Hiroshima Memo: Hometowns could become dumping ground for radioactive materials 

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Many Japanese people have special feelings toward their hometowns, be it a large city or a rural village. I grew up on an island in the Seto Inland Sea, and left my hometown more than 40 years ago. Still, whenever I visit, I find the familiar and unspoiled environment comforting.

Though I now live and work in a different place, I feel a strong attachment to my hometown. However, people who are from the areas affected by the nuclear crisis in eastern Japan have been forced to flee their hometowns, leaving behind homes, farms, places of work, the graves of ancestors--everything. This is all the result of the invisible scourge of radioactive contamination. We cannot help but sympathize with their plight.

One month after the nuclear crisis erupted at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant on March 11, I met some evacuees from the town of Futaba at an evacuation center in Saitama Prefecture. They all told me: “If I could go home today, I would.” The town sits near the nuclear plant, and has inevitably become highly contaminated with radiation. At the same time, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company have not made public the levels of contamination found in the soil of that site from radioactive substances. These residents have been leading lives of anxiety in uncomfortable conditions, hoping against hope that they can eventually return home.

On August 29, almost six months after the accident, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology released a map which shows the concentration of radioactive cesium in the soil within a 100-kilometer radius from the nuclear plant. Within a radius of 40 kilometers to the northwest of the plant is a highly contaminated area, which includes the town of Iitate. At the town of Okuma, where the plant is located, readings in some places have reached about 30 million becquerels per square meter. In the aftermath of the accident at Chernobyl, residents living in areas with readings of 1.48 million becquerels or more were forcibly evacuated. The desperate hopes of the residents to return to their hometowns of Futaba and Okuma have been cruelly dashed.

When these people are told that they may be able to return home in 20 or 30 years, it is tantamount to hearing: “Just give up your hopes of going home.”

Plans have been conceived, including the central government buying up the entire contaminated area around the nuclear plant and building an interim storage facility in Fukushima Prefecture for the contaminated soil. But the core fuel in reactors one through three melted and dropped to the bottom of the pressure vessels. Some of the fuel has reached the bottom of the containment vessels as a result of melt-through. Can this mass of melted nuclear fuel rods really be removed? The fear now is that the area around the plant, where many people once lived their lives, could eventually become a dumping ground for radioactive materials. No one would ever wish for their hallowed hometown to become a graveyard of nuclear substances.

At a press conference held after he took office on September 2, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, “The reality is that building more nuclear power plants is difficult. The existing plants will be decommissioned at the end of their time without extending their lives. The government's basic position is that we will discontinue our reliance on nuclear power generation in the future and work to establish new sources of natural energy.”

With this stance, Mr. Noda is essentially pursuing the policy of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, but the new leader has offered no concrete ideas for the realization of this policy. In this respect, there is little difference between the positions of Mr. Noda and Mr. Kan, who was criticized for stating that the non-nuclear vision he announced was only his “personal opinion.”

Breaking free of our dependence on nuclear energy does not mean a mere shift in the nation's energy policy. It means we must move away from a lifestyle based on values and thinking that put economics and mass consumption first. In its place, we should seek to create a society which prizes human life, human rights, local culture and history, and harmony with nature.

How will we protect the health of Fukushima residents, particularly children, when they are likely to be exposed to radiation? How will we pursue decontamination efforts? How will we ensure the safety of foods and drinks, such as rice, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, water, and milk? How will we resolve the nuclear crisis? And how will we rebuild the areas that were devastated by the great earthquake and tsunami?

The Noda administration has assumed responsibility at a time when the nation is facing these numerous challenges. The new administration should pay heed to the voices of the sufferers of the disaster, not the logic of political maneuvering. We hope this administration will formulate policies imbued with compassion. In order to overcome the difficulties, first and foremost, public confidence in politics must be regained.

(Originally published on September 5, 2011)