Kiroku Project

The value of the Fukushima dialogue seminars – as seen from a Norwegian participant

Contributed by Astrid Liland

Astrid Liland
Director for the Department of Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority

Disclaimer: Some of this text was first published in the Annals of the ICRP, Volume 45, Issue 2_suppl, December 2016, pp. 92-98, SAGE journals.

1. Norwegian impressions from the dialogue seminars – overview

The Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority has participated to many of the dialogue seminars in the period 2011-2018. It has given us the opportunity to learn, in-depth, about the challenges faced by officials and inhabitants in the Fukushima Prefecture due to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power accident in March 2011.

The first seminars displayed a lot of anger and frustration among the participants. There was a serious lack of trust in national authorities and a general feeling among people that they did not get correct or sufficient information. In lack of sufficient governmental actions, some local professionals and volunteers had started measurement campaigns and decontamination actions of their own. It was interesting to hear about those initiatives and how it was communicated to the inhabitants. 

Over time, the seminars covered different topics and different people’s experience, an excellent way for us to learn about the wider consequences of radioactive fallout and the diversity of views and needs within a population. The nature of the dialogue seminars changed over time from only radiological to many other issues, thus reflecting the societal consequences in large for the Fukushima region. 

We could clearly see that the understanding of this complex issue and possible solutions increased among the participants over the years. The anger and frustration gradually decreased, and a more positive attitude developed over the years as knowledge increased, areas were cleaned, culture and traditions were resumed, and experience was shared with others.

2. Challenges and solutions

The Japanese authorities lacked plans for the remediation and rehabilitation phase after a nuclear accident. This caused serious delays in taking mitigating actions, as well as a lack of good communication with, and involvement of, the affected citizens. The Japanese public was not educated in radiation protection issues and faced a difficult time trying to learn and understand what it was all about.

Many people were forced to evacuate while other chose to self-evacuate. They were offered temporary housing, and compensation but these measures came with a price. 

1) Temporary housing

The participants in the dialogue seminars shared their views and experiences related to this:

Before the accident, 2-3 generations used to live together in the same household. The temporary housings offered after the accident, were too small to continue this. As a result, grand parents moved to one flat, the parents and children to another. The public restoration housing today consists mainly of elderly people. They live in small flats and feel that the space is limiting and suffocating with no room to have children and grand-children visiting. They pass their time watching TV and drinking tea, reluctant to go outside, physically weakening. 

Some fathers chose to stay in the Fukushima prefecture while the mother and children moved away, thus splitting families further. Many of the traditions linked to school events for the whole family were discontinued, further increasing the distance between generations. The health of the evacuees is still worse than for other inhabitants, with increases in obesity, hypertension, anxiety etc. 

Several of the participants shared their experience with engaging in community work to counteract the negative impacts for the inhabitants. For instance Takahiro Hanzawa from Date City who very early on engaged in decontamination actions locally and sought to explain the radiation issues to the public. Fishermen in the Fukushima port area created a club for socializing and discussions. A woman engaged her friends in 2016 to set up a social meeting point for the elderly residents with different activities: exercising, singing, hand craft, new year’s celebration etc. One man restored the contact with old neighbors from a table-tennis club and arranged a 24-h memorial competition. Many other stories about local initiatives to help out in this difficult situation have been shared by the participants in the dialogue seminars. 

2) Compensation schemes and the return of citizens

The evacuees were offered compensations schemes, both for lost physical property and for psychological distress. But the rate of compensation was linked to different zones of contamination and the differences in received compensation created frustration, suspicion, malcontent and passivity – a very delicate and difficult situation. When an area was reopened for settlement, the compensation to the former inhabitants was stopped after one year. Some people thus felt forced to move back to their former hometown, even if they did not want to – either because they felt it was not safe or because they had lived elsewhere for many years and found a new hometown. This was especially true for families with small children. The frustration over the compensation schemes adds to the burden they already feel every day, every week. Some participants in the dialogue seminars expressed that they felt stretched to their limit every day.

Others have been eager to move back to their hometown and can’t wait to be granted access by the authorities. They have met negative attitudes from others who claim the authorities will not fulfill the necessary decontamination and keep up the compensation scheme if they move back. 

A large majority has still not decided if they will move back or not. In general, it is mostly elderly people who move back to the reopened areas. This causes concern for the future since the development of the prefecture is dependent on young people, too.  For instance, one participant in the Minami-soma dialogue in 2018 said that the prospect of getting young people back to Odaka doesn’t look very bright. But that they must continue to encourage them to come back, and don’t give up. Accurate and objective information about the situation now must be transmitted to evacuees and to people outside the Fukushima area, even abroad. One participant recently returned to Minami-soma after living in Canada and his Canadian acquaintances were convinced that it was not safe for him to go back. 

3) Changes in landscape and business activity 

The tsunami and the evacuation of areas due to radioactive fallout has changed the landscape for good. In many areas the beach is gone, and no people live close to the seashore anymore. The tsunami proactive barriers are built higher and wider than before. 

The government restrictions on farming and the forced evacuation left many agricultural areas unattended for years. It takes time to restore the growth and harvest in such areas. One participant told about his orchard that was unmanageable after 3 years of non-tending so he had to cut down all his pear trees. There are numerous similar stories in the Fukushima district. In addition, the farmers returning to the reopened areas are usually elderly people. On top of this, the agricultural produce still suffers from a substantial loss in market prices due to the ill-founded reputation that produce from the Fukushima prefecture is contaminated with radioactive substances. Producers in the Fukushima district have done a tremendous work to analyse foodstuffs and provide clean certificates, for instance screening all the bags of rice produced every year. Several producers have also turned to organically grown produce to further enhance the value and engaged in different local and regional activities at food fairs and with supermarket retailers to promote the clean food from the Fukushima district.

