July 15, 2015
On September 5th, the town of Nahara, Japan, will be re-opened for full repopulation. On March 12, 2011, the Tokyo government, under now-deposed Prime Minister Naoto Kan, ordered an evacuation of all people within a 20km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station. About 90% of Naraha is within the 20km radius, so the entire community was emptied and remained a virtual no-man’s land until this year. The Sept. 5th lifting of all restrictions on the residents will mark the first full repopulation of an entire municipality within the Tokyo-mandated exclusion zone.
It is expected that only about 20-25% of the estranged residents will actually go home, based on the repopulation levels of re-opened residential areas outside the exclusion zone. Some people say they will stay away because not all social and medical infrastructures will be in full operation. Others say they fear the low levels of radiation that remain detectible. There those who are concerned that the huge government-mandated subsidies given to the evacuees end, forcing many to find jobs that may not yet exist. But, the most commonly-voiced reason for staying away is a lack of trust in the central government.
To be blunt, Naraha should have been unconditionally re-opened more than four years ago. The population has suffered reprehensible and absolutely avoidable angst for far, far too long. There is only one entity responsible for this, and it is not the owner of Fukushima Daiichi….Tepco is the willing pawn of this travesty. The burden of guilt totally falls on Tokyo, and its well-past time they owned up to it!
The initial evacuation order in 2011 made some sense, if only as a precaution against the weather patterns changing and carrying concentrated amounts of F. Daiichi airborne contamination to the community. Naraha stretches between 10km and 20km directly south of F. Daiichi. The prevailing winds blow east, west, and occasionally to the north. Winds blowing in a southerly direction are quite unusual, thus the potential for it was unlikely. Due to brief meteorological shifts, some contamination actually made it to Nahara over the first two months following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. But, the drastic reduction in releases from F. Daiichi after April, 2011, made it unlikely that anyone would have been at risk even if the winds constantly blew directly over Naraha for an extended period.
By late summer of 2011, estimated exposure levels across Naraha Town were projected. The average was in the one microsievert per hour range. That equated to a bit less than 9 millisieverts per year for anyone remaining outdoors 24 hours per day, every day. Anyone with an iota of radiological understanding knows that the roofs and walls of homes, no matter how thin, reduce radiation levels. It’s called shielding. People spend most of their lives inside their homes. Thus, if the estimated outdoor exposure levels (largely taken by monitoring devices hanging below helicopters) were correct, the typical resident of Nahara would have experienced an exposure of about 6 mSv/yr. This is the naturally-occurring exposure level of millions of Americans living on the Colorado Plateau, where life expectancies are a bit greater than the rest of the US, and cancer rates are statistically lower. In other words, Tokyo could have safely lifted the evacuation order for Naraha within six months of forcing the population of about 7,700 to leave.
But, it didn’t happen.
As time passed, the exposures measured at ground level in 2012 indicated that actual exposures were much lower than those conservatively estimated. It turned out that the outdoor exposure levels were (on the average) about 0.5 µSv/hr, a bit more than half of the initial estimates. This equated to 4.4 mSv/yr, which is considerably less than natural background levels on the Colorado Plateau. It was unequivocally… unquestionably… absolutely safe for everyone in Naraha to go home in the summer of 2012.
But, again, it did not happen.
Expensive and arguably unnecessary decontamination efforts in the town, rainfall flushing, and natural radioactive decay have lowered the current average levels to about 3 µSv/hr, or roughly 2.5 mSv/yr…which is actually equal to the average natural radiation exposure routinely experienced by every man, woman, and child around the world! There is absolutely no risk to anyone from Naraha, if they go home. But, again, polls run by national newspapers and Tokyo government groups indicate that the overwhelming majority have no intention of returning.
Most say it is because they don’t trust the government. The former political regime under Naoto Kan and the Democratic Party of Japan was roundly voted out of office more than three years ago. The old administration proved itself financially and socio-politically inept before the quake and tsunami of 2011. The recovery efforts promised to the 250,000 homeless refugees from the 400 kilometer coastline never materialized. Then, the frustrated and outraged Japanese public gave them the old heave-ho. The subsequent regime under current PM Shinzo Abe was shackled with many lame-duck policies from the DPJ, including the continued enforcement of the ridiculously-low goal of lowering exclusion zone radiation levels to one mSv/yr or less.
The one mSv goal was invoked by the DPJ because using the international guideline for repopulation of 20 mSv/yr was vehemently attacked by Japan’s politically-active antinuclear demographic and the nation’s largely-antinuclear Press. The DPJ, under Kan and his predecessor Yoshihiko Noda, kept lowering the decontamination goal until the antinukes and the Press backed off. Clearly, political expediency for the doomed regime was more important than scientific truth. The current government has been shackled with trying to right the radiological ship, swing back to the 20 mSv/yr guideline, and allow people to safely go home. It has taken more than 3 years, but it seems they have finally arrived at a semblance of reality.
So, how can they persuade the majority from Naraha to overcome their distrust of Tokyo, and their paranoiac fear of medically-innocuous low level radiation, and go home?
Tokyo must make a full, unequivocally apology to the people of Naraha Town. The government needs to admit that repopulation was not only safe and possible four years ago, but the extended duration of mandated exclusion over that period was (for all intents and purposes) entirely political. The one mSv/r goal for decontamination was entirely the result of the old regime making a last-ditch effort to politically survive. The prolonged evacuation of Naraha was entirely the fault of Tokyo. The prolonged estrangement of Naraha was entirely due to a government too afraid of the Press to tell it like it actually was.
The protracted evacuation of Naraha Town is one of the most severe socio-political blunders of the 21st century. It is time for the current government to proffer the most copious volume of mea culpa apologies possible. Will a full, formal apology change the minds of the people of Nahara so they will go home? That’s a matter of speculation. But, it would certainly do more good than harm.