A framed photograph in Etsuko Oura’s temporary housing shows an aerial view of the house that her husband and son had built 100 kilometers away in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture.
That 430-square-meter home, surrounded by yuzu citrus and pomegranate trees, is gone, swept away by the tsunami in 2011. Her husband, Ryuichi, died at age 76 in late 2011 as he was designing a new hillside home close to the original house in Okuma, co-host of the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
And on Nov. 11, Oura lost something else: her hopes of living in her hometown again.
“I know I will not be able to return to Okuma,” said the 70-year-old evacuee, who lives alone in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. “As long as I am away from home, I cannot feel true happiness under any circumstance. I will be tied to these feelings forever.”
More than two-and-a-half years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the government effectively reversed its stated goal of eventually allowing all Fukushima evacuees to return to their homes.
Many of them had earlier abandoned plans of returning. But others continued to believe that they would eventually move back after the government cleaned up the affected areas.
Now, they and their local leaders are expressing anger at the government for raising hopes for so long.
“Politicians a long time ago should have specified the areas where evacuees will not be able to return and presented plans to help them rebuild their lives elsewhere,” said Toshitaka Kakinuma, a 71-year-old real-estate agent who has evacuated from Okuma to Iwaki, also in Fukushima Prefecture.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Nov. 11 the government will overhaul measures to deal with the Fukushima nuclear disaster based on a package of proposals from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner New Komeito.
The coalition proposal was the first to call for government support to evacuees who give up plans to return to “difficult-to-return zones,” the communities most heavily contaminated with radioactive fallout.
“The government must present a concrete blueprint for reconstruction and help people rebuild their lives,” Abe said.
In Okuma, 96 percent of residents used to live in areas designated as difficult-to-return zones, where evacuees are not allowed to return for at least six years from the March 2011 disaster.
The ruling coalition’s proposal called on the government to clearly explain how long the evacuees will be unable to return to these difficult-to-return zones, where annual radiation doses exceed 50 millisieverts.
Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe said he is worried that some communities in these zones will disappear as the government abandons its goal of allowing all evacuees to return home.
“What we thought would come sooner or later has come,” he said of the proposal.
About 10 percent of the town’s residents still want to return to Okuma, according to the town.
“We want to establish an environment that will allow residents to return in 10 to 20 years,” Watanabe said. “We will not change that plan.”
Harutoshi Funabashi, a professor of environmental sociology at Hosei University, said the government should offer more choices for the evacuees.
“The proposal gave only two options--to return or not to return. A third way, which would allow evacuees to return decades later, will be necessary,” Funabashi said.
Kakinuma, the real-estate agent, said he gave up returning to Okuma several months after the nuclear accident. He said the government should have shifted its policy much earlier.
“I told the mayor and town officials that the land with high levels of radiation must be bought up by the government,” Kakinuma said. “But they only said they would clean up the land so that residents would be able to return. We never talked about the same thing.”
Kakinuma and his wife moved from Yokohama to their Okuma home, 2.6 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, 10 years ago. He said they relocated because they liked the location close to the sea and the mild climate.
Next year, they will move to Fukuoka Prefecture, where his son’s family lives.
Hisashi Kato, 54, and his wife, Yoko, 49, who have evacuated to Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, moved from temporary housing to a newly built house in September.
The couple found their original home in Tomioka, south of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, full of rat droppings every time they visited to clean the premises.
The barricades around difficult-to-return zones were indications that they would not be able to live there anymore.
They brought a large number of photo albums retrieved from Okuma into their new home.
“All we need to do is to move forward with our heads up,” Yoko said.
But Hisashi’s mother, Toshiko, used to say she wanted to return to Tomioka even after her body became weak during the prolonged evacuation.
“Elderly people held out hopes because the government said evacuees could return once communities were decontaminated,” Hisashi said.
Toshiko died at age 83 last autumn.
“My mother might have been able to live a forward-looking life if she had been told candidly that it was unknown whether she could return,” Hisashi said.
The government spent billions of yen to decontaminate the affected areas to speed up the return of the evacuees. But the work was found to be sloppy and largely ineffective. Radiation levels in those areas have not decreased significantly.
The Abe administration is considering the proposals of the LDP and New Komeito for the government to earmark taxpayers money for decontamination activities, beyond those already planned, and to build intermediate storage facilities for radioactive soil and debris.
Under the current framework, Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, is required to shoulder the costs for decontamination, but the utility has largely refused to do so.
The coalition partners also proposed that radiation levels measured by dosimeters, instead of those based on air dose rates, be used as the standard for monitoring the effects of radiation exposure on health of residents who return.
Dosimeter readings tend to be lower than those derived from airborne monitoring and other methods. The shift would effectively relax the long-term goal of reducing radiation exposure to 1 millisievert a year while cutting the scope of and costs for the clean-up work.
The two parties also called on the government to provide more funding to help TEPCO proceed with decommissioning and deal with the problem of radioactive water leaks.
The government in September decided to spend 47 billion yen ($475 million) in taxpayers money to build frozen soil walls to prevent contamination of groundwater and on other measures to contain the radioactive water.
Problems remain, however.
Shinji Tokonami, a professor at Hirosaki University and expert in dose measurements, said the plan to reduce radiation exposure based on individual dose readings is an ideal approach.
But he said it will be difficult to decide which reading should be applied for a large group involved because measurements often differ from one person to another.
“We support the idea of focusing on individual dose readings,” an Environment Ministry official said. “But it will be a difficult problem how to put it into practice.”
Although the government plans to play a greater role in decontamination, decommissioning and containing radioactive water, it will face public criticism that it is bailing out TEPCO if expenditures snowball.
The final tab for decommissioning the Fukushima reactors is unknown because it is expected to take 40 years to complete.
Also unknown are the plans of some evacuees, like Oura in Aizu-Wakamatsu. She still is unable to place her husband’s ashes in a family tomb in her hometown.
The family of her 42-year-old son used to live in nearby temporary housing but moved to Iwaki in April.
He asked her to come along, but Oura decided to remain because her friends from Okuma live within the same complex.
“It will not be worthwhile to be all alone in a strange land,” she said.
“It must be easy for people in high offices to say ‘You cannot return,’ but I have to say sorry to our ancestors for losing the land that has been our family’s for generations,” she said.
(This article was compiled from reports by Tetsuya Kasai, Takuro Negishi, Kunio Ozawa and other staff writers.)
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