Tuesday 11 March 2014

Over and Out

It's 3 years since that fateful day, 11th March 2011, 2:46 in the afternoon. The day everything changed and time stood still. It's become a measure of time. People talk of things happening 'before the disaster' (shinsaimae 震災前) and 'after the disaster' (shinsaigo 震災後). But there's little appetite here for anniversaries. The nuclear disaster is not something that's over and done with. There are 130,000 people still displaced, most of whom still have no clear idea of their future or where they will live. Contaminated water continues to accumulate at Fukushima Daiichi. Reactor 4 is the only one which people can go into. Radiation is so high in the other three that no one can get near. The radioactive materials that fell over Fukushima prefecture have been collected but the interim storage facilities have not yet been completed so the stuff sits in people's gardens, parks and schools. In the former exclusion zone decontamination is progressing but it's way behind schedule; it will only be carried out once; and it does not cover the woods. No, the accident is far from over.

I've been privileged (is that the right word? I think it is) to have shared the earthquake and the nuclear disaster with the people of Fukushima. But now my company's work is done and the office is moving to Tokyo (I will be based in Tokyo but spending more time in England). I've spent a heartbreaking few weeks saying goodbye to people I've known for over 30 years. And I've decided to end this blog. Some say I should continue from a distance but that doesn't seem right. I wrote it because I read the local papers, watched the local news, talked to people, walked around taking everything in with my eyes and ears, and camera. I don't want to be another commentator, a casual observer who comes and goes with no commitment to the place. There are too many of those already. So this will be my last post.

It's been a life changing experience. There were no phones or electricity for the first few days after the disaster. No water for a week. We all learnt to be self reliant. I bet there isn't a household in Fukushima that doesn't have at least two weeks' stock of food and water, and gas for heat and cooking. People get used to being able to buy anything from the convenience store at any time of day or night and don't know how to cope when things go wrong. We've learnt to stand on our own two feet, take charge, and depend on no one.

We also learnt to be aware and question important issues that affect our lives. I personally am still undecided about nuclear power. It may be a necessary interim measure to prevent the serious worldwide consequences of global warming. Fukushima prefecture has proclaimed - for obvious reasons and quite rightly - that it will be non nuclear and I uphold that stance. But we should all be concerned about nuclear waste. Before the disaster I don't think many people in Japan were aware that spent fuel was stored at the plants with nowhere to go. Worryingly, Abe's recently announced 'Energy Plan' made no mention of nuclear waste. Finland justifies its use of nuclear power through its construction of an underground facility where the waste will be buried until it is safe - 100,000 years. A facility in France is storing the waste for 100 years hoping that technology to dispose of the waste safely will be developed by then. People in Fukushima have seen the piles of waste in their own backyards and experienced the fear it brings. And this is only low level waste. The spent fuels and waste from decommissioning are much more dangerous. Reprocessing (in order to re-use the waste as fuel) produces plutonium which can be used for nuclear weapons. For these reasons the vast majority of Japanese citizens favour a gradual withdrawal from nuclear power. The current government seems set on re-opening the country's nuclear plants. One hopes public opinion will win out over the long term.

Koriyama, the second largest city in the Tohoku region after Sendai, has done pretty well attracting 'recovery' funding. A big national research institute for renewables, known here as Sansohken 産総研, is to open on April 1st. New buildings are going up on those empty plots of land I mentioned last year. New shops are being built to fill the gaps on the main road from the station. 

Finally, I'd like to pay tribute to the women and young people of Fukushima. After the earthquake the children had a month off school and the scenes on the TV were horrific. Families here suffered severe stress over fears of radiation and many families were separated. It's still common for the husband to work in Fukushima and his family to live somewhere else. March is graduation time, the end of the school year, and in interviews on TV and essays written by children many of them say they want to join the police or fire department, or become teachers and nurses for they saw these people in action after the disaster and admired the way they took charge. Or if a kid wants to be, say a baseball player, they'll add that then they'll be able to work with kids and give them a good time. Older students often say they'll go to university in Tokyo to get qualifications but hope to come back to help. Children were traumatised but the women here protected the children and the children have become strong, committed and public spirited. You can't help but feel optimistic about Fukushima's future.

