Thousands of people still displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster are faced with a tough choice: whether to return home and live with radiological risk, try to integrate in often hostile host communities in the absence of government assistance, or to resettle elsewhere away from friends and family.
When is return safe?
In October 2015, the Japanese government recognised, for the first time, a cancer case linked to the clean-up work performed by employees at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A 41-year old man was diagnosed with leukaemia in January 2014 after having worked 15 months at the plant and been exposed to a total of 20 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. Meanwhile, the 20mSv is also the annual threshold chosen by the Japanese government to declare areas safe for the return of Fukushima evacuees. One week following the accident, the authorities raised the reference radiation dose for public exposure from 1mSv per year, which is the international norm, to 20mSv per year, which remains as a “safety” threshold five years after the disaster despite various protests made by a number of citizen associations and some members of the scientific community. Notably, this decision prompted the resignation of a then Special Advisor to the Cabinet, Tokyo University’s professor, Toshiso KOSAKO, from his post in April 2011, by asserting that “I cannot possibly accept such a level (of threshold) to be applied to babies, infants and primary school students, not only from my scholarly viewpoint but also from my humanistic beliefs”.
160,000 people or more were displaced because of the radiation leaks, and 99,000 remain displaced today, according to the Japan Reconstruction Agency. Since 2014, the Japanese government has been lifting evacuation orders in the areas that it judges to be “safe” to return to, in other words, the areas with ambient radiation levels of less than 20mSv per year. Naraha town is one of these cases. Situated within the 20km radius from the crippled plant, the whole town was temporary relocated to other cities in Fukushima immediately after the disaster. The opinion survey conducted among these evacuees in January 2014 showed only 8 per cent of them wishing to return home while 60 per cent were either undecided or did not wish to return. Nevertheless, the government lifted the evacuation order in September 2015.
Nobody wants to return alone
The issues at stake for evacuees considering return are not just to do with radiation. As well as continuous problems at the crippled nuclear station and the construction of a gigantic nuclear waste storage site around the station, many are worried about a lack of social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and supermarkets and, most of all, about feeling isolated as very few of their family members, neighbours and friends intend to return. In rural communities such as those affected by the nuclear accident, social relationships also provide a safety net of mutual support in difficult times. Nobody wants to return alone. The risks from being exposed to radiation affect older people less than the young, and the reality today is that while people over 60 years old may return, younger generations, especially parents with small children, will not. At the same time, older people with health problems and needing access to specialised medical treatment in big cities or nursing care from their children are more likely to settle in other towns.
What does a community look like when most residents are over 60 and there are very few people of working age or children? How long does such a town survive? One of the evacuees I interviewed in Naraha town said, “those who return today will probably need to relocate again in a few years when they become ill or need help from their children who have resettled in other towns because there are no functioning hospitals or elderly homes in the hometown due to lack of personnel”. Another evacuee suggested, “if the government evacuates a whole town due to a nuclear accident, it is its responsibility to resettle the whole community in another place permanently so that the community stays together, rather than trying to make people return to the town where there are risks.”
This disaster has divided families, friends and communities along various lines including different perceptions of radiological risk, migratory choices, and, most of all, because of compensation payments where the amount differs significantly according to administrative zone rather than contamination levels in the specific areas where households are from. Feelings of injustice fume among communities within, between and outside different zones. Under these circumstances, how can one reconcile the communities and find durable solutions to their displacement?
Guidance from international frameworks
It is time for high-income nations such as Japan to refer to the international normative framework for IDPs, quietly ignored until now under the pretext that it mainly concerns disasters in developing countries. There is much to be learnt from the rich experience of these countries and the international community in dealing with the issue of internal displacement following natural and human-made disasters. Two clauses from the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) (2009) could shed light on the question: 1) under no circumstances should IDPs be encouraged or compelled to return or relocate to areas where their life, safety, liberty or health would be at risk; 2) populations and communities that (re-)integrate IDPs and whose needs may be comparable, should not be neglected.