THE TOKYO Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant (NPP) accident resulted in radioactive material (including 134Cs and 137Cs) being scattered in the environment (Steinhauser et al. 2014). This contamination of the natural environment cast a long and deep shadow over the lives of people in Fukushima Prefecture, resulting in significant concern among the residents. However, even more serious was the disruption in their lives caused by government’s approach to intervention. Many associated actions, including the issuing of evacuation orders and setting of standards, however well intentioned, resulted in social turmoil.
On the evening of 11 March 2011, the government of Japan declared a nuclear emergency for the first time in the history of the country. It decided that certain areas near the NPP should be evacuated and started issuing evacuation orders. Areas subject to these orders were expanded progressively, from within a 3‐km radius of the power plant to 5‐km, 10‐km, and then to 20‐km evacuation zones by 12 March. On 15 March, residents within the area between the 20‐km and 30‐km radius were ordered to stay indoors, which lasted until 22 April. On 23 April, the government rearranged the areas within 20 km as “evacuation order zones” and 20‐km to 30‐km radius areas as “emergency evacuation preparation zones,” as well as newly designating certain areas outside of 30 km that had higher levels of radiation to be “planned evacuation zones.” In this manner, the government continued to reorganize these areas until August 2012, approximately 1.5 y after the disaster. As confusing and complex as these orders were, they are at least documented (Callen and Homma 2017). Less well known is how the residents lived through this pandemonium, particularly in the turmoil of news, both real and fake, following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. This paper examines what happened in a small village on the periphery of the evacuation zone to give a better understanding of the situation that residents experienced and to describe the efforts of these residents to understand and overcome such a situation.
TURMOIL CREATED BY GOVERNMENT-SET STANDARDS
In August 2011, the government passed the “Act on Special Measures Concerning the Handling of Radioactive Pollution” prescribing the details of the decontamination process and set 0.23 μSv h−1 as the standard ambient-air dose rate to decide whether a certain area was to be decontaminated or not. The government’s policy goal was to limit annual additional exposure from the accident to 1 mSv. This number was estimated using a background-radiation level of 0.04 μSv h−1 and a hypothetical lifestyle pattern where an average person spent 8 h d−1 outdoors and 16 h d−1 indoors with a shielding coefficient of 0.4 (Ando 2016a). Although it was intended to provide indication of areas to be decontaminated, it was neither a goal for the decontamination work nor a criterion of safety. Against the government’s original plan, the residents of Fukushima who were confused by the many (and often extremely contradictory) sources of information on radiation, took it as a measure of safety: any place with a dose rate higher than 0.23 μSv h−1 was deemed unsafe. At the time, the dose rate of most locations was still slightly higher than 0.23 μSv h−1. The residents of Fukushima continued to live or returned there, believing that the government allowed them to do so because it was safe, so they naturally felt betrayed. The government’s message seemed contradictory: how could they let people live in an area with a dose rate higher than 0.23 μSv h−1 and that needed decontamination? This was a key question to all those who lived in Fukushima. From then on, 0.23 μSv h−1 worked like a curse, casting a long shadow on the residents’ lives and their decisions.
The government also revised food safety standards in April 2012, which added to the confusion. In the wake of the accident, the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters (NERHQ) was established in the government of Japan’s Cabinet Office to coordinate the numerous measures falling under different ministries. The NERHQ determined provisional regulation values (PRVs) for food, and the PRV for most food (vegetables, grain, meat, egg, fish, etc.) was 500 Bq kg−1. Consumers harshly criticized this level as too lax, so the government lowered it to 100 Bq kg−1 (Hamada et al 2012 ; Hamada and Ogino 2012). Although this action met the public demand to lower the official standard, it had the consequence of creating an impression that the initial standard, 500 Bq kg−1, was inadequate. In people’s minds, the government misled or even lied to the consumers by labeling what was “not safe” as “safe.” Wariness over government-set standards turned into skepticism, further intensifying distrust of whatever the government did or said.
