Fukushima five years later: back to normal?

Analysis commissioned by Greenpeace Belgium

Full report

See Greenpeace’s press release and the other reports


The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima daiichi nuclear power plant (FDNPP), ranked at Level 7 of the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which is the highest level, is widely recognized as man-made. It contaminated a vast territory in Japan and was responsible of the displacement of about 160 000 persons according to official statistics. Contaminated territories that were not evacuated are also strongly affected by the disaster.

The crippled reactors are still discharging radioelements into the environment. Anomalous discharges were hidden for several months, generating to a lot of confusion. Sloppy behaviours led to significant contamination by radioactive dust tens of kilometres away from the plant. TEPCo has difficulties to curb down the radioactive leaks into the ocean and tainted water piles up in tanks without any solution in sight.

TEPCo has yet to fully stabilize the power station and its priority is still to reduce the threat. Dismantling has not started yet. While communities around the station were evacuated due to the long-going contamination, and many fear radioactive emissions could resume in the event of another natural disaster. They wonder if it is safe to come back when the evacuation order is lifted. Actually, the crippled reactors at FDNPP are more fragile than usual reactors, and their containment vessels are leaking. They might not be able to sustain an earthquake or a tsunami, which would lead to a new massive release of radioelements.


Many people were forced to evacuate during emergency phase followed by others during the first months of the disaster due to the radioactive contamination. Many others evacuated on their own in order to protect their children or themselves. Five years later most of them remain evacuated and hardly imagine their future.

The total number of evacuees related to the nuclear disaster is not well known. Nevertheless, about 160 000 people fled from contaminated territories according to official statistics. Five years later, the number of nuclear displaced persons is still about 100 000 as evacuation orders have only been lifted in three places. Evacuees who resettled are not counted anymore although they might be still suffering.

Behind these figures, there are individuals whose life was disrupted. Major nuclear disasters are firstly human disasters leading to the displacement of many people who lose everything from dwellings, family life, social relationship and future. Displacement generates conditions of severe hardship and suffering for the affected populations, but it could be avoided. Non-evacuated people in contaminated territories worry for their health and future and their daily life is also severely affected.

To decide about the fate of evacuees, Japanese authorities have divided the evacuated territories into three zones depending on the airborne dose rate: Areas where the annual integral dose of radiation is expected to be 20 mSv or more within five years and the current integral dose of radiation per year is 50 mSv or more are classified as difficult-to-return zones. Evacuation orders will not be lifted before several years and residents’ relocation is supported. Areas where it is confirmed that the annual integral dose of radiation will definitely be 20 mSv or less are classified as areas to which evacuation order is ready to be lifted. In between, with an annual external dose ranging from 20 to 50 mSv, the residents are not permitted to live, but decontamination is expected to reduce the annual dose below 20 mSv.

Radiation protection

Both evacuation and return policies are based on a lax interpretation of the international recommendations that not very binding. 20 mSv per year corresponds to the highest value of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) reference interval in case of existing situation that includes post-accident. ICRP recommends lowering with time the reference level to 1 mSv per year. Consequently, Japanese authorities have adopted this value as a long-term target, without a precise agenda for compliance. At the moment authorities stick to the 20 mSv reference level that is considered as too high by many Japanese.

Regarding the food contamination, the strategy was completely different: maximum allowed concentrations were fixed below international standards to promote the recovery of consumers’ confidence and food production in contaminated territories.

Contrast between the protection against external exposure and internal exposure through food intake is shocking. In the first case Japanese authorities refuse to lower the reference levels that are kept at the highest value of the international recommendations whereas in the second case maximum allowed values were divided by a factor 5 after a year.

Such a contrast shows that the primary concern of Japanese government is the economical consequences of the nuclear disaster. Contamination limits in food were lowered to regain the confidence of consumers who avoid products from Fukushima. On the contrary compensation of the evacuated people represents a heavy economical burden and authorities do not propose any other solution than the return of displaced persons.

To win the citizens’ understanding, authorities keep claiming that radiation-induced cancer does not occur, or is undetectable even if it occurs, under the integrated exposure dose of 100 mSv although international recommendations on protection against radiations are based on the central assumption of a no-threshold linear dose–response relationship for the induction of cancer and heritable effects. And with a limit of 20mSv per year, 100 mSv might be quickly reached.

Consequently, Japanese authorities have changed their policy and introduced a new way of measuring the dose. Evacuation policy was based on the airborne dose rate that can be easily measured by various methods, including simple radiameters. Then, to estimate the annual dose, it is supposed that individuals spend 8 hours per day outdoors and that indoors, exposure is reduced by 60%. For the return, authorities will provide an individual dosimeter or glass-badge to register each individual cumulative dose, without mentioning that this apparatus gives an overall value that is 30 to 40% lower from what can be deduced with an apparatus measuring airborne dose rate.

This new policy is also a change of paradigm: Individuals will be in charge of their own protection against radiations. On the contrary to nuclear workers who are supposed to be well controlled, nobody controls if the population wear such individual dosimeters. This is crucially problematic for children who are more sensitive to radiations. Continuously controlling one’s life is a heavy burden that is hardly accepted, especially when there are children for which it is not a bright future to propose.

30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, international radiological protection rules and practices are not adapted for populations living in contaminated territories. They are extremely confusing and impossible to enforce, allowing authorities to adapt rules to their own advantage rather than the affected populations. Rule should be binding in terms of limits, temporal evolution and operational quantities.

