Fukushima communities are building a sustainable future

Ten years on from the devastating nuclear disaster, citizens are working together to show that nuclear power and fossil fuels are not the only way. Tina Burrett visits the red zone.

The abandoned remains of a forklift overgrown with trees, next to a destroyed beachfront house in Futaba, Fukushima. Credit: C.E.J. Simons.

Stepping out of the train station Fukushima’s bustling city centre looks like any other in Japan. But once you travel beyond the city limits, the legacy of 2011’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is quickly revealed. Driving along the highway toward the red zone, from which over 150,000 people were forced to evacuate, derelict buildings, blinking radiation monitors and fields lined with plastic bags full of contaminated soil are a sobering sight.

It is mostly the elderly who have returned to this area since evacuation orders were partially lifted, beginning in 2017 – young families fear it is not safe. ‘Ten years later, there are still so many ghost houses,’ laments one local woman. When the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) first commissioned Fukushima Daiichi in 1971 they promised nuclear jobs would improve local livelihoods. But the ten years since the meltdown, which was triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 10-metre tsunami, have been hard for local people. The number of evacuees living on low incomes has almost doubled, and those in non-regular work have grown by 60 per cent.

Despite these hardships Fukushima’s communities have been trying to build a brighter future for generations to come. Soon after the 2011disaster, local representatives declared ambitions to make Fukushima a zero emissions area by 2040, a policy at odds with the national government that remains beholden to the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. The prefecture is turning its contaminated land into massive renewable energy fields to generate employment as well as electricity.

In Iwaki, 50 kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi, the Ethical Energy Project, a non-profit created by local citizens, maintains a solar energy system ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’ The Fukushima Airport Solar Power Project is similarly funded by local citizens and businesses. New ride-sharing programmes using electric vehicles provide zero-emission transport. Fukushima is also home to the Renewable Energy Research and Development Centre, a publicly funded institute researching wind, solar and geothermal technologies, that is bringing quality jobs to the region. The institute also educates visiting children about sustainable lifestyles.

Many locals have had to become citizen scientists. Unwilling to rely on government data, Takenori and Tomoko Kobayashi, who live on the edge of the exclusion zone, regularly test soil for radiation in what they call their ‘grandma and grandpa lab’. The couple want to know that it’s safe for their children and grandchildren, who left permanently after the disaster, to come and visit. In Minamisoma, local farmers are responding to consumer fears of food grown in contaminated soil by experimenting with hydroponics. Internationally acclaimed Iwaki-born chef Hagi Harutomo is helping destigmatize Fukushima produce by serving locally-grown vegetables at his famed restaurant, and even to former French President Francois Hollande.

Fukushima’s younger citizens are also being proactive. Students working with the Happy Road Net NPO are planting cherry trees along the highway running through the red zone and surrounding towns. Yumiko Nishimoto who started the project says, ‘I want people around the world to see that we won’t let the nuclear disaster beat us.’ Students have also travelled to Belarus to learn about the impact of the Chernobyl disaster and to share their experiences.

A new art mural by the Over Alls group of artists, part of a regeneration project in Futaba, Fukushima.Credit: C.E.J. Simons.

In Futaba, a town off limits until March 2020, art collective Over Alls are creating a series of murals to welcome back residents who are scheduled to return from 2022. Just outside the station, a graffiti-style painting shows Romeo and Juliet reaching out to each other. Juliet stands on a balcony fashioned as a graph showing the town’s declining radiation levels since 2011. Another piece features the ‘Mother of Futaba’, a local legend with red hair and a winning smile who formerly worked in the popular Penguin restaurant. Over Alls artists continue to produce work they hope will eventually attract tourists and revitalise the town. ‘We lost so much in the nuclear disaster,’ says one from the group. ‘If we can rebuild Futaba as an art town, we can change perceptions of the past.’ But for now this is a distant dream. On the day we visit Futaba we only encounter wild monkeys and the suspicious glances of TEPCO security guards. The power company’s derelict office – its floors covered in debris – stands in Futaba as a testament to the chaos its negligence inflicted on the region.

Fukushima’s residents have been at the heart of efforts to hold TEPCO and the Japanese state accountable for the nuclear catastrophe that upended their lives. Local citizens spearheaded the only criminal prosecution against TEPCO executives. Although their action was ultimately unsuccessful, over many years it kept pressure on the company and government as they sought to restart Japanese reactors in the face of strong public opposition. The hearings also revealed facts about the disaster that helped citizens pursuing ongoing civil actions. Most recently, in February 2021, the Tokyo High Court ruled that the Japanese government as well as TEPCO must pay compensation to people who were evacuated from Fukushima.

For Japan’s government, the Fukushima disaster is an international embarrassment, undermining the country’s reputation for technological prowess and national solidarity. To overcome the negative PR, Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid was billed as ‘the Recovery Games’, a moniker angering Fukushima residents still suffering from the 2011 triple emergency. Many anti-Olympics grassroots groups sprung up to oppose spending billions of yen on the games when tens of thousands remain displaced by the disaster. As one local Fukushima woman pointed out, ‘now isn’t the time to host the Olympics’.

The recovery narrative is essential to the Japanese government’s future energy strategy. Japan’s 2018 ‘Basic Energy Plan’ specifies that 22-24 per cent of its energy should come from renewables by 2030, along with 20-22 per cent from nuclear power and 56 per cent from fossil fuels. Prior to the Fukushima disaster around 30 per cent of the country’s electricity was generated by nuclear power. In February 2021, Japan’s energy minister Hiroshi Kajiyama declared nuclear energy ‘indispensable’ to meeting Japan’s energy needs and for reducing dependence on fossil fuels. But by turning tragedy into an opportunity to pursue more sustainable, safe and community-orientated living, Fukushima citizens are showing there is a better way to safeguard the future.

Tina Burrett is Associate Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo. This article was funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation.