Since the initial evacuations, the Japanese government has been telling people they will go home very soon. The disaster is now approaching 10 years without any meaningful “recovery”.
Many of the evacuee assistance programs have ended. Areas that were part of the worst of the fallout zone have been reopened, in many cases being used to compel evacuees to return home.
In Iitate, part of the “difficult to return zone”, a section of the town was listed as a “disaster recovery base“. The disaster recovery base allows a section of a town to be decontaminated and some basic services built in that location. This is done with the assumption that residents will eventually return and need some basic town functions in order to do so. In addition to this recovery base, Iitate is attempting to designate another area a “disaster recovery park“. It isn’t clear if this area would be set aside for business and industrial use or for some other use. These areas would have the evacuation orders lifted first, before residential areas would be considered. The government still holds an annual exposure level of 20 mSv/year as the threshold for reopening an area. The normal international public exposure limit is 1 mSv/year. 20 mSv/year is the maximum radiation exposure allowed for nuclear workers in Japan.
Japan’s nuclear regulator has approved reopening residential areas in the difficult to return zone without prior decontamination work. In order for residents to live there, they will need to wear a dosimeter, have annual exposures below 20 mSv/year and decontamination work may need to take place.
Reopening metrics have been problematic in other areas already reopened. Decontamination work would result in re-contamination as dusts and soils migrate back in from areas not decontaminated. In some towns, common areas were decontaminated down to desired levels while other parts of the town remained highly contaminated.
A recently published study showed how significant the redistribution of radioactive cesium contained in soils and sediment during a weather event like a typhoon can be. With almost 70% of the land based fallout from the disaster deposited in forest areas, the potential for re-contamination remains high.
In Futaba, one of the two towns that host the Fukushima Daiichi disaster site, trial cultivation of vegetables is taking place. The vegetables will be harvested in the fall then tested. If the crops are under the government radiation maximum of 100 bq/kg, the farms can apply to begin farming again. Futaba plans to have residents to return by 2022.
At the same time agriculture producers in the region worry that plans for TEPCO to release tritium into the air or sea would be the final blow for food production in the region.
Futaba plans to reopen the entire town by 2022. Farmland, houses and forest areas near homes would need to be decontaminated at least once to pass review. Futaba was part of the highest radiation fallout levels after the initial disaster. NPR visited the reopened portions of Futaba that remain untouched and degraded since the 2011 evacuation. A new train station was built to host the torch relay of the now deferred Tokyo Olympics.
The local police officer for Futaba mentioned to reporters that the area may be reopened but no one can live there. There is no electricity, water, or basic services and wild boar roam the area at night.
In Okuma a new town hall and a cluster of new small homes was built in 2019. The rest of the community remains mostly untouched. Only about 4% of Futaba’s residents have returned, 2% of Okuma’s.
Naraha, one of the early towns to reopen, has seen about 60% of residents return in the last five years. New or returning residents have declined in recent years, leaving the assumption that few more will move there.
In Tomioka, the eastern half of the town has been reopened since 2017. Few have returned to decontaminate residential properties, something key to having residents return. The city now wants to do the decontamination work on residential properties themselves to accelerate making the area available for residency. The city plans to tear down damaged homes with owners permission.
Many communities in the region remain abandoned, damaged and degrading, even as the government moves to declare them reopened. Photographer Arkadiusz Podniesinski has been documenting the decay of the abandoned communities in Fukushima. His photo essays say more than words could describe.
While communities try to reopen and recover business activity, the region near the disaster site has been designated as a storage site for contaminated soil bags from all over Japan.
Outside of the photo friendly new train stations and town halls, the region has not seen the miracle recovery promised by Tokyo that would prove the disaster was a mere bump in the road. The 2020 Olympics touted as the “recovery Olympics” with many events set in Fukushima prefecture is now delayed to 2021 due to the pandemic. There are doubts the Olympics will be held in 2021 due to the lack of a vaccine to prevent the weeks of international games from turning into a super spreader event.
With few willing to return, distrust over the government handling of safety measures and a lack of the things people would need to live in the area again, the early promises have failed to bring the kind of change politicians hoped for.
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