It is worthwhile noting how, in the turmoil after the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP disaster, these standards were interpreted in ways unintended or unforeseen by the standard setters. Standards are developed and adopted through legally stipulated procedures; they are developed and discussed by expert committees designated by law, using standard methodology and based on science. However, this system failed to gain the public’s trust, and people were unconvinced by the evidence backing the new standards. One of the causes of this skepticism was that there were extremely few citizens who had knowledge of radiation risks prior to the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP accident. The more significant factor at play, though, was lack of trust. In the neighboring municipalities, field trips to the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP used to be an integral part of the social studies curriculum to learn about the major industries in the area, and TEPCO stressed that there would never be an accident, propagating the now-notorious “safety myth.” TEPCO also made efforts to reach out to the community and assert that NPPs in Japan are safe. This attitude was not TEPCO’s alone; in fact, both the Japanese government and many nuclear experts took a similar attitude (see, for example, Funabashi and Kitazawa 2012). The municipalities did not welcome discussions about the risks from potential accidents for fear of causing division and disturbance among the residents. In the 40 y since the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP started operating, these factors built a culture on the premise that no accident will happen. In such an environment, the fact that such an accident occurred was enough grounds for the public to no longer believe the government and the experts who had previously assured citizens that the plant was safe. The authorities failed to send a consistent message, which led to further confusion and controversy, dealing a critical blow to their already impaired credibility.
Expert explanations of radiation and radioactivity were too difficult for most people to understand. In addition to the difficulty and newness of the topic, information overload and inconsistency were also problems; if experts could not even agree, how could a layperson decide what to believe? Thus, standards set in an environment where fundamental trust in the authorities and experts was lacking were not accepted or used in the intended (i.e., scientific) manner, but instead these standards acquired other meanings and usage.
LOSS OF TRUST
Looking back at 2011, the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP disaster itself played a decisive role in the government and experts losing public trust, because they were responsible for the message “we will never have an NPP accident in Japan” that was widely disseminated. When the unthinkable accident occurred, their credibility was shattered. In addition, their disclosures about the accident were muddled and inadequate. People felt betrayed and felt lost, not knowing whom to trust.
It is said that trust is the glue of life and the fundamental principle of all relationships (Covey et al. 1994). Trust within Fukushima suffered not just between the public and the authorities but also between family members and within communities due to the information overload after the accident. People were bombarded with contradictory and piecemeal information at a time when they needed to make basic, fundamental decisions, such as where to live, which school children should attend, or what to eat. There was no consensus on risk, and each individual had to assess risk on his or her own with whatever information was available at the time. It was only natural that the assessment and corresponding decisions varied significantly among family members or close friends who shared similar values before the accident. Furthermore, as radiation was considered a grave risk posing a fatal threat to one’s health or life, it was not something one could discuss objectively. Different opinions led to heated exchanges, often leaving deep scars of resentment and mistrust. It became extremely difficult to openly address or otherwise discuss radiation because it was so contentious.
Before the accident, in rural communities of Fukushima, multigenerational households were the norm. However, the younger generation and the grandparents’ generation tend to have significantly different opinions of radiation risk. The division became so serious that many households had to split after the accident (The Japan Times 2018). Areas where the evacuation orders were lifted suffer from the problem of an aging population as many in the younger generation chose not to return, and the regional communities are endangered (The Mainichi 2017).
Another element of trust that was lost was the people’s trust in their living environment. The government’s evacuation order sent a message to the affected residents that the authorities determined that their district was unsafe to live in. The impact from this labeling was significant, and it did not go away after the government lifted the order. Those who returned had to acknowledge the existence of radioactive substances in their neighborhood that did not exist before the accident. There was also the constant reminder that they lived within proximity of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP. Even after the evacuation order was lifted, the authorities requested the residents of some areas to voluntarily refrain from planting rice and vegetables in home gardens and fields. Although the request was not legally binding, it contributed to an increased concern about contamination of the soil. Residents were also warned about contamination of forests, where picking mushrooms and wild herbs used to be a part of daily life. The air was believed by many to be full of radioactive particles released by the accident, such that even breathing felt like a hazard that may cause cancer. A place that used to be home, where one could feel safe and relaxed, could no longer to be trusted. In summary, people suffered from loss of trust in all aspects of life: in authorities, in friends and family, in their environment, and in life itself.
