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Fukushima residents torn over nuclear waste storage plan
March 9, 2015 / 8:17 AM / 3 years ago

Fukushima residents torn over nuclear waste storage plan

Big black plastic bags containing radiated soil, leaves and debris from the decontamination operation are dumped at a temporary storage site in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant February 22, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

OKUMA, Japan (Reuters) - Norio Kimura lost his wife, father and 7-year-old daughter Yuna in the March 2011 tsunami.

Now, he fears he may lose his land, too, as Japan’s government wants to build a sprawling radioactive waste storage site in the shadow of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.

Like many here, Kimura is angry the government is set to park 30 million tons of radioactive debris raked up after the nuclear accident on his former doorstep. Few believe Tokyo’s assurances that the site will be cleaned up and shut down after 30 years.

“I can’t believe they’re going to dump their trash here after all we’ve been put through,” said Kimura, 49, standing near the weathered planks on a shrub-covered hill that represent all that’s left of his home.

Kimura was forced to abandon searching for his family in the frantic hours after the tsunami and ordered to evacuate after explosions rocked the Fukushima complex, just 3 kms (less than 2 miles) from his home. Months later, he found the bodies of his wife and father. But all he has left of Yuna are her mud-soaked pink skirts, a pair of striped leggings and a blackened soft toy he found tangled in a heap of debris.

Four years after the earthquake and tsunami disaster, Kimura still returns to his hometown and combs the deserted beach for Yuna’s body - in 5-hour stints, the maximum allowed under radiation health guidelines.

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami tore through coastal towns in northern Japan and set off meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, which sits partly in Okuma.

Japan has since allocated more than $15 billion to an unprecedented project to lower radiation in towns around the plant, such as Okuma. Every day across Fukushima prefecture, teams of workers blast roads with water, scrub down houses, cut branches and scrape contaminated soil off farmland.

That irradiated trash now sits in blue and black plastic sacks across Fukushima, piled up in abandoned rice paddies, parking lots and even residents’ backyards.

Japan plans to build a more permanent storage facility over the coming years in Okuma and Futaba, another now-abandoned town close to the Fukushima nuclear plant - over the opposition of some local residents.

“BLOOD AND SWEAT”

Decontamination workers wearing protective suits and masks, work on big black plastic bags containing radiated soil, leaves and debris from the decontamination operation in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“This land has our blood and sweat running through it and I can’t just let go of it like that,” said Koji Monma, 60, an Okuma resident who heads a local landowners’ group.

Fukushima’s governor agreed to take the waste facility after Tokyo said it would provide $2.5 billion in subsidies, and promised to take the waste out of the prefecture after 30 years. Mayors of Futaba and Okuma have since agreed to host the 16 square km (6.2 square mile) facility - about five times the size of New York’s Central Park - which will wrap around the Fukushima plant and house multiple incinerators.

Some 2,300 residents who own plots of land in Futaba and Okuma which the government needs for the waste plant face what many describe as an impossible choice. The storage site will be built if the government can lease or buy enough land - whatever concerns the last hold-outs may have.

Slideshow (8 Images)

In a dozen town-hall meetings organized by the environment ministry last year, angry landowners confronted junior officials over then-minister Nobuteru Ishihara’s remark that any agreement with landowners simply came down to money.

Only half of the area’s registered landowners attended the meetings, and there have been no agreements reached between any of the residents and the government.

Distrust of government promises runs deep among residents here. In more than four decades of nuclear power plant operations Japan has yet to set up a permanent storage site for the nuclear fuel piled up at plants like Fukushima.

“I‘m sure they’re considering this site as a final storage destination for radioactive trash. I can’t trust them, no one can, about what will happen in 30 years time,” said Takashi Sugimoto, 73, an Okuma landowner.

In a law passed in November, Japan Environment Storage and Safety Corp (JESCO), a taxpayer-backed group with no experience in dealing with nuclear radiation, was put in charge of operating the facility, with a promise to shift the radioactive trash out of Fukushima after 30 years.

“We understand that residents have concerns. But we have made this promise at the highest level,” the ministry said, adding it would do its utmost to meet that deadline.

The ministry has hired around 140 real estate representatives to negotiate land sales with individual owners.

Kimura, who has moved to Nagano prefecture, knows it’s only a matter of time before they knock on his door. He has vowed not to take their deals.

Editing by Ian Geoghegan

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