Hiroshima Memo: State minister dubs area around nuclear plant “town of death”

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

Politicians and journalists must not lose sight of core concerns

In an article I once wrote, I used the English expression “ghost town,” which could be translated as “town of death” in Japanese. The Kojien, an authoritative Japanese dictionary, defines “ghost town” as “a town that is uninhabited after its residents have been dispersed.”

At the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, reactor unit No. 4 still emits radiation through crevices in the “stone coffin,” a concrete cover that shrouds the reactor. Ten years ago I visited Prypyat, a town four kilometers from the nuclear plant and the place its workers used to live.

“The newly-built town where some 50,000 people lived was turned into a ghost town overnight. The town was soon overrun with weeds, and once lively theaters and hotels became desolate buildings.” This is an excerpt from a passage I wrote with the heading “The plant workers’ town, which had turned into a town of death” in “The Negative Legacy of the Nuclear Age through the Reality of the United States, Russia, and the Former Soviet Union.” I still vividly recall the fate of that modern town, which was established for the workers of the nuclear plant and their families when the plant was constructed.

The expression I used did not draw criticism at the time, perhaps because the nuclear crisis occurred in Ukraine (part of the former Soviet Union), a place far from Japan, or because 15 years had already passed since the accident occurred there.

The former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Yoshio Hachiro, was forced to resign in the wake of inappropriate comments he made following a visit to the area near Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, which suffered the core meltdowns. He called the area “a town of death” and jokingly warned a newspaper reporter that he would taint him with radiation. If Mr. Hachiro had simply been aware of the A-bomb experiences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, he could never have made such ignorant remarks. A-bomb survivors were the victims of callous discrimination as a consequence of the groundless fear that they would transmit radiation to others, and now the residents of Fukushima are troubled by the same prejudice. Taking into account the feelings of the evacuees, who were compelled to leave their hometowns and are desperate to return home, the term “town of death” was surely a thoughtless expression for a state minister to use.

No one, however, has offered a clear answer to the question of whether the evacuees will be able to return to their hometowns, where, as Mr. Hachiro described, “There isn’t a soul in sight.” Neither politicians, who were busy pushing the minister from his post, nor the media, have been able to resolve this question. At the end of August, 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 Fukushima plant. Learning of the high levels of contamination that have been recorded in towns close to the plant, such as Okuma and Futaba, I could only feel pessimistic.

Will they be able to go home and feel safe in their communities after decontamination work is undertaken, which may take several years? Or will they be unable to return at all? If the central government knows the answers to these questions, but is procrastinating in its duty to inform the public, this will not benefit the evacuees. The government should clarify these issues, along with the support measures that it intends to provide the victims of this disaster.

Meanwhile, the central government rescinded the “emergency evacuation zone” designation of five municipalities, including Minamisoma and Kawauchi, located within an area of 20 to 30 kilometers from the power plant. Yet on the same day, the Education Ministry announced that plutonium and strontium were detected in the soil in places such as the town of Iitate, lying 45 kilometers northwest of the plant. The fact remains that the actual conditions involving the contamination of forests in the “emergency evacuation zone” is still largely unknown, and the decontamination work that has been undertaken so far even in residential areas is insufficient.

Why must the “emergency evacuation zone” designation be lifted in such a hasty manner? Is the purpose to persuade the public and the international community that the repercussions of the nuclear accident are being efficiently dealt with as planned? I understand that the government hopes to revive these “ghost towns” as soon as possible, but it should be giving priority to other concerns, such as carrying out thorough decontamination efforts so as to ally the anxiety residents are feeling about being exposed to radiation.

(Originally published on October 3, 2011)