In the following sections, how the accident and the governments’ measures affected a small district, as well as the residents’ efforts to overcome the problems, are discussed.
Suetsugi is a small district of about 100 households located by the Pacific Ocean, in the northern tip of Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture. It is located approximately 27 km from the TEPCO Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP (Fig. 1). With no major industry in Suetsugi, most residents commute to government offices or private businesses in the neighboring areas and grow rice and vegetables in nearby fields, mostly for home consumption. Before the government’s decision to designate 20‐ to 30‐km radius areas as indoor evacuation zones on 15 March, the city of Iwaki requested that the residents evacuate voluntarily on 12 March and sent buses to Suetsugi, urging the residents to take immediate action. Although it was not legally an order, it was de facto a forced evacuation; almost all residents left the district for about 1 mo. When the government reorganized the zones and lifted the indoor evacuation order on 21 April, the residents were allowed, if they chose, to go back to Suetsugi. When asked about this period, many replied that the situation felt chaotic and that they could not figure out what was going on or what they should do.
While these residents had no way of knowing the extent of contamination in their district because of lack of actual data, some chose to return to their homes in Suetsugi while others chose to remain where they evacuated. Some had to relocate multiple times, looking for a place to stay. At the same time, information about radiation saturated the media—TV, newspapers, magazines, social media networks, word-of-mouth, etc.—and caused an unprecedented level of confusion (Koerner 2014). Because of Suetsugi’s location, residents of Suetsugi knew people who worked at the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP, but even the workers did not have a clear picture of the residential situation; they were subject to government-designated radiation safety standards for NPP workers and knew only about their own dose or the level of dose in their immediate working environment. Additionally, workers often had different and conflicting opinions, based on their understanding of dose received when working in a planned exposure situation at the NPP. At the same time, the residents were confused by units they never heard of before: cpm, becquerel, sievert, gray. Ordinary citizens had no means of understanding the meaning of these units or the relationships between them. This confusion did not end by the time the residents were allowed to return home. After the extent of the damage by the tsunami had been reported, the media further intensified its focus on the Fukushima NPP and the actual and potential effects from radiation exposure. In such a chaotic situation, people drew on the image of the Chernobyl accident in 1986 to predict what would happen in Fukushima. The consequences of Chernobyl, particularly the observed increase in thyroid cancers in children (Steinhauser et al. 2014), struck fear into the public’s mind.
Starting in the fall of 2011, some residents of Suetsugi voluntarily formed groups and started measuring the air dose and soil contamination (Endo 2016). At the time, the government had started taking measurements, including placing posts with radiation detectors to monitor ambient dose-rate levels at public facilities. However, the public was already skeptical of government data for reasons described earlier, and this effort lacked sufficient granularity for residents to assess neighborhood safety (or lack thereof). In contrast, a group of Suetsugi residents measured dose rates at approximately 500 locations and took approximately 8,000 soil samples in Suetsugi in the span of a few months. The results were used to develop a contamination map of Suetsugi by March 2012. Residents carried out these activities mostly on their own, with little support from experts or the government. Initially, the residents paid the costs associated with sampling, which they subsequently claimed against TEPCO. To the extent of my knowledge, no other group in Fukushima carried out such extensive and comprehensive measurements on their own.
