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4 Years After Fukushima Nuclear Calamity, Japanese Divided on Whether to Return via The New York Times

IITATE, Japan — For four years, an eerie quiet has pervaded the clusters of farmhouses and terraced rice paddies of this mountainous village, emptied of people after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 25 miles away, spewed radiation over a wide swath of northeastern Japan.

Now, Iitate’s valleys are filled again with the bustle of human activity, as heavy machinery and troops of workers wearing face masks scoop up contaminated soil into black garbage bags.

They are part of a more than $10 billion effort by the central government in Tokyo to clean up fallout from the 2011 accident and allow many of the 80,000 displaced residents of Iitate (pronounced EE-tah-tay) and 10 other evacuated communities around the plant to go home.

Last month, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed to take a big step toward that goal by adopting a plan that would permit two-thirds of evacuees to return by March 2017, the sixth anniversary of the disaster.

But while some evacuees have cheered this chance to return, many more have rejected it. Thousands from Iitate and elsewhere have joined lawsuits or organized groups to oppose the plan by the government, which they say is trying to force residents to go back despite radiation levels that are still far above normal.
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“If the national officials think it is so safe, then they should come and live here,” said Kenji Hasegawa, a former dairy farmer in Iitate who has organized more than 3,000 fellow evacuees — almost half the village’s pre-disaster population — to oppose the return plan. “The government just wants to proclaim that the nuclear accident is over, and shift attention to the Olympics.”
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A survey last month by the pronuclear newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun showed that eight of the mayors of the 11 evacuated towns dislike the 2017 return date, though some said they had no choice but to accept it. Other mayors, such as Tamotsu Baba of the town of Namie, have offered alternative proposals that push back the return date, and offer more financial support to those who do not want to return.

One of the biggest complaints about the new return plan is that it is intended to force evacuees to return by cutting off compensation payments. A provision in the new plan calls for ending monthly payments by March 2018 in favor of subsidies to help them return. Many evacuees say cutting off the monthly payments would compel them to return, since many, particularly those over 50 or so, have failed to find new livelihoods since the disaster.

“This is all being done coercively, without listening to the desires of the victims,” said Izutaro Managi, a lawyer who is handling one of the lawsuits, filed on behalf of more than 4,000 people, mostly residents of Fukushima, seeking more compensation.
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Most of the families with young children, who are at most risk from the radiation, have already restarted lives elsewhere, and express no intention of going back. But even many older evacuees, who say they do not fear the radiation as much, call it too early to return without the prospect of being able to restart their rice or dairy farms in the contaminated soil.

One of the village’s most vocal opponents of the return plan is Mr. Hasegawa, 62, whose distrust of the central government remains so deep that he visits his former dairy farm once a month to conduct his own measurements of radiation levels using a Geiger counter.

He says his results are consistently higher than those from government monitoring posts, and are not falling anywhere near quickly enough, despite the decontamination efforts, to allow him to restart his dairy farm within two years.

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“Sending us back is just another ploy by officials to avoid taking responsibility for what happened,” said Mr. Hasegawa, who now lives with his aging parents in a cramped, prefabricated apartment an hour from the evacuation zone.

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