Fukushima Eight Years Later: Black Sacks and Lonely Children

Society

Coastal towns near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are filled more with sacks of contaminated soil than with children. There are signs that this may be changing, though, as more areas are opened to returnees and new decontamination facilities come online.

I remember how the newsreader Andō Yūko, who visited Fukushima with me in 2014, got angry every time she saw a row of the 1-meter-high black sacks that hold contaminated topsoil.

“I don’t care how many times they say that it’s safe to return. The sight of these enormous sacks in the area completely puts you off.”

Bags of collected topsoil interrupt the serenity of the Fukushima landscape.
Bags of collected topsoil interrupt the serenity of the Fukushima landscape.

The sacks contain earth and other contaminated material that has been removed during a decontamination process in which topsoil is sheared off. With nowhere to go, the bags, each holding around 1 metric ton of soil, have been either left on site or piled on top of one another in temporary storage areas and covered with green tarpaulins.

Not all of Fukushima Prefecture has high levels of radiation. In fact, radiation levels across the majority of the prefecture are comparable with the rest of Japan. Nonetheless, an extensive area of Fukushima, particularly communities in the northeast, near Fukushima Daiichi, was decontaminated after the accident to allay public concerns. The process has produced an endless stream of black bags, many of which have been simply left at the decontaminated sites.

A roadside lined with black sacks.
A roadside lined with black sacks.

Many people in Fukushima who I interviewed in the past told me that they disliked the ominous bags. And with no decision having been made on how the contaminated soil should ultimately be disposed of, the removal and bagging of soil only served to further increase their number.

Eight years after the accident, however, one does get the feeling that there are fewer sacks lying around. This is partly due to the construction of a medium-term storage facility, where sacks have now begun to be transported.

A Visit to the “Dark Side”

The new facility is being constructed to safely manage and store contaminated soil while it awaits final disposal. The facility straddles the towns of Ōkuma, home to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and Futaba, in an area of the exclusion zone designated uninhabitable due to its particularly high level of radiation.

I went to see one section of the facility under construction in Ōkuma. We drove past houses where the laundry hasn’t been taken in since 2011 and parking lots filled with rusty cars before arriving at a huge pit surrounded by damlike walls.

What used to be an area of houses and fields is now a gigantic concrete-lined containment area for contaminated soil. At the time of my visit in January 2019, a total of 60,000 cubic meters of soil had already been transported to the facility.

Truckload after truckload of soil is dumped at the site.
Truckload after truckload of soil is dumped at the site.

This amount is scheduled to reach 4 million cubic meters in fiscal 2019 (ending in March 2020) and to climb as high as 12.5 million cubic meters in fiscal 2020— enough to fill the Tokyo Dome 10 times over.

The medium-term storage facility stands on what was once woods and farmland. (January 2019, Ministry of the Environment)
The medium-term storage facility stands on what was once woods and farmland. (January 2019, Ministry of the Environment)

While at first glance work appears to be going smoothly, many issues remain. As the “medium-term” in the facility’s name suggests, no decision has been made on where the collected soil will ultimately end up. Nor has any decision been made on how the area would be returned to its original owners when that ultimate solution is agreed upon. The effects are also beginning to be felt by locals, who speak of the noise and traffic jams caused by the constant stream of dump trucks.

My guide from the Ministry of the Environment said apologetically, “There’s a bright side and a dark side to Fukushima. Today, I’ll be showing you the dark side.”

After finishing our tour of the storage facility, the soles of our shoes were meticulously checked to make sure that they had not been contaminated. It was heartbreaking to think that it would be quite some time before this area saw any of Fukushima’s “bright side.”

Visitors’ shoes are inspected for radiation before they can leave the site.
Visitors’ shoes are inspected for radiation before they can leave the site.

High School Aspirations

In Ōkuma, a zone representing 96% of the town’s predisaster population has been designated uninhabitable. However even here, one of the hardest-hit parts of Fukushima, there are some faint glimmers of hope in areas with low levels of radiation. In a part of town called Ōgawara, which has been designated as the hub of the rebuilding effort, the construction of new homes has begun in earnest, with 40 three-bedroom dwellings and 10 two-bedroom dwellings now under construction. The pleasant aroma of freshly sawn lumber is in the air.

Construction proceeds at a fever pitch.
Construction proceeds at a fever pitch.

As the area is subject to restrictions on residence, people are currently unable to stay overnight. However, these restrictions are expected to be lifted as early as April, and the houses are being built in anticipation of this. Developers have already begun soliciting buyers, with over 60 applications received for the 50 available properties.

An employee at the Ōkuma town office said that one of the families returning to the area after being selected in the housing lottery had an elementary-school-age child. There are obviously no schools nearby, so the parents intend to drive their child to a school in the neighboring town of Tomioka. This commute is an added chore to tackle each school day, but the child is looking forward to living in Ōkuma and dreams of one day attending the local Futaba Future High School.

More residential buildings are scheduled to be constructed, with supermarkets and other commercial facilities slated to open alongside these accommodations in the near future. The town aims to increase its capacity to 100 residents initially, and then to 2,600 residents five years after the lifting of the evacuation order.

A cafeteria has also opened in the town, and while at the moment it is mainly patronized by those working in construction and at the town office, having an establishment that serves hot food provides a sense of community.

The spacious Ōkuma cafeteria.
The spacious Ōkuma cafeteria.

Hearty fare to fill up construction workers—and one day local residents, too.
Hearty fare to fill up construction workers—and one day local residents, too.

A new town office, currently being constructed at the rebuilding hub, is scheduled to open in May.

While they were evacuees themselves, employees at the town office attended to the needs of the townsfolk from the very day of the disaster. Now, as they are finally able to return to an office right there in Ōkuma, the employees say that the eight tumultuous years feel like less.

“I can’t tell you how many times someone has grabbed me by the collar and demanded to be told whether they would really be allowed back. When you understand the peoples’ pain, it emboldens you to do something about it.”

Thus, Fukushima moves forward one step at a time, a mixture of both bright and dark.

The <em>Jijii-butai</em> (Old Men’s Battalion), a group of retired town office employees, worked for years to maintain the ghost town that was Ōkuma in the belief that one day people would return. In March, their job will be over. The new town office is visible in the background.
The Jijii-butai (Old Men’s Battalion), a group of retired town office employees, worked for years to maintain the ghost town that was Ōkuma in the belief that one day people would return. In March, their job will be over. The new town office is visible in the background.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on March 11, 2019. Reporting and text by Fuji TV News Contents Project Leader Shimizu Toshihiro. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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