Japan anniversary – Diary 4 – Assessing the uncertain future of a region blighted by a nuclear accident

Publié: 5 mars 2012 10:00 CET

By Francis Markus in Fukushima City

To our right we can see the snow capped peaks of the mountain they call Little Mount Fuji. It used to be one of the area’s tourist attractions. “Before, lots of school groups from Tokyo used come on trips here. But now nobody is coming,” says our taxi driver gloomily.

He’s got reason to feel downcast. Since the nuclear accident precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year, this city – and indeed the whole prefecture – has been turned into a no-go zone for tourists, and his income has gone down to a tenth of what it was.

It’s lucky he’s retired from a company job and still has his pension. For his younger colleagues, it must be a lot worse.

Once he’s dropped us off at the Fukushima Red Cross chapter, we have a chance to talk more about the effects of the nuclear crisis – both on the health of the residents and the economy.

“I read all the scientific literature, and there are three or four different strands of thought,” says chapter chairman Hisao Ohta.

These include recent pronouncements by a Japanese doctor, who worked in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Belarus in the early 1990’s and has advised that pregnant women and children should leave large swathes of the prefecture, including Fukushima City.

But they also include advice by a prominent doctor in Nagasaki, who says that current amount of radiation being registered in most of Fukushima has not yet reached levels that people should be alarmed about.

As things stand, local officials are not advising people to leave the city. “In the end, it’s up to each individual to make up their own mind about what they feel safe with. One person might decide that they feel safe living with a higher level of radiation and they will be fine, whereas another person may feel unsafe and decide to move,” says Hisao Ohta.

I suppose what he’s saying boils down to the fact that wellness is made up of both physical and psychological factors.

That sounds sensible to me. But the key question is: can people believe and trust the information they’re being given?

“We don’t trust anything the government tells us,” says one social worker we meet in a temporary housing area for evacuees from the 20 km exclusion zone set up around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

To try to be more balanced, the doctor who has worked in Belarus points out that central government officials’ statements that there was no immediate danger, were not lies. But they were not telling the whole story – if there is danger, he says, it’s a few years down the road.

What is not disputed is the drastic effect that the nuclear disaster is having on the local economy.

The local Red Cross Society plans to provide radiation measuring equipment, not just for evacuees, but also to measure levels around fruit and vegetable producers. This, it says, will help to reduce the fear and reluctance that people feel about eating Fukushima-produced food.

“We wish that people would show solidarity with us and help us by coming to visit Fukushima again instead of staying away,” says Mr. Ohta.

Several people I meet talk about the need to change the name of the city or the whole prefecture, to draw a line under the nuclear accident.

I can’t say whether the tourists will ever come back. I’ve heard that Chernobyl tourism has a macabre side to it, which I’m not sure people would want to see replicated in Fukushima. But while I haven’t been into the exclusion zone, this was my second trip to the prefecture. And I will definitely be back.