Some areas are still being decontaminated, 58,000 people are still displaced from their homes and the local farming and fishing industries have been devastated as no one wants produce from a radiation-hit area
Fukushima: a place still trying to move on from nuclear disaster six years ago
The disastrous effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 are still being felt across Japan and it has dramatically affected citizen’s trust in that form of energy generation.
After a strong 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit the area, the resulting tsunami affected large parts of the country’s east coast, killing almost 16,000 people and leading to the shutdown of the Fukushima plant after the wave cut off power and led to the nuclear reactors’ cores melting.
Fukushima prefecture alone saw 4,000 deaths, almost half of which related to health deterioration due to living as evacuees, so the area has paid a heavy price for having been the victim of what has become known in Japan as the Great East Japan Earthquake.
For a country that relied heavily on nuclear power before, the effects of that fateful time have been huge.
“Before the earthquake, our policy target was to use half of our total energy from nuclear by 2030,” said Masaru Nakaiwa, director-general of the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute in Koriyama, a city in the centre of the prefecture. “But the policy completely changed after the earthquake and now we need to increase our renewable energy. Our target is to use about 23 to 25 per cent from renewables, from 10 per cent today.”
The human cost was also devastating - almost 165,000 evacuees a year later, of which 58,000 are still displaced today. Overall, three per cent of Fukushima’s population of almost 1.9 million are still living away from where they called home. And although many towns have had their evacuation orders lifted following decontamination and reconstruction, others such as Futaba are still sealed off to residents due to high radiation, exceeding 50 millisievert.
“People in Fukushima are still suffering from radiation diseases so they want to recover and go back to normal,” Mr Nakaiwa said. “My area was distant from the nuclear power plant so we don’t have such an emotional mindset against it. Japanese people in general are not afraid of nuclear, they just don’t choose to eat food from the area, for instance. It’s a very serious problem.”
One grain of good news that came on Tuesday was that a lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 3,800 people affected by the disaster was successful and now Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the Japanese government have been ordered by a district court to pay them damages amounting to 500 million yen (Dh16.3m).
That may help some of the more than half of those who have still not returned to their homes near the power plant live in surrounding areas.
“People’s return depends on the area,” he said. “One problem is they have to look for jobs, education and schools where there are none. Students don’t want to come to schools near the area of the power plant, so if some want to go back to school, the infrastructure is still not there.”
Although some schools resumed recently for the first time in six years, there is still a need to rebuild a society from scratch, including education and transportation.
“The Fukushima prefecture is very wide from east to west and the disaster is all in the east. The local government is trying to help but it’s very hard for people to come back when you still have to decontaminate the area,” Mr Nakaiwa said.
Land decontamination is still ongoing, with residents moving back when given the all-clear, but the process is slow due to the lack of infrastructure.
The region’s main industries of farming and fishery were also severely hit.
“It had a great impact on them because of harmful rumours that take time to get rid of,” he said. “We are contributing to building a new industry, related to renewable energy sources, which can replace the old one. The Japanese government is also supporting those who fled and haven’t found jobs.”
And although the government hopes to recover and rebuild nuclear power as soon as possible, many, including Mr Nakaiwa, are still reluctant.
“Now, we have to consider the lifetime cost, especially for nuclear power, as it is more expensive and takes a lot of time to completely close the plant and reopen it,” he said. “It takes up to 50 years and it’s not worth it for me. I think people’s mentality will eventually change but I’m also worried about the human factor because there is a risk this might happen again. Meeting the future of growing energy demands is possible without nuclear.”
Other residents agreed. “Nuclear power is a difficult issue,” said Seiichi Suzuki, president of the Fukushima Electric Power Company, which has built solar panels around Fukushima Airport. “Right after the accident happened, Angela Merkel [the German chancellor] declared Japan should stop using nuclear power. At the time, the government was against nuclear and trying to stop using it but we have lots of nuclear plants and it became an industry in Japan. If we stop using all of them, it will damage the economy, so the local government wants to restart it, but after the accident, the prefecture chose renewables.”