Thank you for reading this blog. If it wasn't for your support I would never have kept it going.
Good bye,

Friday 7 March 2014


All eyes are on the village of Miyakoji (都路) where the ban is to be lifted - the first ban to be lifted in what used to be the exclusion zone (that 20 km concentric circle slapped round Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011). In April 2012 the area was designated an 'area to be prepared for the lifting of the ban' and this will come into effect on April 1st. One year later evacuees from the area will have their compensation payments stopped.

Miyakoji, population 357, is in a country area adjoining Namie and Okuma on Route 288 (known locally as Nipapa). Two years ago, in May 2012 after the area was reorganised, we travelled by car along that road through Miyakoji (which was deserted) to try and glimpse the barricades bordering the exclusion zone but we were turned back by police.
Kawauchi mura

The government says that since decontamination work was completed in August last year, the area is ready to be repatriated. Radiation levels are reported to be under 4 mSv/year. The local authority is to reopen the junior high and high school, build shops and try to attract investment. The government will give additional compensation to those who decide to return but monthly payments of 100,000 yen for 'psychological stress' will stop for all residents, wherever they live.

The residents first found out about this last summer and managed to delay the plan, putting the opening off from November last year to this April. The village is split between those who want to go back and get on with farming and those who want more reassurances. These include: repeating the decontamination work already done in order to reduce levels, clean the woods (which haven't been decontaminated yet), continue monitoring radiation, issue dosimeters, carry out health checks etc.

A friend who's a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun has written an article entitled 'Bureaucrats are Clever' which has had thousands of hits. He attended the meetings with local residents and explains how the bureaucrats managed to push the plan through even though the majority of residents were not happy about the ban  being lifted at this stage. He says they did not respond to residents' concerns such as: If the woods aren't going to be cleaned, will those who make their living there get compensated? What level of radiation is safe for children? The village needs to be safe: why are you planning to build an incinerator for radioactive materials here? The bureaucrats even resorted to quoting the Constitution at them (Article 22, freedom to live where you please) to justify their decision.
Kanryo wa atama ga iin desu (Japanese only)

It's a rum business.
March 19. Fujiwara Akio's article has appeared in the English version of the Mainichi. Worth reading. Bureaucrats are smart

Sunday 2 March 2014


I had lunch last week with a couple of guys I got to know from the Kasetsu (temporary shelter) in Koriyama for evacuees from Tomioka. I mentioned the article I'd seen in the paper about new homes to be built for occupation next year, 67 houses in Otama village about 10 miles north of Koriyama and 87 in Miharu, a town about 10 miles to the east. (Incidentally these are the first detached houses to be built, as opposed to flats.) 
  'Yeah, but there's nothing like enough' one of them said, 'There are 800 people here.'
  'So when do you think you'll be moving?' I asked.
  'Well, not this year. Next year, maybe?'

  'What's your biggest problem?' I asked.
  'We're tired', he said, 'and stressed. And it's getting worse, if anything. '
He went on to say, that he and his mate, were OK. They get out and about, and join in the activities that are organised. But many people won't go out. A lot of people are isolated and won't join in. He told me there had been some deaths, people dying alone and nobody knowing about it. (There's a word for it in Japanese koritsushi 孤立死.) But he said it caused such a scandal the welfare people were going around every day now so it probably wouldn't happen again.

These two guys seem OK. They try to take life day by day and look on the bright side. But it can't be easy. One of them, who is in his eighties has already paid for his funeral at a nearby funeral parlour in Koriyama. He's resigned to never going back to Tomioka. Though I have to say he looks extremely fit and well and unlikely to kick the bucket soon.

As we approach the third anniversary, the total number of people who have evacuated as a result of the nuclear accident totals 130,000 with 28,500 of these in kasetsu, the barrack style flimsy prefabs. There are plans to build 3,700 homes by March 2016 and a further 1,190 homes thereafter. But the plans are delayed. Soaring costs and a shortage of labour has meant tenders for public works have not been met. Only 576 homes, a tenth of the total planned, will be completed within this fiscal year.
So people sit it out. They should scream and shout some more. But that's not the way people from Fukushima do things ....
Snow almost gone. A grey Sunday morning.