Earlier this week our group was given a guided tour of the town of Tomioka, a small city affected by the 3.11 earthquake and later the Fukushima nuclear accident. As we walked in and around town, we saw signs of earthquake damage such as large cracks in a few buildings and a bit of damage to road surfaces, but nothing so bad that the community couldn’t recover. However, it was an invisible enemy keeping Tomioka’s residents from coming home. Just north of the town sits the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. During the tsunami in 2011, the plant’s cooling systems, used to keep its radioactive fuel from melting, failed, triggering a massive meltdown and subsequent explosions on four of the six of the facility’s reactors. These explosions caused extremely hazardous amounts of radioactive material to be launched into the atmosphere and eventually make their way down to the surface around the vicinity of the plant.
Several towns like Tomioka were evacuated immediately and told they would be able to return to their homes, but most still have not been able to come back. Many residents of Tomioka will be allowed to return in the coming months, but many others will not due to varying radiation levels making some parts of town more livable than others. Even the townsfolk who will be allowed back in soon are hesitant to return due to the elevated levels of radiation in the area, as there are many questions that still need to be answered, such as: what will be the long-term effects of the elevated ration levels in the area? If we do move back, will there be others there to help rebuild the community or will we be living in a ghost town?
Another factor contributing to the uncertainty of the area’s repopulation is the community’s distrust of the government and of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the corporation that owns the Fukushima Daichi plant. Even though both entities agree that the levels of radiation in parts of Tomioka and in most of the rest of Fukushima prefecture are safe, many citizens are skeptical of their data and its reporting. They believe that Abe Shinzo’s administration, along with TEPCO are trying to downplay the scale and effects of the disaster in order to avoid any bad publicity in advance of the 2020 Olympic Games coming to Tokyo, as many athletes might end up residing in the Fukushima prefecture for the duration of the games.
Such skepticism towards the powers that be, along with the fear and stigma surrounding radiation itself has made life more complicated for many, even on the other side of the prefecture. In the cities of Aizu and Koriyama, far outside the declared disaster area, people are so worried about radiation from the plant that they refuse to let their children play outside and have set up special programs that take kids to other prefectures so that they can play outdoors. Additionally, even though radiation levels in these cities are perfectly safe by all established standards, many are still worried about everything from where they travel to what they eat. Such fear, antagonism and distrust of authority, warranted or unwarranted, has and will continue to make life difficult for large numbers of people living in the prefecture, in addition to those directly affected by the accident.