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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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TEPCO Trying to Make Amends

Apr. 6, 2016

The operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is helping people affected by the 2011 meltdowns in an effort to regain their trust.

Five years after the triple meltdown at the plant, Tokyo electric Power Company is battling the disaster on two fronts.

Inside the facility, 7,000 workers struggle every day to decommission the damaged reactors. Outside, decontamination efforts have allowed some evacuees to return.

Some 3,300 of the utility's employees have been assigned to respond to the requests of displaced locals. The TEPCO workers do what they can, but it's an uphill battle to make amends.

TEPCO's Fukushima revitalization division is located in the city of Iwaki. The company set up the division in January 2013.

Staff members are assigned to sections that help people in specific ways, such as doing cleanup work in residential areas and compensation for damage.

One section is responsible for cleaning up homes and gardens. There are 13 teams and they are assigned to specific communities. Each team comprises 10 people.

Yukihisa Tadachi leads the group assigned to the town of Naraha. He was transferred from a TEPCO office in Tokyo 3 years ago.

Naraha is about 10 kilometers from the Fukushima plant. Authorities lifted its evacuation order last September after decontamination work lowered the radiation to a safe level.

But many people still can't go home. They need more help before they can move back. And that's what Tadachi and his team are doing.

Tadachi and his co-workers always offer an apology before getting to work.

"We want to extend our heartfelt apologies for the great suffering caused by the nuclear accident. We'd also like to extend our apologies for the extreme anxiety that continues. We're deeply sorry for that," Tadachi tells one local resident. "Now, let's begin today's work."

They do whatever cleanup work is asked of them by the residents, such as mowing lawns or weeding vacant lots.

The owner of one plot of land wants to put up a new house for relatives whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami.

The TEPCO workers keep at their task, come rain or shine.

More and more people have been asking for help since the authorities lifted the evacuation order. Tadachi's team is now booked at least a month in advance.

Tadachi began working at TEPCO straight out of high school. He has spent most of his career checking household electric meters.

He once worked as a public-relations officer, promoting nuclear power. He used to guide visitors around the plants, including Fukushima Daiichi.

"We explained to the visitors how safe the plant was. When some people asked about emergency preparations, I told them there were safety precautions," Tadachi says. "But in the end, it wasn't true. It was like I lied to them."

He and his wife now live in Fukushima Prefecture. He's made friends with local people while strolling around his neighborhood.

Tadachi likes making small talk with his neighbors, but he's reluctant to share one thing.

"They don't know where I work," he says. "They only know that I live in this neighborhood because I take the same route on my daily walk."

Tadachi has found it hard to tell people he works for TEPCO, ever since the nuclear disaster.

He recently met with an elderly couple, Koki and Yokyo Kobayashi, at their house. They had to be evacuated from it after the disaster. They're still living in temporary accommodations 50 kilometers away.

Even though they've been here many times, Tadachi and his team make their standard apology before they get to work.

"We're very sorry for the trouble. We want to extend our heartfelt apology," Tadachi says.

The couple comes here once a week to clean the house. They've asked Tadachi to weed the garden. They hope it can once again produce herbs and fruit.

The workers carefully pull out weeds one at a time, and eventually the garden is back to what it looked like before the accident.

After the team has finished its work for the day, Tadachi talks with the couple.

"Are any of your neighbors coming back?" he asks them.

"I don't know. I don't even know where they are," Koki Kobayashi says.

"There are no doctors, and no schools for young people," Yoko Kobayashi chimes in. "Many people won't be coming back because of the continuing problems that have been caused by your company, TEPCO."

"We are deeply sorry," Tadachi says.

"So I guess they won't come back," Yoko Kobayashi says.

Tadachi's efforts don't seem to affect what people think about the utility.

"They are doing what their bosses told them to do," Yoko Kobayashi says. "I feel sorry for them."

"People around here aren't convinced of TEPCO's sincerity," Koki Kobayashi says. "We don't have many years left. We're forced to live this way at the end of our lives, so I don't think we can forgive them. These 5 years haven't been easy for us at all."

But local people keep asking TEPCO for help.

Meeting so many people affected by the accident has led Tadachi to make a promise to himself. He'll stay in Fukushima to continue the cleanup for another 5 years, until he turns 65 and retires.

"People see us as offenders who caused the accident. It makes me sad. I hope people here will forgive us someday. No, it's probably too much to hope that we will be forgiven," Tadachi says.

"We messed up so many things. I don't think they'll ever forgive us."

NHK World's Chief Correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa, who has been covering Fukushima Daiichi and TEPCO, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: Well, seeing the story, we understand the workers are working very hard to regain public trust. But talking about public trust, the operator, the company told them, doesn't really have good records at all.

Tateiwa: Well, Sho, as you know, TEPCO failed to gain the trust of the people, when it comes to contaminated water leaking into the ocean, it took years to admit there was water leaking into the ocean. And also recently there was an incident about the meltdown. They didn't actually admit that there was a meltdown. And what they said was that there was an in-house manual with guidelines to determine a meltdown. All these things cast doubt on the company's credibility. That's right.

Shibuya: So, Mr. Tadachi thinks people will never forgive the company for what happened. What do you think about this?

Tateiwa: Well the TEPCO employees I talked to said they couldn't think of any other accident that disrupted so many lives by just one company. As we know, 3 former TEPCO executives are being prosecuted for their role in the accident. But it's not just executives. Many at the company think they all are responsible and are trying to do something to regain the public trust. That's what they say. But I think they have a long way to go.

Shibuya: In the report, Mr. Tadachi says he wants to help disaster victims until he retires. What about other employees?

Tateiwa: It's not just Mr. Tadachi and his division who are helping the local residents. Every TEPCO employee is required to go to Fukushima to help local residents.

TEPCO was one of Japan's leading companies before the accident. It hired the best and the brightest. They used to be proud to work at TEPCO. But now, after the accident, some of them couldn't handle all the criticism and quit.

More than 2,000 employees have left the company since the accident. A gentleman I remember who used to work for the public relations office, and he was my counterpart, told me he finally had to leave the company for the sake of his family. It's not just him, it was also the family. And I think it's very important that TEPCO employees like Mr. Tadachi work for the residents, but it's not so easy to share the responsibility.

Beppu: Don't you think at the end of the day, TEPCO is now carrying on the decommissioning work for the Fukushima Daiichi, in order to regain the trust from the public, at the end of the day it really depends whether this decommissioning work will be a successful one or not?

Tateiwa: Well Sho, I totally agree with you. The decommissioning work will continue for decades. And the company has to deal with this safely. Whether or not they can do it is up to TEPCO. So they have to do it. And there's another thing: executives of the company have repeatedly promised to disclose information. This is very important. But as we mentioned, they have failed to do so. Workers like Mr. Tadachi are doing everything they can. It's not just Mr. Tadachi, everybody working there are hard-working men and women. But I'll say this is more of an issue for the top management. And unless company executives do their part, responding in good faith to the public, those workers, including Mr. Tadachi's efforts, will be in vain.