An administrative nightmare
A coastal city with 63,000 residents, Minamisoma was established in 2006 by combining three districts: Kashima, Haramachi, and Odaka.
Immediately after the accident, Minamisoma was divided by governmental order into different zones, depending on their distance from the power plant. Located within a radius of 20 km from the power plant, Odaka had to be evacuated. Haramachi and the southern point of Kashima, located within a range of 20 to 30 km, were told to shelter in place, whereas residents of the rest of Kashima were allowed stay with no shelter-in-place orders.
All this resulted in the evacuation of the majority of residents and the return of only 66% of them by the spring of 2014, when the 8th meeting of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative was held in Minamisoma.
In the meantime, the zoning was revised to divide Minamisoma into five zones: the zone where residents were prohibited, the zone where returning was difficult, the evacuated zone ready for restrictions to be lifted, the special areas where evacuation was recommended, and the zone not subject to any restrictions. A real headache.
In addition to this division, there were difficulties accessing the city of Minamisoma, due to the damage caused by the tsunami to the coastal railway and the closure of the section of Japan National Route 6 located within the 20-km radius of the nuclear power plant.
It is not hard to imagine how difficult it might have been for those who suffered this three-fold trauma to find the strength to bounce back and look towards the future with confidence.
Intended to protect the population, the administrative zoning had the consequence of dividing communities, each deeply affected by the inequality of the treatment applied by the public authorities, depending on the zone concerned.
In particular, a significant portion of the 140 plots of land designated by the government as “specific locations where evacuation is recommended” only had a few households eligible for compensation, whereas the houses around it were not...
This was an unnecessary cause of rift between members of the community, in addition to those within families divided by diverging opinions on risks associated with radioactivity, the education of children in a contaminated environment, and protection of ancestral traditions and customs.
“The fear or radiation and assessment of associated risks differ considerably between people, since the experts give contradictory information. Information regarding dose rate measurements disseminated by the authorities are received with scepticism. The population feels like it has been left on its own, and wonders what can be trusted and what should not be,” explained one participant of the 8th meeting of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative entitled “The situation and challenges in Minamisoma - working together in the affected zones.” More than 120 participants came together for the meeting at a time when many of Minamisoma’s residents were still overwhelmed by anxiety, confusion, and anger.
The catalyst effect of the dialogue
During this meeting in May 2014, testimonies of Norwegian participants, reindeer herders from regions of Lapland contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl, as well as representatives from Suetsugi and Kanagawa, showed that there were paths for gradual improvement of the radiological situation and repair of the ties connecting the affected areas to the outside world. By opening up new possibilities, the Dialogue elicited in many participants a desire to find the means to overcome the current situation and to get involved to improve the living conditions in Minamisoma, which resonated with the individuals already involved in the reconstruction of the city and projects for future generations.
The meeting ended with recommendations for the implementation of a measurement plan focused on the population, aiming to better define the radiological situation and help identify areas for flexibility on both the individual and community level. Other recommendations related to the creation of forums for dialogue between residents, experts, and authorities, spaces for sharing information and points of view on the future of Minamisoma, mechanisms of support for individuals, regardless of their decisions, and funding of local projects by the authorities for sustainable improvement of living conditions in the community.
Looking to the future remains a challenge for Minamisoma’s residents
While the meeting acted as a catalyst in terms of coexistence of the participants, it was not able to magically wipe away their fears and uncertainty. What was the takeaway? While a significant number of those who left the city of Minamisoma in March 2011 were back more than three years after the accident, some preferred to remain in exile, waiting for the end of the decontamination works to make sure they could return safely.
In this context, the governmental measure allowing certain people to quickly return home was seen as a sort of encouragement to take the decision desired by the public authorities, despite serious obstacles, such as trouble finding work, lack of organization in the school and medical systems, and, more generally, the disintegration of the socioeconomic fabric.
For those whose self-esteem has been damaged, who feel discriminated against, regaining one's dignity and daring to think about the future again is a long and arduous journey. This was this case for one young man who left Minamisoma and returned. During the meeting in Minamisoma, he shared how he had a girlfriend from outside of his prefecture, but they did not dare announce their engagement to her parents. He also talked about his worries for the future of his children: would they find work in Minamisoma? Would they find someone to marry?
How do you build a shared future when the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear accident impacted the communities making up Minamisoma so differently?
These questions still remain...