Eight years after the nuclear meltdown, wary citizens are moving back to contaminated homesteads—some not by choice
Radiation from the fuming plant spread over tile-roofed towns and rice paddies across an area the size of Connecticut. The meltdown 150 miles north of Tokyo drove more than 200,000 people out of the region. Most believed they were fleeing for their lives. Now, almost eight years after the accident, the government has lifted most evacuation orders. Nearly 122,000 people have been allowed to return to communities where weeds have overtaken parking lots. Most are elderly, relieved to be resuming their lives. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is determined to end all evacuations by 2020, when Japan will host the Olympic Summer Games. The events will include baseball and softball competitions in Fukushima City, a mere 55 miles from the ruined reactors.
Around 35,000 other citizens still wait to return, but they and many others throughout northeastern Japan worry all of this is too soon. Radiation, which is generally linked to cancer, in some places continues to measure at least 5 millisieverts (mSv) a year beyond natural background radiation, five times the added level Japan had recommended for the general public prior to the incident. In certain spots radioactivity is as high as 20 mSv, the maximum exposure recommended by international safety experts for nuclear power workers.
If the government is going to fully restore lives and livelihoods, it needs to regain their trust, says nuclear engineer Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor at Nagasaki University and former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission. That, he says, should include respecting international safety standards for radiation and lowering the allowable level at least to 5 mSv, although he acknowledges “even 5 mSv is too high for children.”
In spite of these concerns, Japan has continued to showcase repatriation as a barometer of progress toward recovery. By April 2017, the government had lifted all evacuations except for the most contaminated places closest to Daiichi. That decision also ended rent-free housing provided to people who were forced to leave as well as to some 26,600 people like Ueki who vacated voluntarily. Left without the $1,000 monthly subsidy provided by Tokyo Electric Company, some people have been forced to return home despite their safety concerns.* They have no other economic options, says Hajime Matsukubo, general manager of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. Some 16,000 people who refuse to return have been financially abandoned, according to the center.