This effort allowed the residents to “visualize” radiation in most of Suetsugi, except for the surrounding forests. Measurements allow one to know the ambient dose rate at a location. However, interpreting the meaning of this ambient dose rate is another issue. For the residents to be able to understand it, that is, to be able to connect the ambient dose rate with one’s health or lifestyle choice, additional support was necessary. It was at this point that I started to work with the residents of Suetsugi, through the request from a member of the group, beginning with coordinating a study group to understand radiation. Then experts got involved with Suetsugi through Ethos in Fukushima (an organization focusing on empowering the residents of Suetsugi and other affected areas), but it should be noted that in Suetsugi, the residents’ group carried out the measurement by themselves.
I am not an expert on radiation. Like most people, I knew almost nothing about radiation before the disaster. I had to do research and study after the disaster out of necessity but I felt that knowledge itself was not enough—only when it is shared with one’s family and friends could it be used as a means for the community to return to normalcy. So I started a study group in my neighborhood and got to know some experts. Through the study group sessions, I learned that experts had extensive technical knowledge of radiation, but there is a significant gap between theoretical science and the practicalities needed in daily life. Often science could not fully respond to the specific questions people had concerning their daily lives because what the experts could offer was a general theory of radiation, whereas the residents were seeking realistic solutions to their immediate problems. These problems included whether one could grow and eat cucumbers in the vegetable garden, if it was safe for children to play in a sandbox, how to decontaminate the forest areas, etc. Experts did not have clear answers, because many of them had never been confronted with these types of questions. Moreover, even for the few experts with related experience (e.g., at Chernobyl or other contaminated sites), it was extremely difficult for them to respond appropriately without good knowledge of the radiological situation and the activities and behaviors of the residents. So going forward, experts and residents worked together to first characterize the radiological situation and then come up with solutions for daily problems. This became the basis of the activities of Ethos in Fukushima in Suetsugi, inspired by the Ethos project in Belarus after the Chernobyl accident (Lochard 2013a).
ACTIVITIES IN SUETSUGI
The central focus of our activities in Suetsugi was to encourage each participating resident to measure his or her dose. Since the residents wanted answers to specific questions about their daily activities, the most relevant information to collect was personal dose and the dose rates of the places where a resident spent time. Thus, beginning in March 2012, we assisted the residents of Suetsugi in measuring (a) external dose using a personal dosimeter, (b) internal dose using a whole-body counter (WBC), and (c) food contamination using a food monitor in the community center. The main objectives of our activities are measuring personal dose as a group activity, discussing one’s dose in the community (with occasional input from experts), and sharing dose information in the community.
It is important to note that although learning one’s dose was the top priority for most residents, they then wanted to know their neighbors’ results. The resident’s starting point was his or her own data or family’s data, but once they got that data, they wanted to compare their results with those of the other residents to know their relative situation with respect to exposures within the community. Thus, we encouraged the residents to share the personal dose that they measured.
Discussing radiation in the context of one’s personal dose was also important because knowing the dose value was different from understanding and assessing one’s own exposure level (i.e., risk). Without such assessment, a dose was just a number with no meaning. Also, in my experience, any discussion about radiation that was not based on personal dose was likely to end up in chaos, mirroring the state of confusion about radiation. Each resident had his or her own source of information by this time, and there was no way to reconcile this different, often contradictory information. However, by using the personal dose measured by the residents themselves as the starting point, more practical communication became possible. Sometimes, experts including Makoto Miyazaki of Fukushima Medical University joined the discussion and gave advice (Miyazaki 2016). The residents shared and discussed their dose results, and through these exchanges, each formed his or her assessment of the living condition in Suetsugi.
