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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Fukushima's road to recovery

Apr. 21, 2017

Six years have passed since northeastern Japan was struck by a huge earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

Inspection using robots began this year at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to find molten nuclear fuel.

In Fukushima Prefecture, evacuation orders were lifted this spring in many areas where long-running decontamination work has been completed.

But for various reasons, many people are unable to return. For others, there's no prospect in the near future of evacuation orders being lifted for their hometowns.

Newsroom Tokyo anchor Sho Beppu reports from Fukushima Prefecture.

Beppu: I am now standing in front of NHK's Fukushima station, one of the local stations in our domestic and international network. It's about 60 km to the northwest of the crippled nuclear plant that stands along the Pacific coast.

For the past 6 years, my fellow journalists based here have been on the frontline of NHK's everyday news coverage of the triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns.

They have been recording the moments of the disasters and their aftermath. The station's archive of images continues to grow.

This spring, the recovery process has entered a new stage. A sizable area that was once restricted has been declared safe to enter.

In theory, this has made it possible for many evacuees to return to their homes. However, in reality, only a very few of them have decided to return. People are cautious, and, naturally so. The decommissioning of the Fukushima nuclear plant is not going as smoothly as the operator had hoped.

I visited Tomioka, a town on the Pacific coast about 10 kilometers south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Driving around the center of the town made me realize how few residents had decided to come back after evacuation orders had been lifted. Most of the shops remain closed, some even abandoned.

The area around the town's main railway station was hit hard by the tsunami 6 years ago.

The Tomioka station building was completely washed away. Now, a new one is being built. The railway company says it is scheduled to open in October.

Once the work is completed, the station will have a railway line that connects to Tokyo. Expectations are high.

"Residents are gradually coming back with the lifting of the evacuation order on April 1st. We're hoping that the opening of the railway will further encourage people to return home," says a town official.

A new shopping mall opened 3 weeks ago to accommodate the needs of the returning residents.

The mall was crowded during lunch time, but the majority of the customers were construction and decontamination workers, not local residents.

72-year-old Minako Tanaka began working at this lunch-box shop inside the mall. As a resident of the town of Tomioka since her youth, she can’t forget how sad she was when she had to evacuate. Now able to work there, she's full of joy.

"Home, sweet home. As people say, you can never forget the place where you were born and raised. I'm grateful for being able to work here, and my heart warms when the returning residents say 'Hey, you're here!' and greet me," she says.

However, she actually lives in a nearby city and drives an hour and a half every day to get to work. Her family has built a new home there and settled down.

According to the town hall, among the 13,000 residents, 9,500 became eligible to return following the lifting of restrictions, but it is thought that less than 1,000 have actually come back. Six years were long enough for many residents to build a life elsewhere.

Fukushima’s agriculture is also still being impacted by the nuclear accident.

Compared to the immediate aftermath of the accident when its agricultural products were rejected by many consumers worried about contamination, the situation has improved a lot. Now, sales of some products are returning to the levels before the accident.

But farmers say that they still hear some consumers are concerned about safety.

"Some of our customers have not returned. I also hear that several supermarkets are refusing to sell our products. That's when I'm reminded of the lingering impact of the nuclear accident," says one of them.

A laboratory in Fukushima tests vegetables, sea food, meat and other produce every day.

The produce is cut into small pieces, and put into a machine to examine whether it contains radioactive substances above safe levels set by the Japanese government.

The laboratory opened after the accident and has so far tested more than 180,000 samples.

As decontamination work proceeds, fewer products have been blocked. Recently, only some river fish and herbs taken from the mountains were found to be unsafe.

The prefectural government is welcoming journalists and other visitors from around the world to see the laboratory.

"People want to find out what's happening in Japan after the nuclear accident. We've received many requests to visit the lab," says Kenji Kusano, one of the staff members.

"We will also need to check the safety of crops produced by farmers returning to areas close to the nuclear plant who plan to restart farming. So I think our work will have to continue."

Evacuation orders were lifted for parts of Namie town at the end of last month.

People gathered at a memorial for victims of the disaster to mark the lifting of the evacuation order.

"A faint ray of hope is shining on Namie. We will work together for the town's reconstruction," says the mayor.

The government lifted evacuation orders for some areas in Kawamata, Namie and Iitate on March 31st.

On April 1st, evacuation orders were lifted for most of the town of Tomioka.

