On October 02, I visited the towns of Tomioka and Naraha in Fukushima prefecture. Tomioka is situated within 10 km south of Fukushima Dai-ichi (No. 1) nuclear power plant, where four of the six reactors exploded following the major earthquake and the tsunami of March 11, 2011. It is now a ghost town as it is still under a mandatory evacuation order. Many houses along the road we toured by bus appeared still new, as if they had been built just before the disaster. They also looked intact, at least from the outside, but the owners may never be able to return to them.
Arriving in front of the Tomioka Dai-ni (No. 2) junior high school, our guide suggested that we get off to take a quick peek through the glass door of its gym. The area had not been affected by the tsunami, and the evacuation order was apparently issued in the middle of a graduation ceremony being held there. One can imagine how panicky people inside must have become at the news of the first explosion close by. Papers and chairs were scattered on the gym floor in chaos. One can imagine that there was at least an auspicious event going on when people suddenly had to flee. The red-and-white-striped curtain still hung around the walls inside.
I then took a quick look at the athletic field. After 5.5 years since the accident, the whole ground was overtaken by thick and tall weeds. One would not realize that it had been the area where kids used to run, play baseball, etc. Even the goals for soccer game were almost covered by the overgrown weeds. Standing there, I wondered where the children and their families had fled to.
On the other hand, the situation in Naraha, about 15 km south of the nuclear power station, is a bit different. The evacuation order for the town was lifted on Sept. 05, 2015 after decontamination work had been carried out. According to Mr. Tokuo Hayakawa, the resident priest of a 600-year-old Buddhist temple in town called Houkyou-ji, however, few former residents had returned. For example, out of the 7,363 residents registered with the municipal government at the time of the lifting of evacuation order, only 440, or approximately 6%, came back. Among those under the age of 50, however, only 49 persons, or 0.7%, returned.
According to the priest, the decontamination work normally involved the scrubbing of rooftop and removing of old leaves and the surface of the earth within 20 meters around the house, making the radiation level around the house low enough to live, at least immediately after the work. However, no work is carried out in fields, woods and forests where radiation is still considerably high. As many houses in this rural town stand near wooded areas, the radiation level surrounding the house still varied depending on weather conditions. Under this circumstance, many families with children have opted to remain as evacuees elsewhere as they still feel their hometown unsafe for the children to live normally.
Many victims of the disaster are skeptical of government policies in dealing with them. One such policy concerns the maximum dose of radiation exposure people are allowed per year for maintaining healthy life. Before the accident, the Japanese government had accepted the standard set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which was 1mSv/year. After the disaster, however, it raised to 20mSv/year. Rather than questioning this decision by the national government in view of protecting its own residents, the Fukushima prefectural government has gone along with it. No wonder that many residents from affected towns and villages have decided to continue living elsewhere as evacuees.
However, the Japanese government is now putting pressure on voluntary evacuees to go home. Those from the areas where mandatory evacuation order has been lifted after decontamination work are now considered as evacuees on their own discretion. The government has announced that the housing assistance to such people would be discontinued after March 2017. Those who resist this pressure rightly demand that the government and TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company which was responsible for the accident in Fukushima, restore the environment in their hometowns back to the previous state. According to the Citizen’s Network for Evacuation from Radiation, a non-profit organization helping the evacuees from Fukushima, there were still 49,333 individuals evacuated to elsewhere within Fukushima prefecture (as of June 20, 2016). On the other hand, 41,532 persons were accounted for as evacuees in other prefectures (as of May 16, 2016). How many of them are now considered as voluntary evacuees is not clear, however.
One other government’s stance that I consider so inhumane and unacceptable concerns people’s health in relation to the disaster, particularly that of children. Since 2011, Fukushima prefecture has conducted rounds of medical exam of the children under the age of 18 at the time of the disaster. The first round held between 2011 and 2013 covered 300,476 children, while the second round held between 2014 and 2015 included 199,772. Among those examined, 172 have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, 131 of them have already been operated, while 41 are waiting to be operated. This is compared with only one or two cases of thyroid cancer reported among 1 million people (Info provided in the Leaflet by the Citizen’s Network for Evacuation from Radiation, dated June 28, 2016). Nevertheless, the “medical specialists” responsible for the examination conducted under the auspices of the prefectural government assert that there is no convincing link between those cases with the nuclear accident. They claim that it is due to screening effect, meaning that highly advanced instrument used for exam detect even those at the very early stage of cancer that can be ignored for some time. However, this does not explain the fact that so many children had to be operated!
The words of the “specialists”, condoned by the national and prefectural governments, are not comforting to the parents and their children living in fear after the disaster. I consider inhumane for the authorities to demand that possible victims of the disaster prove the link between thyroid cancers or any other sicknesses with radiation exposure. Rather, I suggest that residents demand that the authorities prove that the disaster had nothing to do with the cases of sicknesses reported since March 2011. This can be done by carrying out similar exams on children in some selected prefectures to compare the result. If the cases of children’s thyroid cancer are truly due to screening effect as they claim, they should obtain similar results elsewhere.