As Tokyo tries to woo residents back, plans to dump toxic water pose more perils
For Setsuko Matsumoto, 71, there will be no return to her hometown in Fukushima prefecture－that is despite the determined efforts of the Japanese government to win her over to the idea that it is safe to do so. And that goes for the many like Matsumoto who cannot countenance how they can once again live in neighborhoods that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami more than a decade ago.
Having run a hair salon for almost 30 years in Futaba, a town 4 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Matsumoto believes the place has no future. The government would have her believe otherwise. On Aug 30, it will lift the last of the restrictions imposed that have prevented former residents from living in the region permanently. It claims radiation levels arising from the nuclear accident in March 2011 are now low enough to be deemed safe.
“I don’t think that the town will be able to go on, even with the return of some elderly residents,” says Matsumoto.
Although 11 years have passed since the Fukushima plant’s cooling systems were severely damaged in the disaster, triggering the meltdown of three reactors and the release of large amounts of radiation, Matsumoto has her reasons for not moving back.
“Residing in Futaba is not an option for me,” she says. “The lack of shopping and medical care opportunities can’t be solved anytime soon and I don’t have a reason to relocate to a place with a worse living environment.”
Over the years, there have been sustained efforts－both from the top down and the bottom up－aimed at driving Fukushima’s reconstruction and revitalization. Seemingly limitless funds have been spent on that process, from the national government all the way down to township levels. These efforts are all bound up in the Japanese government’s economic and political ambitions to show the world that it has succeeded in managing the nuclear crisis.
Yet that strong desire to change Fukushima into something resembling its old form, or even something better, has encountered resistance from the likes of Matsumoto, who have lived with the effects of trauma for more than a decade.
As a result of the disaster, some 160,000 people like Matsumoto were evacuated from the Fukushima region. What the authorities had to contend with was a level-7 nuclear accident, the highest on the international scale of nuclear and radiological events. By the end of 2021, some 40,000 of them were still unable to return to their homes. But, with Futaba, the last of dozens of places ending their status as no-go zones, the government still faces a challenge in regaining the people’s trust.
In a survey conducted by Japan’s Reconstruction Agency and others, only 11.3 percent of respondents said they wanted to return to Futaba while more than 60 percent said they already decided not to return.
The town aims to attract 2,000 people back in the next five years but in a trial for overnight stays, beginning in January, has seen only 15 former residents have applied.
In a report in 2020, Miranda Schreurs, a professor and chair of environmental and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, argues that the situation in Fukushima remains precarious because problems like the removal of radioactively contaminated waste, and issues such as incineration, still need to be addressed.
“It will still take many years to win back confidence and trust in the government’s messages that the region is safe,” Schreurs says in the report, adding that intergenerational equity is also an issue. The next generations will be left with the burden of completing the highly dangerous and complex decommissioning work at the Fukushima plant, she said.
The plans for Fukushima’s future also bump up against the government’s divisive decision to proceed with a plan to discharge the radioactive water from the plant into the Pacific Ocean. The water has been used to cool the highly radioactive, damaged reactor cores and would be sufficient to fill about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Under Tokyo’s schedule, the ocean disposal will begin next spring.
Those plans present another blow to those former Fukushima residents who may be wanting to return to their old communities.
“Dumping the water went contrary to a government pledge of reconstructing my hometown Fukushima because it threatens a double blow to our community,” says Hisae Unuma, an evacuee who has been among those pushing for the government to scrap the decision.
However, despite the mounting opposition from people in and outside Japan, the Japanese government has not troubled itself to give the plan a second thought.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan officially endorsed the discharge plan on July 22.
On Aug 4, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, the Fukushima plant’s operator, announced the start of construction on the pipelines that will take the contaminated water out to sea. But Japanese media have already reported that these works were all but completed.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Japan must not discharge the contaminated water before a consensus is reached with all stakeholders, as well as with international agencies, after a thorough consultation. “This is a litmus test of Japan’s commitment to international obligations,” Zhao said.
On Aug 1, South Korean Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Cho Seunghwan said the government is considering whether to take the issue to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Cho said the government’s primary goal is to prevent Japan from releasing the contaminated water. “We do not accept the release plan”, he said.
Last month, a meeting of foreign ministers of the Pacific Islands Forum released a document criticizing Japan. The ministers said the ocean discharge could lead to “transgenerational impacts of great concern to the peoples of the Pacific”.
In Japan, the condemnations of official policy, along with petitions calling for the reversal of the decision, have been constant since the ocean discharge plan was confirmed by the government in April last year.
Among the environmental groups denouncing the plan is FoE Japan. In a statement, it says the Japanese government and TEPCO had much earlier made written commitments on the matter, that “without the understanding of relevant personnel, no actions will be taken”. However, the government still decided to go ahead with the ocean discharge without seeking advice from the parties involved, the statement says.
Civil society groups in the most-affected prefectures submitted a petition to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and TEPCO in March. Reaffirming their opposition to the release of the contaminated water, they demanded that the government pursue other alternatives. Consumer groups and fisheries associations are at the forefront of this action.
The petition has collected some 180,000 signatures from residents in prefectures such as Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi.
Masanobu Sakamoto, president of the National Fisheries Cooperative Federation of Japan, says the plan has not gained the support of the public and the fisheries industry and that the federation’s firm opposition remains.
Katsuhito Fuyuki, the board chair of the Miyagi Consumers Cooperative Association, likewise says the government’s disposal plan has failed to win public support.
“The impact of the 2011 nuclear accident remains and imports of Miyagi fishery products are still banned by nearby countries,” says Fuyuki, adding that the decision would deal a further blow to the local economy.
Under the government’s plan, the authorities will gradually discharge the still-contaminated water from next spring. Japan insists there are no alternatives to the ocean discharge. It says that by the end of 2022 there will be no space left at the site for storage. Moreover, after a treatment process known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, the radioactive tritium－a radioactive isotope of hydrogen－will be the only radionuclide in the water and that it is harmless.
However, many environmental scientists and environmentalists are scathing in their condemnation of Japan’s narrative, saying it is misinformation aimed at creating a false impression that the consequences of the 2011 nuclear disaster are short-lived.
A report in 2020 by the environmental group Greenpeace says the narrative has been constructed to serve financial and political reasons.
“Long after the Yoshihide Suga (and Shinzo Abe) administrations are historical footnotes, the negative consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown will remain a present and constant threat most immediately to the people and environment of Fukushima, but also to the rest of Japan and internationally,” says the report, referring to Suga as the then prime minister whose government approved the disposal plan a year ago.
According to the Greenpeace report, there is no technical, engineering or legal barrier to securing storage space for ALPS-treated contaminated water. It is only a matter of political will and the decision is based on expediency－the cheapest option is ocean discharge.
“The discharge of wastewater from Fukushima is an act of contaminating the Pacific Ocean as well as the sea area of South Korea,” says Ahn Jae-hun, energy and climate change director at the Korea Federation for Environment Movement, an advocacy group in Seoul.
“Many people in South Korea believe that Japan’s discharge of the Fukushima wastewater is a wrong policy that threatens the safety of both the sea and humans.”
Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, says the Fukushima contaminated water issue comes under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as it is a form of pollution to international waters.
There are strong grounds for individual countries to file a legal challenge against Japan’s plan, Burnie says.