The government has decided to lift evacuation orders for wide areas around the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and end blanket compensation payments to people in Fukushima Prefecture who are still suffering from the aftermath of the reactor meltdowns.
More than four years since the nuclear disaster, the uncertain future of the affected local communities and their members is causing further negative effects.
Setting clear dates for lifting evacuation orders will make it easier for evacuees to plan their futures. The move is also meaningful in terms of clarifying the government’s responsibilities to improve the environment for the evacuees’ return home through such measures as decontamination and rebuilding infrastructure related to their daily lives.
But the conditions are not the same for each disaster victim. The move to lift evacuation orders and end compensation payments should not be a simple termination of policy support. It is essential for the government to start fresh support based on careful consideration of the circumstances of individual sufferers.
POSSIBLE BOOST TO RECONSTRUCTION EFFORTS
The government has set clear dates for lifting the evacuation orders for two of the three categories of restricted areas—“areas to which evacuation orders are ready to be lifted” and “areas in which the residents are not permitted to live.” The levels of radiation in these areas are relatively low, and entry into these areas is permitted in the daytime.
The evacuation orders for these areas will be removed by March 2017 at the latest after accelerated decontamination efforts.
The people of Naraha, a town that has been entirely designated as “an area to which the evacuation order is ready to be lifted,” will be allowed to return home on Sept. 5.
The town will be the first among seven municipalities to have an evacuation order for all residents lifted since the meltdowns at the plant in March 2011.
For the residents to be able to start living in the town again, however, it is vital to repair or rebuild damaged houses and secure jobs for the returnees.
Major homebuilders have been reluctant to work in evacuation areas, saying they can’t carry out operations until the evacuation orders are lifted.
Since it was stuck by the disaster, Naraha has persuaded 11 companies to locate their plants in the town. All but one of these companies, however, have been waiting for the removal of the evacuation order to start building the plants.
The scheduled end of the evacuation will bolster efforts to rebuild the community. In a survey of evacuated Naraha residents conducted last autumn, 45.7 percent of the respondents said they would return to their homes in the town either “immediately” or “when necessary conditions are met” after the evacuation order ends. The figure represents an increase of 5.5 percentage points from the previous survey.
But it will be difficult to completely restore the status quo. Many evacuee families have members who are already working at places where they currently live or children who have grown accustomed to their new schools.
NO RETURN TO PRE-DISASTER LIFE
Evacuation orders for parts of Tamura and Kawauchi have already been lifted, but only about half of the residents of these areas have returned.
If the population of an area doesn’t recover sufficiently, it will be difficult to operate such public facilities as medical institutions and schools in the area. This further discourages residents from returning.
Farmers and self-employed people in such areas also face a tough time trying to restart their businesses.
Concerns about radioactive contamination of food grown in disaster areas will remain even though test growing of certain crops has started in some areas. Part of local farmland has been used for provisional storage of soil and plant debris from the decontamination work. Heaps of large bags filled with contaminated materials remain at many sites.
A survey by the Fukushima Federation of Societies of Commerce and Industry of members in evacuation areas found that 56.4 percent of the respondents had restarted their businesses either in or outside the prefecture by June this year.
But most of them are construction or manufacturing businesses, while only a few of the affected retailers and service providers have started doing business again. That’s because their trade areas have disappeared.
After the evacuation order for the Miyakoji district of Tamura was lifted in April last year, a temporary store to sell foodstuffs and daily necessities was opened under the government’s leadership. A convenience store was then opened along a national highway under the initiative of the government. Sales at the store have plunged to a quarter of their peak level partly because of route sales of another convenience store.
In Naraha, a local supermarket is struggling to rebuild. It is concerned about a possible blow to its operations from a new store of retail giant Aeon Co. that is expected to open within a commercial complex built by the neighboring town of Hirono along a national highway.
Amid these circumstances, compensation payments to disaster victims by the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, will be discontinued.
Compensation for mental health damage (or consolation money of 100,000 yen per month per person) will end after the payments for March 2018. Compensation for damage to businesses paid to small and midsize companies and self-employed people that remain out of business will be terminated after the payments for March 2017.
Critics have been pointing out problems with the way such compensation has been paid to people and businesses damaged by the disaster. They say the compensation programs widen the economic disparity between the recipients and those who don’t receive the money, divide communities and hinder victims’ efforts to regain economic independence.
PAY ATTENTION TO DIFFERENT CONDITIONS OF INDIVIDUALS
But rebuilding shattered lives entails formidable challenges. Consolation money is often used to cover living expenses.
If evacuees can’t find a way to earn a living in their towns, they will be unable to make ends meet when they return to their homes after the evacuation order is lifted.
The government plans to set up a new public-private organization to help self-employed people and farmers restart their businesses in the next two years. The new body will start its work by visiting 8,000 such people for counseling by the end of the year.
But there is still no plan for specific steps to be taken. It will take considerable time just to grasp what kind of situation they are in.
Fuminori Tanba, an associate professor at Fukushima University who has been involved in the development of reconstruction plans for many disaster-hit areas, points out some key factors for successful support to such businesses.
It is crucial to draw up a detailed prescription for each business to sort out the challenges it faces, he says. It is also important to take measures to coordinate the trade areas of similar businesses and retrain those who are seeking to change their businesses.
Tanba also stresses the need to pay attention to problems these people face after restarting their businesses to ensure that they will get on track.
In short, policy support should be provided through the entire process of business reconstruction.
In addition to such support, the government should consider creating a public framework to provide financial aid to cover living expenses for people struggling to rebuild their livelihoods.
These people are suffering from a disaster that happened at a nuclear power plant built under the government’s policy of promoting nuclear power generation. The government should not end financial aid to individual residents of the affected areas.
Four years since the harrowing accident, the conditions of individual residents of areas around the crippled plant remain complicated.
It is necessary for the government to make flexible responses to their needs from their own viewpoints. Now is the critical moment for work to rebuild the lives of people in Fukushima that were destroyed by the disaster.
–The Asahi Shimbun, July 9