"The removal of the evacuation order marks a new beginning toward reconstruction," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced.

The government said the area subject to evacuation orders has declined by about 70% since the peak.

Some evacuees have returned home to rebuild their lives. Hideo Takahashi, a 67-year-old farmer from the village of Iitate, is among them.

He and his family used to grow flowers, broccoli and other produce. He was eager to return home and is already back tending to crops.

"I was determined to return home and resume farming. It's great to be back where you belong and do what you like," he says.

But some former residents have decided otherwise.

A survey conducted by Namie officials last September shows that 52% of former residents have decided not to return. Only 17% say they want go back.

Tokuji Yokoyama, who's 82, and his wife, were evacuated from Namie and now live in Fukushima's capital. They have no immediate plan to return home because relatives, including their daughter and her husband, are staying away.

"We will be worried unless our neighbors also return. We are wondering what to do," says Tokuji's wife, Motoko.

They are also concerned about the availability of health care. Yokoyama suffers from a heart condition and is in poor health, as they had to move 8 times while evacuated.

A growing number of former residents are choosing not to return as their lives under evacuation continue. Rebuilding local communities is again posing a challenge to the government.

In other areas, evacuation orders have not been lifted because radiation levels remains too high.

Most of these areas are called No-entry Zones and residents are allowed only brief visits.

Municipalities in these zones basically bar those under 15 years of age from entering citing health concerns.

One student, Miu Sawagami, waited patiently for her 15th birthday so she could visit her hometown in Futaba.

On her way there, she witnessed the damage. An area that used to be lined with homes is now occupied by bags of contaminated soil.

"So this is what happens when no one's around," says Miu.

For Miu, it's a hometown, lost.

Her desire to visit Futaba grew from her experience at school. Miu's junior high has been holding classes in a city 40 kilometers away. There are now only 12 students.

The students have been too young to visit. So the teachers have been giving them updates about their town, like showing them photos they've taken in Futaba.

The photos follow the changes from the day of the disaster. One that grabbed Miu's attention shows an ostrich walking freely on one of the town's main roads.

"I found out what Futaba's like. The more I learn, the more I realize it's my hometown and I need to go back," says Miu.

Miu lives with her grandparents and her mother in the same town her school evacuated to. She asked her mother to let her visit Futaba as soon as she turned 15.

"I know it's not a very good environment to go to, but I want to respect my daughter's feelings," says her mother.

The place Miu wanted to go to most was the house she grew up in.

They see the house.

"What a mess," her mother says.

They approach the dining room, where the family used to gather for meals.

"I remember how we used to celebrate birthdays and Christmases here together," says Miu.

In another room, she spots her old toys. "My cousins and I played on that swing!" she says.

Miu was only 9 years old when she was forced out of this home. But her fondest memories are embedded here.

At the end of their visit, they approached the Daiichi nuclear power plant.

"I can't say I was never frustrated with what happened, but there's no point in feeling that way now. It'll take a while before we can return, but I want to keep on visiting," says Miu.

Sho Beppu is joined by Fukushima-based correspondent Shin Watanabe.

Beppu: Only a small number of residents are coming back. Many of these communities were already struggling from aging and depopulation before the accident. It must be a big challenge to sustain these communities.

Watanabe: That's right. The problem of the decreasing population has been a serious challenge for years. I would say that the nuclear accident has accelerated the trend of people leaving these communities, especially the younger generation. Surveys residents took reveal that more than half of those younger than 40 years old say that they won't return.

According to our research, we found that the population of the 8 municipalities around the nuclear plant could drop to about a quarter of the pre-accident level by 2025.

This situation has made these municipalities consider discussing ways to survive. We hear some leaders saying that one of the ideas is for them to merge.

Beppu: The situation is already tough for areas where evacuation orders were lifted. How about the areas where people are still barred from returning?

Watanabe:The lifting of the evacuation orders on March 31st and April 1st was a big step. For the remaining areas, it will surely take a long time.

Last December, the central government decided to set up reconstruction zones in these remaining areas.

The government plans to focus their decontamination work on these zones so that returning residents and workers can live there. The government aims to set up these zones by 2021.

However, as we've been discussing, people are in general very cautious to return to their original homes, so even after these zones are set up, it's unlikely that many people will start to live there.

People are carefully watching the decommissioning work at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The toughest challenge is the removal of the nuclear debris.

