Japan’s tragic nuclear cities come to life

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“There are a lot of emotions among the inhabitants of the city. A lot of them went through a tough time after that experience, so I’m sure there are mixed opinions about going back and (nuclear power). »

Two challenges

Osumi’s comments highlight the twin challenges facing the Japanese government as it tries to revive a region that still bears the scars of the worst nuclear accident since Russia’s Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Some small business owners are returning, lured by government programs to bring workers to the area and cheap land. However, many original residents have settled elsewhere and are reluctant to return to towns where basic infrastructure is lacking and memories of a tragedy that killed loved ones still haunt the deserted streets.

“It is still very difficult for people to come back. There’s no hospital, no supermarket and not many restaurants,” says Shingo Tokuta, a former chef turned farm manager at a nearby strawberry farm called Nexus Farm Okuma. “There is a crying lack of labor here. We just don’t have enough workers.

As life returns to normal in Fukushima, northeast Japan, the area remains an uncomfortable reminder of the risks of nuclear power.

But nuclear could once again play a major role in meeting Japan’s future energy needs. Like Australia, Japan faces a severe energy shortage. This was underlined last week when the government told households to save electricity due to a possible electricity crisis this summer. It has not issued such a directive since 2015.

A fire truck damaged in the 2011 tsunami on display at the Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum. Michael Smith

https://www.afr.com/world/asia/.

Abandoned buildings in the Japanese town of Futaba which was abandoned after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster. Michael Smith

Japan’s sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine have exacerbated the fragility of the country’s energy supplies, which are heavily dependent on Australian imports, at a time when the government is also prioritizing a shift to energy sources. green energy.

Japan has 36 operational reactors overseen by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), but only 10 have restarted under new regulations imposed since the Fukushima disaster. The government wants this figure to increase to 27 by 2030 to reach the objective of 21% of nuclear in the energy mix of Japan, against 6% currently.

“I am neither for nor against nuclear power. Before we had the factory, there were a lot of economic difficulties here,” says Isuke Takakura, 66, whose community just 500 meters from the coast was decimated in 2011.

Takakura, a former landscaper who drives his motorbike for several hours each way tending to the local shrine and meeting visitors at a museum built near Futaba to commemorate the disaster, vividly remembers March 11, 2011 when 17 people – including two children – died in his village of 50 households.

“About 30 minutes after the earthquake, it was cold and completely dark even though it was 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon. The tsunami was so high and the water was very black, very dark, it was like everything was in slow motion,” he recalls.

Reconstruction and renewal

Futaba is one of the last of a dozen towns that were designated as ‘no go’ zones after the disaster due to concerns about high radiation levels. Intensive decontamination efforts and huge investments in soil recycling and storage mean the area is now considered safe for habitation.

A worker at a paddy field test site, where rice is grown from the ground as part of an experiment to determine if it is safe to grow crops in areas affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster. Michael Smith

https://www.afr.com/world/asia/.

Tsuanmi survivor Isuke Takakura has returned to Fukushima to share his stories of the disaster with visitors. Michael Smith

A commercial area in the center of town is being rebuilt and people have been allowed to visit since 2020 when some train services resumed. Local authorities are also working with 24 businesses to start new businesses in the area and new apartments are being built for returning residents because their old homes are unlivable or have been demolished.

However, reviving communities like these is a challenge. Driving around town is like being on the set of an apocalyptic movie. The vegetation has recovered many dilapidated houses and shops.

A survey of 5,600 former residents found that only 11% wanted to return while 25% said they had not made a decision. Officials hope to be able to attract 2,000 former residents within five years, high demand in a country like Japan where most regional areas are already struggling with an aging population.

A difficult decision

“Many residents have not made the decision to return due to the lack of facilities such as shops. They fear that even if they return to their hometown, they will not be sure they can lead a normal life. It’s a tough decision,” said Hiroshi Hattori, an environment ministry official who oversees a contaminated soil storage project.

Others are more optimistic. Shubun Endo, a construction consultant turned entrepreneur, returned to Tomioka Town in Fukushima once residents were allowed to return in 2017. Taking advantage of cheap land prices, he built a house and started farming wine grapes on a property perched above the coastline.

“This city has been through so much. We wanted to start thinking about the future and what the city could be like in 100 years,” says Endo. While he admits that growing wine grapes on land that was not considered habitable five years earlier may sound crazy, he says there are precedents overseas.

“For me, Chernobyl set a precedent. I went to Chernobyl and saw wine grapes being grown there. The radiation there had dropped to almost zero. It gave me confidence. People will compare Fukushima to Chernobyl, but Chernobyl was a much bigger situation,” he says. “We have a global energy shortage. If a nuclear plant can be safely restored, that might be something to consider.

Difficult new obstacles to reopening

While the new Albanian government has rejected the nuclear option in Australia, Japan is in a different position as it already has inactive plants. However, analysts say the earthquake-prone country’s regulatory and safety protocols introduced after the 2011 disaster are a bigger barrier to reopening factories than public opinion.

Local resident Yoshitomo Shigihara, a former local government official from Nagadoro, has returned to the town where the flowers are grown in greenhouses. Michael Smith

Shubun Endo and a volunteer, Junichiro Hosokawa in his Tomioka Wine Domaine project .

Reiji Ogino, an analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, says the government’s chance of hitting its 2030 nuclear target is 30% based on the current rate of nuclear plant start-ups.

“The NRA judges and approves based on its technological scientific expertise in accordance with stipulated laws and not political considerations. If the government decides that the approval process is too slow to achieve the goal, it needs to change things,” he said. FRG weekend.

Other energy analysts agree, but say firing old nuclear power plants won’t automatically solve Japan’s energy shortage. “It is not a direct consequence of the shutdown of nuclear energy but rather of the implementation of wind and solar energy which is very volatile”, explains Syusaku Nishikawa, analyst at Daiwa Securities.

Analysts say Japan’s appetite for Australian fossil fuels is set to increase in the near term despite goals to rely more on green energy sources as well as nuclear.

The path to follow

Back in Fukushima, the focus is on massive soil recycling projects such as a 16 square kilometer “interim storage” facility and on making the rest of the country aware that the area is safe for the environment. dwelling.

Officials say the government has invested 5.8 trillion yen ($61.5 billion) in cleanup efforts, including 280 billion yen planned for 2022 alone.

“Radiation is a scary thing, but someone has to cooperate or we can’t move forward. Sometimes I feel like people outside of Japan have a more objective view of the disaster than people here. We have to move on,” says Yoshitomo Shigihara, an elderly former resident who has returned to the Nagadoro area.

“I really wonder if people will come back here. The numbers that are coming back are still low even though the government is working hard to deliver construction and infrastructure projects. You need to go forward. »

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