Fig. 2 shows the personal daily external dose of the residents of Suetsugi, measured from April through May 2015 by a personal dosimeter, D-Shuttle, developed jointly by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tsukuba and Chiyoda Technol, Inc., in Tokyo (Chiyoda Technol 2018). This graph allowed the residents to visualize not just their own doses but the range of external exposure of the community in Suetsugi. The horizontal axis shows the date, and the vertical axis shows the average daily dose rate. The bottom (solid) horizontal line represents the average background-radiation level of 0.54 mSv y−1 in Fukushima Prefecture estimated by the manufacturer of the personal dosimeter (Nomura et al. 2015). The top (dotted) horizontal line shows the reference level, that is, annual external exposure of 1 mSv y−1 above background (i.e., 1.54 mSv y−1 or 4.22 μSv d−1). Most participants’ external exposure fell between the two lines, and only a very few had exposures exceeding the reference level. Even in a small district like Suetsugi, different residents had different lifestyles, but the graph showed that no matter what kind of lifestyle one led, the results fell within a certain range. This was good news for the residents who then no longer felt they needed to restrict their lifestyle choices out of fear of radiation.
Fig. 3 shows the distribution of estimated 2015 annual additional cumulative dose of the residents of Suetsugi, estimated from the data shown in Fig. 2. The horizontal axis shows the annual additional cumulative dose (mSv y−1) and the vertical axis shows the number of residents. The vertical (thin) line represents 1.0 mSv y−1. This graph was shown to the residents to explain the external exposure situation at a community meeting.
Starting in May 2014, residents took WBC tests to measure their internal exposure. Of the 124 residents who took the first test in May 2014, only 3 residents had detectable amounts of 134Cs or 137Cs (at a detection limit of 300 Bq). The participants answered a survey about diet, including whether they ate locally produced food. Some had already started eating food grown in their own fields or gardens in Suetsugi, but this did not make much difference in their internal exposure. By sharing the results of WBC measurements in the community, the residents could confirm that food grown in Suetsugi was safe. This encouraged more residents to start growing food as they used to before the accident.
WHAT DOSE MEANS—SCIENTISTS VS. ORDINARY CITIZENS
Throughout our activities, we emphasized the importance of regaining trust in daily lives and not just measuring dose to obtain data. Put differently, it was an effort to reclaim a sense of control over and trust in daily life, which had been lost because of the fear of radiation, the contradictory information presented in the media, and the government-imposed regulations that aggravated the fear. It should be noted that for someone who must live in an existing-exposure situation, the measurement result is not just data, it is a mirror that reflects his or her life.
Whether it is external dose measured by a personal dosimeter or internal dose measured by a WBC, the results reflect the environment where the person lives and his or her lifestyle. Thus, any attempt to control these doses means imposing restrictions on people’s lives. This is the difference between planned exposure situations and postdisaster existing-exposure situations: in the former, the source of radiation is deliberately introduced and tightly controlled, whereas in the latter, radiation exposure has been unleashed without any plan or consent (ICRP 2009). For someone in a planned exposure situation, controlling dose means having his or her dose measured accurately, making sure the result is within a predetermined limit. In Fukushima, a postdisaster existing-exposure situation, dose measurement preceded any plan or consensus. Measured doses, both external and internal, were immediately used by authorities to develop control measures, such as setting evacuation zones, determining areas to be decontaminated, etc. In conjunction with the food standard explained earlier, these control measures directly impacted all aspects of life, such as place to live, school, diet, or even family structure. It is worth noting that many people and businesses voluntarily imposed even stricter standards than those set by the government, to be on the safe side or to fight against harmful rumors that people and produce from Fukushima are contaminated (Tajima et al. 2016). The government’s effort to measure dose was supposed to clarify the situation and help the residents, but in many cases, the measured dose created more concern and disruption in people’s lives. In my personal opinion, both the authorities and the experts lacked sensitivity to this point. They were not aware that “dose” had taken on a life of its own, outside of science and regulatory practice.
To illustrate this point, let me introduce the words of a resident of Suetsugi after taking the WBC tests. Before the first test, she avoided eating locally grown rice and vegetables against her lifelong practice. After getting her result, nondetectable (ND), she said that she would start eating vegetables from her garden and see how it goes until the next test. Her next result was also ND. These are her words:
“I have been eating lots of vegetables that I planted, grew, and picked in my garden. And the result was ND. It means my place is safe. As long as it’s safe, I can continue to live in Suetsugi without fear.” (Ando 2016b).
Her words clearly show that the measured dose was related to her sense of trust in the environment; to this resident, her decision in life—to reclaim her predisaster lifestyle as an avid gardener, proud of her flowers and vegetables, who ate and shared her produce—had been tested by WBC measurements. Her priority was to understand the meaning of the measured result and to revive trust in the environment she lived in; scientific knowledge of radiation was only a means to this end.
It is in this aspect that experts tend to err. For the residents, reclaiming control over one’s life after the disaster using the measured dose is the top priority. Contrastingly, the community perspective of many experts is that they are only interested in getting dose data, and the lower it is, the less interest they have in returning to the community to assist with questions that linger. The residents felt snubbed; it was as if the experts were not interested in their lives but only used them as guinea pigs.
Another area of contention turned out to be cases where the measured dose was low. Many experts lacked the sensitivity to understand the residents’ viewpoint and trivialized concerns they raised by insisting that if they understood the science they would agree with the experts’ conclusion. These experts failed to see the conflicting perspectives between the residents and the scientific community. For many experts, obtaining data that supported his or her research was the priority. Unlike the residents, they did not have to live with the many inconveniences in life imposed by a radioactive substance in one’s neighborhood, including bags of decontaminated soils piling up, surrounding forests and hills left without being decontaminated, having to defend one’s decision to continue living in Fukushima, etc. In fact, the residents are still struggling with a sense of trust that was lost; many are still adjusting to the new realities of life after the disaster in communities that have lost many members, or in different family structures. If experts are only interested in scientific explanation and label everything else as ignorance or even radiophobia, they will never be on the same page with the residents of Fukushima (Lochard 2013b).
REGAINING THE RESIDENTS’ TRUST
Seven years after the disaster, the voluntary food monitoring in Suetsugi is in its sixth year. Any resident can drop by the community center on Tuesday and have vegetables, herbs, or mushrooms measured, as well as chat with a consultant. The air dose levels of most areas in Suetsugi are known among the residents, and many of them have acquired a significant amount of knowledge and understanding of the exposure level. I have started interviewing the residents who participated in activities supported by Ethos in Fukushima. What they emphasize is the importance of trust.
Building relationships and investing time and effort in maintaining relationships are critical in earning trust. Actions speak louder than words and promises; experts who kept coming back and worked together with the residents, giving advice on measurement or health concerns, proved they were different from those who disappeared after taking data. They treated the residents as stakeholders and fellow human beings, not nameless test subjects.
However, this does not mean that general trust in the authorities and experts, or even in science itself, has recovered. In Suetsugi, most residents do not frequently voice concern over their exposure; from time to time, the residents measure herbs and mushrooms from the forest and seasonal produce, and they eat local produce as long as they are satisfied with the result. I still hear concerns over anything grown outside of Suetsugi, though, and the atmosphere of mistrust against the authorities’ actions remains. By measuring dose over these years, many residents came to acknowledge that the standards set by the authorities, notably the air dose rate of 0.23 μSv h−1, was not a line that determined safety itself. However, the impact on life remains, and under the guise of normalcy, people are still hurting. In addition, the failure of the government to provide appropriate information, give clear explanations, and stay committed left a lingering sense of mistrust among the residents. For example, the government has completed decontamination works in Suetsugi. Due to these works and the natural decay in the past 7 y, the air dose rates of most places in Suetsugi are less than 0.23 μSv h‐1 today. However, mistrust of the decontamination process has not gone away for reasons such as the work was not implemented properly or the appropriate information and explanations before and after the implementation was lacking. With the passage of time, the value 0.23 μSv h−1 has become more a benchmark of the government’s commitment to safety of the residents, rather than a scientific standard for safety. Not a few residents believe that the government promised to lower the air dose to 0.23 μSv h−1 and committed itself to protect the residents’ safety; therefore, to allow some places with a higher air dose rate means that the government renounced its promise—its commitment to ensure safety.
Also, the residents still voice concerns for long-term effects on health over the course of their lifetime, although not as strongly as they used to. Although they understand that the long-term health risk is limited in theory and they are relying on their personal dose, they still find it hard to believe, citing reasons such as the lack of data on exposures in the early days after the accident and the fact that they must coexist with radioactive substances during the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP, which may continue for decades. Given the environment they live in, they cannot simply trust the scientific formula for long-term health effects. It cannot be denied that radioactive particles that did not exist before the accident are in their environment today and will continue to be there. Many residents point out that the environment has changed since the accident, and they must contend with additional risk to health from living in such an environment, however small it may be.
The fact that their living conditions have been changed irrevocably without their consent always seems to be inseparable from their concern for any effect on health or how they regard the additional health risk. The trust they had in their living environment before the accident has been impaired. And since the environment will never return to what it used to be, neither is the residents’ concern about its effect on their health likely to go away. As for experts, the residents have come to trust the few who kept coming back, but their opinion on experts in general has hardly changed. When asked about experts, the residents refer to certain experts who continued to visit and engage with Suetsugi and comment that “I trust them.” However, they have negative views of most other experts, saying “I can’t understand what they are saying,” or “they shifted their opinion after the accident.” The residents often pointed out that they could easily tell whether an expert knew the specific circumstance of the place they lived or not, because without such knowledge the expert’s responses to their questions or concerns missed the point. These experts could not gain the trust of the residents. This seems to suggest that any revival of trust is limited to personal relationships developed with individuals who invested time and effort to build mutual respect.
Through these interviews, I learned that even after 7 y Suetsugi District has not fully adjusted itself to the changes in the living environment before and after the accident. Beneath the peaceful and calm surface, the residents still struggle with a lot of discomfort and bewilderment. The family structure has changed, and many of the younger generation have not returned. Many fields were abandoned after the accident, causing a change in the landscape. Although the level of contamination in the environment has decreased, the residents still have to be careful if they want to eat wild mushrooms, herbs, etc.
The biggest issue for the residents today is how they can improve their lives and rebuild a new, postaccident way of life in such a situation. The residents I interviewed shared the opinion that what is at stake is the existence of a long-term and sustainable vigilant system. They pointed out that having a system in their community to measure radiation and pay attention to the radiation in their environment over the long-run, with a visiting consultant ready to answer their questions, was instrumental to feeling confident and comfortable about rebuilding their lives. What they mean by vigilance includes positive values such as watchfulness, long-term commitment, relationships based on trust, and science-based methods. Activities to measure dose in Suetsugi were meaningful not only because they allowed the residents to understand about radiation in their lives by participating in those activities, but also by demonstrating that the residents won’t be left confused in a changed environment, which led to some degree to the development of trust and recovery of a stable living environment.
The nuclear disaster caused by the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP accident caused irreversible damage to the lives of the residents affected by radioactive substances released in areas where they lived, especially through the actions of the authorities that added to the confusion and further constrained people’s daily lives. The root cause of the problem is the breakdown of trust in society and one’s environment that is so fundamental that it’s often overlooked. Any major nuclear event will have similar consequences; these accidents will impair people’s trust in society and the environment, and the authorities will have to impose restrictions to control the situation. Therefore, revival of trust is one of the most important goals on the road to recovery. Scientific explanation and approach by the authorities and experts often failed to meet the needs of the residents in rebuilding their lives, which led to loss of credibility. What happened in Suetsugi teaches us the lesson that reviving trust was the most critical issue for science to become relevant in people’s lives. Authorities and experts should never forget that, no matter how low the dose, residents must live in an irreversibly different environment and their cohabitation with radioactive substances will continue for decades, if not longer.
This is an English translation of the original Japanese; translation by Tazuko Arai. This work was partially supported by Research on the Health Effects of Radiation organized by Ministry of the Environment, Japan.