers said they wanted to let residents see in person the progress of recovery and reconstruction in the town, and hoped the event would motivate some to move back as well as build momentum for further rehabilitation.
The festival included a special lecture by TV personality-turned former Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, performances by popular animation and other characters, and small “class reunions” where residents of the same age groups got together to share their reminiscences of the old days.
In the festival’s finale, the residents released into the air about 200 balloons, on which were written their thoughts and wishes for Naraha, to pray for their hometown’s recovery, shouting “Our hearts are united as one, Naraha!”
Members of a fisheries cooperative in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, released young salmon into the Kido River on April 15 for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant accident. Released were some 10,000 salmon fry hatched in the Natsui River in Iwaki. The Naraha town office intends to decide in mid-May when to allow evacuees to return. The Kido River Fisheries Cooperative hopes the release of salmon that return to their native streams for spawning will pave the way for evacuees to come back.
The Kido is one of the rivers that boast large numbers of returning salmon on Japan’s main island of Honshu. But all fishing weirs and hatcheries were swept away by the tsunami tide that followed the 2011 temblor. Cooperative head Hideo Matsumoto and other members released the young salmon, 3 to 4 cm long, into the river. Many return to their natal rivers four years later after migrating through the oceans such as the Okhotsk and Bering seas as well as the Gulf of Alaska.
The cooperative and town authorities are considering rebuilding hatcheries and resuming the egg collection/hauling business in fall next year in the hope of restarting the release of self-hatched young salmon in the spring of 2016. Naraha Mayor Yukihide Matsumoto, who joined the release, said the town hopes to launch the rebuilding of weirs this year, pledging to support the cooperative in a manner leading to the return of evacuees.
The Fukushima prefectural city of Tamura’s Miyakoji district will be the first of the prefecture’s 11 municipalities to have its government-issued evacuation order lifted, allowing residents who fled after the outbreak of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster to return home starting April 1.
While some have rejoiced over the government’s decision, many are dissatisfied. A Mainichi Shimbun survey was taken between January and February this year of all Miyakoji households, to which 73 percent responded. Of these respondents, 47 percent said they wanted the termination of the evacuation order to wait until spring of 2015 or beyond, while 39 percent said they hoped it would happen this coming spring.
Evacuation orders are expected to be lifted in other prefectural municipalities, including the village of Kawauchi and the town of Naraha, as decontamination work is completed. And for the residents of those municipalities who will be forced to negotiate with the national government, I’d like to share some tips on the government’s tactics, based on what I learned from covering the situation in Miyakoji.
Firstly, it is important to read between the lines, and into the intent of what the government is ostensibly saying.
At a residents’ information session on Feb. 23, 2014, government officials announced the reversal of the evacuation order on the Miyakoji district’s eastern strip, a community of 117 households in the Abukuma Mountains. Residents opposed to lifting the order cited a range of reasons, including concerns about the effects of radiation on food from the area’s mountains and rivers and insufficient decontamination; blocked access to the Pacific Ocean side of the city, where residents had previously gone to shop and receive medical treatment; and dissatisfaction with the early termination of compensation for emotional distress.
In the latter half of the session, as if to demonstrate that there was nothing more to be discussed, government officials proposed lifting the evacuation order on April 1, and the meeting was adjourned. I made clear my suspicions about the hasty manner in which the conclusion was drawn, to which a bureaucrat at the meeting said, “Bureaucrats are smart.”
The remark was not meant as an insult to the residents. Rather, it implied that the meeting had been carried out according to a pre-planned strategy on the part of the government.
In June 2013, at a meeting held with residents soon after decontamination work had been carried out in Miyakoji, the government proposed a special overnight stay period for residents so they could visit their families’ graves and hold summer festivals. Most residents were under the impression that their stay would last the duration of the summer only, but the government extended it to a much longer period from August to October without any consultation with the residents. This had been a strategic move toward lifting the district’s evacuation order in November, a decision that would have to be made in October.
While this proposal was dropped due to residents’ objections, there was no discussion among the residents about the government’s motives in approaching them with the cloying suggestion that “you must want to go home for the summer.” It wasn’t until autumn had come to an end that residents grew angry that the government was always waiting to see what moves the residents would make before making its own sudden moves. Residents should have pursued the true intent behind the government officials’ remarks.
Secondly, the divisions that emerged between residents can become a major obstacle. Miyakoji residents were still relatively laid-back in the summer of last year, but they had harsh things to say about the situation by the time December rolled around. Some complained that when they opposed to termination of the evacuation order, they were accused of just being after compensation money, while others lamented that relationships between community members were broken beyond repair, and that they were constantly having to be careful not to step on anyone’s toes.
Eastern Miyakoji comprises four sections. In early 2014, one section asked for the evacuation order to be rescinded. Meanwhile, two sections with relatively high levels of radiation argued for an extended evacuation and additional decontamination, and another division was unable to reach a consensus. The national and city governments held meetings with each of the sections separately in January, but discussion of a possible timing for lifting the evacuation order was discussed only at a meeting with residents who wanted to return to Miyakoji. The voices of those yearning for a prompt termination of the evacuation order influenced the government’s Feb. 23 announcement to do so for the entire eastern part of Miyakoji in April. Ultimately, the divisions that had cut through Miyakoji residents had reinforced the government’s decision.
Thirdly, we must be cognizant that the government has a script in mind. The announcement at the Feb. 23 meeting to terminate the evacuation order sounded like something out of a dramatic performance. A resident had remarked that when they suggested having the order lifted, “a resident from another section of Miyakoji responded in a way that could be interpreted as a threat,” and proposed that for this reason, the government make the decision.
As soon as this proposal was made, officials from the Cabinet Office who had heretofore been silent cited the “right of abode” guaranteed in Article 22 of the Constitution and said, “The government has done everything it can. It would be appropriate to lift the evacuation order on April 1.” Similar remarks were made by government officials toward establishing a fait accompli. These phrases were uttered repeatedly in a wooden voice as if they were being read off a script; government sources have since admitted to having previously mapped out possible scenarios that might unfold at the meeting.
To counter the possibility of just one group of residents calling for something and the government rushing to realize it, residents must develop a strategy by choosing an eloquent facilitator from the community, deciding on areas of compromise, and formulating a script for expressing dissent against government decisions.
Fourthly, a sense of resignation can keep residents from being effective, and must be resisted. Among the reasons Miyakoji residents were unable to fight the April 1 lifting of evacuation orders was because of an overwhelming sense that “the government will do what it wants anyway,” and that “the government only says it will consider our requests.” But the residents are up against public servants. Because the job of public servants is to serve the public, residents need not hold back. Some have undoubtedly been made to feel “small” as a result of living in cramped temporary housing facilities for so long, but such people were robbed of their livelihoods and natural environments as a result of the government’s nuclear policy, due to no fault of their own. Residents should approach meetings with the government with the intention of “making use” of public servants.
The fifth point I found through my reporting of the Miyakoji situation is the closed nature of many of the meetings between the government and local residents. The government’s information sessions with Miyakoji residents were open to the public starting June 2013, but many of the meetings hosted by the Ministry of the Environment and the Fukushima Prefectural Government tend to be held behind closed doors. Authorities often say that their meetings are held privately to guarantee that resident participants can speak freely, or because such meetings have always been held that way. But residents should demand that a third party record the meetings’ proceedings and that the meetings be held publicly so they can receive advice from around the country.
Hopefully the five items I’ve outlined above will be of help to residents who face negotiations with the government regarding the lifting of evacuation orders and the construction of mid-term storage facilities for radiation-contaminated waste. (By Akio Fujiwara, Koriyama Bureau)