Food contamination

Regarding the food issue, Japanese authorities initially failed to foresee the scale of problems with contaminated food and crops, and were repeatedly caught by surprise in the following months. As a consequence, many people’s trust in the government was eroded and the population concerned about food safety reconsidered their relationship to the state and to the food.

But citizens, famers, producers, retailers and consumers have been monitoring food production forcing authorities to introduce systematic controls. Situation has quickly improved and except for wild plants and animals, including fishes and self-production, contamination of the food found on the market remains low. Internal contamination of children checked by whole body counting is also low enough to consider that external dose is the dominating problem for residents in contaminated territories. This success has a cost: many farmers cannot resume farming and some traditional productions might disappear.

The food issue shows the merit of an open process in which every one can check the contamination and adapt its diet to its own requirement. Nevertheless consumers are still reluctant to buy food produced in contaminated territories and producers, including farmers, fishermen and foresters are still suffering five years later.

Government’s policy was focused on food safety (anzen in Japanese), but it did not address how to generate a climate of trustworthiness (anshin in Japanese) about food. Enforcing technical standards alone is not sufficient to overcome consumer mistrust. The challenge is to bring together food safety and the peace of mind that comes with it.

What future for evacuated territories?

Japanese government decided to withdraw evacuation orders by March 2017 and stop compensations by March 2018, except in the so-called difficult-to-return zones. Even J-Village, a former training centre for football, changed into a base for the workers at the FDNPP will turn back to sports before the 2020 Olympic games.

As a matter of fact, Japanese authorities dream of a reversible disaster while international recommendations on post-accident management only focus on the return to normalcy. With a half-life of 30 years, caesium-137 decays too slowly. Japanese government has launched a huge decontamination programme in both non-evacuated and evacuated territories where the annual dose is higher than 1 mSv, except for the difficult-to-return areas. It consists on scrapping the soil, cutting the grass, trees, bushes and washing to roof of dwellings, roads, and sidewalks… in the vicinity of dwellings and other buildings, changing villages and towns into oasis in the middle of a vast contaminated land. In evacuated territories, decontamination plans covers about 24 800 ha and there are no such plans for the surrounding land, including forests and mountains that cover about 70% of Fukushima prefecture.

Decontamination is not very effective and generates huge amount of waste for which all proposed solutions failed because of the opposition of the populations. Actually, handling radioactive waste is a difficult issue in all countries that have accumulated significant amounts. But after a severe nuclear accident, it is even more difficult and volumes are enormous. 20 millions cubic meters are expected in Fukushima prefecture and the projected storage centre will cover 16 km2. Projects are stalled in Fukushima and other prefectures, but authorities stick to their authoritative attitude that is a complete failure: Decide – Announce – Defend (DAD). In the mean time waste is piling up in bags that are quickly damaging.

Decontamination proved to be deceiving as dose rates have not significantly fallen compared to what can be observed in the forest. Nevertheless authorities keep encouraging inhabitants to come back.

Residents are reluctant to come back

So far, evacuation orders were lifted in parts of Tamura and Kawauchi in 2014, and in Naraha in 2015. All these areas lie within the less contaminated parts of the 20 km evacuation zone. Evacuation recommendations around scattered hot-spots are also completely lifted. But residents are reluctant to come back and contaminated areas are facing aging and depopulation problems.

The town of Hirono, which lies between 20 and 30 km from the FDNPP, was included in the emergency evacuation preparation zone. Residents are expected to return, but according to the latest census in 2015, large portion of the present population is involved in nuclear reactor decommissioning work: the male population is up 2.3% from 2010 whereas the female population, on the other hand, was down 42.3%. In Minami-Soma, the population declined to 66% of that prior to the accident and the average resident age increased by 14 years, a level that was expected in 2025.

Facts prove that return to normalcy is impossible after a large-scale nuclear disaster such as the ones that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima. United Nations’ guidelines on internally displaced persons urge authorities to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration. But in Japan their participation is reduced to “explanation meetings” (setsumeikai) usually organized behind closed doors without any presence of media, NGOs, legal or independent experts and thus leaving evacuees with little recourse.

Affected communities see no end to the severe hardship they are facing and are suffering. To stay or to flee, to come back or to relocate are difficult choices in a no-win situation. Number of people suffering from psychological disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder is larger than usual among both evacuated and non-evacuated people. The number of suicides related to the disasters is larger in Fukushima than in Miyagi or Iwate that were hit by the tsunami.


The impact of the accident still continues, and responses that can be accepted by the affected populations are urgently required. Residents in the affected areas are still struggling to recover from the effects of the accident. They continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives, and the environmental contamination of vast areas of land. As nuclear disasters last for decades affected population see no end to the severe hardship they are facing.

After a nuclear disaster, many residents distrust authorities and official experts that failed to protect them. But recovery paths require a good coordination between authorities and the populations. Solutions cannot ignore the specific needs and demands of the affected populations, as well as their suggestions. This means new ways for deliberation and decision. Solutions might differ from families or communities. There is no good solution and each decision should be evaluated and then adapted. Beyond the pain of the affected persons, a nuclear disaster also shakes the ground of democracy.

Japanese citizens have proved to be resourceful about the measurement of radioactivity. Citizen mapping of the contamination was done all over and food monitoring prompted authorities, producers, and retailers to strengthen their controls and finally led to a decrease of intake of radioelements. Why such an open process that proved to be effective is not possible when deciding about the fate of contaminated territories and affected population?