Even so, many previous farmland areas have been turned into solar panel parks to sell electricity instead of foodstuffs. Others have been turned into temporary storage sites for slightly radioactive waste from the decontamination actions in the district. This has changed the landscape and continues to remind people about the nuclear power accident and its aftermath on a daily basis. 

The fishing industry is also still impacted with lower prices and fewer fishermen delivering their catch to the ports of Fukushima. The producers have a substantial monitoring program to ensure all the fish caught is well below the permissible level for radioactive substances in seafood. Sadly, the consumers still perceive foodstuffs from Fukushima to be of poorer quality. The continued monitoring and communication efforts toward the consumers must continue to counteract this, both for seafood and agricultural produce. 

4) Changes in cultural and religious traditions

As for cultural and religious traditions, many were suspended after the tsunami and Fukushima Dai-ichi accident. Shrines were destroyed by the tsunami. Radioactive contamination made people anxious to go outside so outdoor festivals were suspended. Contamination of the forest stopped people from going to the woods to pick wild vegetables(sansai) and mushroom, which they would normally pick, prepare and share with their neighbours in spring and autumn. School events that gathered 3 generations for festivities were suspended. 

People shared in the dialogue seminars how these cultural and religious traditions were slowly resumed and how important it was for them to be able to continue this. The negative impact on culture and traditions after a nuclear accident is often not recognized. We know from experience though, in Ukraine, Belarus, Norway and Japan, that the value of cultural traditions must not be forgotten – what does it mean to be a Japanese, a Belarusian or a Norwegian? What are the assets we must reclaim to keep our identity, dignity, and pride? To live a good life, people need more than just a house and an income. That is why it is important to see the total societal impacts that nuclear accidents can cause and to really learn from initiatives like the dialogue seminars where ordinary people are free to express all their concerns, their hopes and their initiatives. 

3. The value of the dialogue seminars

1) Learning from experience 

It is clear from earlier experience and from the testimonies in the dialogue seminars, that the challenges remain for the affected people in contaminated areas even if others forget and the authorities believe it is under control.  For the affected people, the reality is what goes on in their local community every day – their struggle to get back to normal life or to establish a new normality, which is most often the case, for their future lives. This is a slow and complex process with many uncertainties and personal choices. Jacques Lochard expressed his view in the Minami-soma dialogue 2018 that all the conflicts in society is being increased in a post-accident situation, between family members, between neighbours, between people and authorities etc. 

For the authorities, it is important to understand this and understand that different paths to rehabilitation can be taken. Different people can have different needs – there is no golden standard or one-size-fits-all in such a situation. The authorities must learn from other countries’ experience and from dialoging with both experts and the affected people to find the good path to rehabilitation. 

As an extension of the dialogue seminars, people-to-people visits were arranged with affected people from Norway, Belarus and Japan. The road to rehabilitation has been quite different between these countries and learning from others’ experiences is valuable to see new possibilities and better understand your own situation. For example, Japan introduced the strictest limits in the world for radioactive substances in foodstuffs in 2012 and applied them to all food – even wild mushrooms or other minor foodstuffs that are consumed in very small amounts. Norway, on the other hand, raised the limits for reindeer meat 10 times after the Chernobyl accident to preserve the Sami culture of reindeer breeding, acknowledging at the same time that it is a minor foodstuffs for the general Norwegian consumers that contributes little to the internal doses during a year. 

2) The value of involving inhabitants in discussions and deliberation 

The dialogue seminars have shown us the power and merit of local inhabitants in a post-accident situation. They are the experts on what the challenges, possibilities, resources and assets are in a given community. With the help of experts and authorities it is possible to find good solutions that are adapted to and accepted by the inhabitants of the affected area, preferable also involving them in the mitigating actions to be implemented. Local officials have taken actively part in the dialogues. In the 2018 Minami-soma dialogue Vice-Mayor Tabayashi expressed his gratitude for the valuable opportunity to listen to all concerns and steps forward which he would use actively in the development of a new policy for the city. 

The open and sharing structure of the seminars have contributed to an unprecedented understanding of the challenges faced by the general public affected by radioactive contamination due to a nuclear power plant accident. Since Japan does not have a tradition for open public debates these dialogue seminars created a unique possibility for the participants to take part in discussions and deliberations on this complex issue. Sharing the worries lessens the individual burden. Women in particular were very grateful for this opportunity since they traditionally have a more secluded life. 

The participants in the Minami-soma 2018 dialogue clearly stated the value of the dialogues seminars to them personally: It gave them a possibility to share their experience with others, listen to and reflect upon other testimonies, broaden their view, get inspired by others to take action and change their focus to the future, not only the past. It is also clear that over the years the focus has shifted from only radiation issues to cultural, social and economic issues as well.

In an earlier dialogue seminar, it was claimed that the positive development was more pronounced in the towns that had taken part in the dialogue seminars than in other areas.

4. Hope for the future

Through the series of dialogue seminars, I have listened to a range of interesting, touching and inspiring testimonies from people in Fukushima – to many to name them all. Nevertheless, I would like to thank each and one of you for sharing your experience with us. And a special thanks to Ryoko Ando for being so instrumental in arranging most of the dialogue seminars.

Even though there are still challenges to be solved, we have seen the positive development since 2011 and the strength that lies within the Fukushima residents to find a way. This gives hope for the future!