Three of the plant's 6 reactors suffered meltdowns. Fuel debris, a mixture of molten fuel and reactor parts, continue to emit high levels of radiation.

Nuclear engineers are struggling to find out the state of the molten fuel inside the damaged reactors.

It's believed that molten fuel has accumulated at the bottom of the reactors' containment vessels. But this opinion is based on a computer simulation and other research. Engineers have not been able to confirm the location of the fuel.

TEPCO engineers have launched an investigation to try to find out where the melted fuel is.

It aimed to identify the location and the quantity of the molten fuel so it could adopt a removal strategy.

A camera connected to a robot captured images of water at the bottom of the containment vessel.

It approached the bottom of the vessel, but could not go any further because of fallen objects and materials.

Engineers need to develop their inspection technology in order to find out where the molten fuel is.

The Japanese government and TEPCO expect to come to a decision this year on how to remove the fuel debris.

Major Japanese nuclear technology manufacturers and construction companies are desperately pushing for the development of equipment to solve the tough task of removing the fuel.

Researchers at this research facility in central Japan have already revealed such technology. It's the result of collaboration between Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy and Sugino Machine.

They are creating a life-size replica of the pressure vessel inside the containment vessel.

One of the engineers is Go Sasaki, who was born in Fukushima. His father was also a nuclear engineer.

"We have just begun developing technology to enable robots to operate in an extremely difficult environment. It's dark in the reactor, with lots of water vapor and high levels of radiation," he explains.

Sasaki's team is developing a debris-removal device in the shape of a disk.

The device is installed in the upper part of the reactor. Inside the pressure vessel, it can move up and down like an elevator. Engineers are trying to enable the robot to cut, grab and collect nuclear debris.

Attached to the robotic arm is technology for cutting hard materials using water. Ultra-high-pressure water containing a special mixture of abrasive powder is used.

Engineers have also developed other technologies, including lasers, to deal with many different types of molten fuel, as well as the possible scenarios during the removal of the fuel debris.

Sasaki says he tries to meet the difficult challenges facing him in order to push forward the reconstruction of his hometown, Fukushima.

"While I work, I always keep in mind that what I do will help the people of Fukushima. One day, I want to hear local people say they truly have peace of mind," he says.

The government and TEPCO plan to employ these various technologies and begin removing fuel debris by the end of 2021.

The decommissioning work faces many other challenges. The cost is rising and hiring enough workers is not easy. Around 6,000 workers are needed every day to continue the task. 

Beppu: I visited the laboratory that the prefectural government set up to test the safety of agriculture produce. Despite such tests, there are people who worry about buying Fukushima's products. What is needed to overcome this?

Watanabe: I think the private sector can also play an important role. I recently interviewed a South Korean woman who is the leader of an NPO that promotes cultural exchange programs in Fukushima.

Hyunsil Chung invited more than 100 South Koreans working in the agricultural sector to meet with Fukushima's farmers in February. They cooked food together using produce from Fukushima. South Korea is one of the countries continuing its import ban on fisheries products from Fukushima and 7 other prefectures.

I was impressed to hear the South Korean participants say that their negative image of Fukushima changed drastically after joining the program. I think that these kind of face-to-face grassroots exchanges have the power to dispel misunderstandings about Fukushima.

Beppu: As a correspondent based in Fukushima, what are you planning to cover now?

Watanabe: First of all, I am sure I will continue to cover the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi. It is a task that has never been done, and it will take a long time.

What I can cover may be just a small part of this long process, but I will report on how this decommissioning impacts the communities and people's lives.

I'm also planning to continue to cover the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Experts from Fukushima University plan to visit Ukraine in May to start joint research on developing measures to prevent the spread of nuclear substances in nature.

The gap between perception and reality regarding Fukushima remain wide.

For example, some people, especially those living abroad, may think it's a lifeless place. But in fact, the no-entry zones make up less than 3% of the prefecture.

On the other hand, some realities are harsh. The perception was that many people would return to their towns and villages once the restrictions were lifted. But, as we have seen, only a few have decided to do so.

Japan's population is both aging and shrinking. Making matters worse, the recovery from the triple disaster is taking place while the country's economy is experiencing very modest growth.

Visiting the disaster areas, I felt I was seeing a condensed version of the nation's challenges. Solving Fukushima's problems will require a much more coordinated effort than elsewhere.