Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe inspects the premises of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on April 14. Its No. 3 and No. 4 reactors, from left, are seen behind in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture. (Pool)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Without special protection against radiation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood on elevated ground about 100 meters from the three melted-down reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

“I was finally able to see the view just wearing a normal suit without having to wear protective clothing and a mask (for radiation),” he said on April 14 after hearing explanations from Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials. “The decommissioning work has been making progress in earnest.”

An act of bravado, perhaps. But it was more likely one of the ways Abe and his government want to show that the Fukushima disaster is, as he famously said, “under control.”

Progress has been made, albeit slowly, for the monumental task of decommissioning TEPCO’s crippled nuclear plant.

But radiation levels in certain areas of the plant are still lethal with extended exposure. The problem of storing water contaminated in the reactors continues.

And only recently was TEPCO able to make contact with melted nuclear fuel in the reactors through a robot. The means to extract the fuel has yet to be decided.

However, the government keeps touting progress in the reconstruction effort, using evacuee statistics, which critics say are misleading, to underscore its message.

Abe’s previous visit to the nuclear plant was in September 2013.

“When I conducted an inspection five years ago, I was completely covered in protective gear,” he said at a meeting with decommissioning workers in April. “This time I was able to inspect wearing a normal suit.”

Officials in Abe’s circle acknowledged that they wanted to “appeal the progress of reconstruction” by letting the media cover the prime minister’s “unprotected” visit to the site.

The inspection ground where Abe stood, 35 meters above sea level, and the insides of buses are the only places in the area where protective clothing and masks are not required.

His visit in a business suit was possible largely because the ground was covered in mortar and other materials that prevent the spread of radioactive substances, not because decommissioning work has lowered radiation levels as a whole.

The radiation level at the elevated inspection ground still exceeds 100 microsieverts per hour, making it dangerous for people who remain there for extended periods.

Abe’s inspection ended in six minutes.

The prime minister raised eyebrows, particularly in Fukushima Prefecture, in 2013 when he gave a speech to promote Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Concerning the Fukushima nuclear plant, he told International Olympic Committee members, “Let me assure you, the situation is under control.”

An hour before he inspected the plant in April, Abe attended the opening ceremony of the new government building of Okuma, one of the two towns that host the nuclear plant.

The ceremony followed the lifting of an evacuation order for part of the town on April 10.

“We were able to take a step forward in reconstruction,” Abe said.

The central government uses the number of evacuees to show the degree of progress in reconstruction work.

In April 2018, Abe said in the Diet that the lifting of evacuation orders has reduced the number of evacuees to one-third of the peak.

According to the Reconstruction Agency, the number of people who evacuated in and outside of Fukushima Prefecture, including those who were under no orders to leave, peaked at about 160,000. But the initial evacuation orders for 11 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture have been gradually lifted, and the agency now puts the total number at about 40,000.

About 71,000 people were officially registered as residents of areas that were ordered to evacuate. Now, only about 11,000 people live in those zones.

This means that about 60,000 people have not returned to the homes where they were living before the nuclear accident unfolded in March 2011.

The gap of 20,000 can be attributed to how the agency classifies or declassifies evacuees.

NOT COUNTED AS EVACUEES

The Reconstruction Agency sent a notice in August 2014 to all prefectures that have counted the number of evacuees.

It defined “evacuees” as people who moved to different places because of the nuclear disaster and have the “will” to return to their original homes.

The notice also said that if it is difficult to perceive their “will,” they can be regarded as people who have ended their evacuation if they bought new homes or made arrangements for new accommodations.

Based on the notice, people in Fukushima Prefecture who have bought new homes during their evacuation or settled down in public restoration housing or disaster public housing are regarded as living “stable” lives and are not counted as evacuees.

“It is not a problem because we continue supporting them even if they are removed from the evacuee statistics,” a prefectural government official said.

An official of the Reconstruction Agency said, “The judgment is made by each prefecture, so we are not in a position to say much.”

However, the prefecture has not confirmed all evacuees’ will to return to their homes. In addition, those who are removed from the list of evacuees are not informed of their new status.

Many people bought homes in new locations during their prolonged evacuations although they still hope to return to their hometowns in the disaster area.

Yumiko Yamazaki, 52, has a house in Okuma in a “difficult-to-return” zone.

But because she moved to public restoration housing outside of the town, she is not considered an evacuee by the agency and the prefecture.

“I had to leave my town although I didn’t want to,” Yamazaki said. “It is so obvious that the government wants to make the surface appearance look good by reducing the number of evacuees.”

“I can’t allow them to try to pretend the evacuation never happened,” Yamazaki said.

Critics say the central government’s emphasis of positive aspects and the downplaying of inconvenient truths in the evacuee statistics have much in common with its response to the suspected nepotism scandals involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution.

“This is an act to socially hide the real number of evacuees, which could lead to a cover-up of the seriousness of the incident,” said Akira Imai, chief researcher of the Japan Research Institute for Local Government who has conducted surveys among evacuees. “The evacuee number is an index that is used to consider measures to support evacuees. The current situation should be reflected properly in the numbers.”

But the central government continues to appeal “reconstruction” to the public.

On the night of May 10, Abe had dinner with all-male idol group Tokio at a pizza restaurant in Tokyo.

The four-member group has been promoting products from Fukushima Prefecture, which are still struggling to overcome public fears and false rumors about radiation.

Two days after the dinner, Abe posted a picture of him with Tokio on Twitter and commented, “They have been making efforts to reconstruct Fukushima Prefecture.”

As of May 20, the tweet had gained 279,000 likes.

(This article was written by Daiki Ishizuka, Hiroshi Ishizuka and Narumi Ota.)