Thousands of residents who were evacuated from their homes in 2011 after a meltdown in Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, have been granted permission by the Japanese government to return to their former homes.
At the moment, around 52.000 former residents are waiting to be allowed back in. Most of them are not eager to return to an irradiated area but have no other choice. If they leave their homes unattended for another year, they risk losing their housing subsidies.
The Japanese government explains that it will only allow resettlement of those areas that are deemed safe and free of radiation. A recent study carried out by officials shows that some areas in the Exclusion zone, especially those 60 kilometers away from the plant, are not as irradiated as they were six years ago, meaning that they are safe for humans.
Deborah Oughton, an environmental chemist at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, explains that natural radioactive decay and weathering from rain have reduced radiation levels by burying and washing away dangerous particles. “When it comes to removing radiation from an area, natural processes can sometimes be faster and more effective than human intervention” she explains.
Her colleagues Makoto Miyazaki, a radiologist at Fukushima Medical University and Ryuho Hayano, a physicist from the University of Tokyo, agree with her analysis. They carried out their own study by using specially equipped helicopters to track soil radiation in large areas. They found out that radiation levels fell by 60% between 2011 and 2013. Afterwards, they made an estimate on how that level would continue to decrease over the next 70 years and concluded that some areas of the Exclusion zone could be resettled right now, while others will have to wait several more decades.
However, not all agree that Fukushima is safe and that people should be allowed back into it. Campaigners and ecologists oppose to this idea, saying that “every person has a right to live in a safe environment” and that no matter the results, people have nothing to do in an irradiated area.
Noriko Matsumoto is one of the many former evacuees who are now thinking of moving back in. She is facing a hard dilemma – live with higher than usual radiation levels around her, or loose housing financial assistance. She is not happy about it – “The government is playing down the effects of radiation exposure, forcing people to return to a dangerous area just so they could qualify for some minor financial aid. On top of that, they still don’t have any solution for those who still can’t return to their former homes”.
The housing subsidy for households of two or more people is typically around 90.000 yen or 640 pounds per month. Given the fact that most people who fled the area faced significant financial problems afterwards, it is understandable why some of them are seeking a way to renew this privilege. But they are hoping that the government will show some more understanding towards them by approving housing subsidies for them even if they do not return to their irradiated homes.