– Forced to Flee Radiation, Fearful Japanese Villagers Are Reluctant to Return (New York Times April 29, 2014):
MIYAKOJI, Japan — Ever since they were forced to evacuate during the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant three years ago, Kim Eunja and her husband have refused to return to their hilltop home amid the majestic mountains of this rural village for fear of radiation.
But now they say they may have no choice. After a nearly $250 million radiation cleanup here, the central government this month declared Miyakoji the first community within a 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant to be reopened to residents. The decision will bring an end to the monthly stipends from the plant’s operator that have allowed Ms. Kim to relocate to an apartment in a city an hour away.
“The government and the media say the radiation has been cleaned up, but it’s all lies,” said Ms. Kim, 55, who is from South Korea, and who with her Japanese husband runs a small Korean restaurant outside Miyakoji. “I want to run away, but I cannot. We have no more money.”
She is not the only one. While the central government and national news media have trumpeted the reopening of Miyakoji as a happy milestone in Japan’s recovery from the devastating March 2011 accident, many residents tell a darker story. They insist their homes remain too dangerous or too damaged to inhabit and that they have not received enough financial compensation to allow them to start anew somewhere else.
They criticize the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, for failing to reimburse them for the value of their homes, usually their family’s largest financial asset. Depending on where they lived, they say they have received amounts from half the preaccident value to just $3,000, a tiny fraction of the original value of their homes.
Many villagers complain that these amounts are not enough to move farther away from the plant, which is still leaking radiation, or to repair their traditional wooden farmhouses, which have started to rot and collapse since they were damaged by the earthquake and then abandoned.
As a result, many evacuees have been forced to live in a state of limbo since the accident, unable to leave barracks-like temporary housing, or end their dependency on Tepco for monthly stipends to live in apartments outside the village. Tepco pays the stipends under orders from the government.
Now they feel growing pressure to return whether they want to or not. The government has declared that the stipends, which range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, will end next March, when temporary housing will also begin to be closed. Villagers who move back before then will receive a $9,000 bonus from Tepco, adding to the pressure to return.
“Tepco is being so stupidly unfair with the compensation,” said Yukei Tomitsuka, the mayor of Tamura, the city that administers Miyakoji. “We are the victims. Should we have to go hat in hand to Tepco to ask for more money?”
Experts call Miyakoji a forerunner of the problems that will be faced by the 150,000 people displaced by the accident over all, as additional communities are reopened as a result of a $36 billion government-financed cleanup. They say the evacuees will feel increasing pressure to go back from a government that wants to restore the preaccident status quo as much as possible to limit criticism of the powerful nuclear industry.
“This is inhumane and irresponsible,” said Teruhisa Maruyama, a lawyer who leads the Support Group for Victims of the Nuclear Accident, a Tokyo-based legal organization that helps residents seek increased compensation.
“The national government knows that full compensation could add up to big money, enough to raise public doubts about the wisdom of using nuclear power in Japan.”
Tepco refused to comment, beyond saying that it had so far paid out $36 billion for all types of compensation. “Our company is sincerely listening to the details of each claim,” said Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, a Tepco spokesman. A spokesman for the Education Ministry, which is setting compensation standards, said that the ministry was trying to respond to evacuees’ needs, but that it was hard to meet all the requests. A government committee set up to resolve compensation-related disputes says it has received more than 10,000 requests from disgruntled evacuees.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tamura last month, Mayor Tomitsuka handed him a letter asking that residents be given more compensation for their homes. The prime minister has yet to reply.
Almost 500 residents of Miyakoji have recently joined one of two separate group lawsuits demanding that Tepco pay more compensation, a rare show of rising frustrations in a close-knit Japanese rural community, which usually abhors conflict-causing litigation.
While many evacuees, particularly families with children, say they do not want to go back because of radiation, the government says that Miyakoji is safe. Radiation levels were relatively low there to begin with, since most of the plant’s radiation plume missed the area. The massive cleanup, which involved some 1,300 workers scraping up contaminated dirt and resurfacing areas around homes with clean gravel, lowered radiation levels even further.
On a recent trip here, radiation measured up to 0.23 microsieverts per hour, about three times preaccident levels but below those of some communities outside the evacuation zone. Whether or not that level is safe is a contentious question: Experts admit that they know little about the health effects of long-term exposure to low-dose radiation.
Authorities had hoped that Miyakoji could serve as a model for repopulating the evacuated communities. So far, only about a third of residents have returned, and most of them are older villagers who feel they have less to worry about from the long-term cancer risks of radiation.
All of the village’s 3,000 residents were evacuated the day after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the plant. The majority of villagers, who lived farther than 12 miles from the plant, were paid $3,000 to cover damage to their homes and were allowed to return six months later. Most have yet to move back even now, mainly for fear of radiation, though some complain that stores and other services have not reopened.
The 357 villagers with homes inside the 12-mile zone were not allowed to return until April 1, more than three years after the accident. They received the highest compensation, about half the preaccident value of their homes.
One was Yoshikuni Munakata, 63, who on a recent afternoon was repairing a collapsed shed at his farm about nine miles southwest of the destroyed plant.
Mr. Munakata said the $50,000 that he had received in compensation was not nearly enough to fix the old farmhouse built by his grandfather, where the wooden floors warped so badly that the sliding doors no longer close. But while he could not move back, he also cannot leave. He said he tried to do so right after the accident, going to the northern island of Hokkaido to start a new life as a van driver. However, he said he gave up after 18 months for lack of money, and came back to collect his monthly living stipends.
He said he is unsure of what will happen to him once those stipends end in March.
“My home is a total loss,” said Mr. Munakata. He said he was not afraid of radiation because he used to work at the Fukushima Daiichi plant before retiring. “The compensation payments force us to come back, but they are not enough to let us live here again.”
Among those who have not come back are Ms. Kim and her husband, Satoshi Mizuochi. They sank their life savings of about $300,000 into their home, where they had planned to spend their remaining years.
With few buyers likely to step forward, they say their home is now essentially worthless. But with only a tiny income from their restaurant, they say they will probably have to go back once their rent stipends end in March. “They want to say that everything is back to normal so they can keep their nuclear plants,” said Mr. Mizuochi, 57, who helps his wife at the restaurant. “Failing to compensate us for our losses is a way of pressuring us to go back.”