One year on, nuclear survivors suffer temporary housing
By Lars Nicolaysen Mar 4, 2012, 3:26 GMT
Fukushima, Japan - The winter cold seeps past the steel girders and thin walls of Teiichi Sekizawa's container-like home, but he won't turn on the heat.
Such a cost comes too dearly for the part-time worker displaced by last year's nuclear accident in north-eastern Japan who still lives in temporary housing and is unlikely to ever be able to return home.
Even so, the 55-year-old considers himself fortunate. He had worked at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station but his contract had ended a day before the March 11 accident there, the worst the world had seen since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.
'I was lucky,' said Sekizawa, who now lives in a settlement of 180 emergency housing units erected in a parking lot in Fukushima, the capital of the prefecture with the same name.
He is among the more than 80,000 people who lived near the nuclear plant and were evacuated because of the radioactive fallout that occurred after an earthquake shook the plant and generated a tsunami that swamped it, causing meltdowns in three of its six nuclear reactors.
Hundreds of thousands of people up and down the coast lost their homes, jobs and livelihoods in the disaster. Like Sekizawa, more than 320,000 people still live in emergency housing, and many complain the government has been slow to compensate them and find permanent shelter.
'If you go to see the city authorities, you soon see how chaotic the reconstruction work is,' said Ken Horikawa, a volunteer working with survivors in the badly damaged coastal city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture.
He accused authorities of lacking an overall plan and being out of touch with the needs of survivors and the difficulties of life in temporary housing.
Whereas initial efforts were directed at saving lives and providing the basics for survivors, the need now is for help of a more intangible kind: lending moral support to people still in temporary accommodation.
'We visit the elderly, listen to what they have to say, hand over letters from all over Japan and distribute rice,' Horikawa said.
Many of the survivors have yet to recover from their ordeal, he said. In addition, officials failed to take previous social circumstances and relationships into account when relocating them.
'Everything happened by lottery,' Horikawa said, pointing to elderly people who no longer have any contact with the neighbours they once knew and are now lonely.
They can't sleep properly and are stressed, he said.
Sekizawa knows the past is gone in more ways than one. His old home lies 10 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in an area still highly radioactive.
'I know I can't go back there again,' he said in his cramped abode.
The proximity of his house to the plant indicates the confidence he once had in the nuclear industry. He started working in the nuclear power sector when he was 30 and acknowledged that he did well from it, earning good money moving around Japan from one plant to another over the past 25 years.
Although he has picked up work doing radiation decontamination since the accident, he said he has no intention of ever working at a nuclear plant again. He plans to begin working full time in a factory this month.
'We have to utilize new sources of energy in the future,' Sekizawa said, dismissing official assurances of nuclear safety.
His new residence might be meagre, but it is considerably better than the emergency accommodation the unmarried Sekizawa lived in during the months immediately after the disaster, he said.
'In comparison to the sports hall, this is wonderful,' he said. 'It was even colder there, and all we got to eat was instant noodles, rice balls and bread.'
But at his age, he said, he feels a little old to live like this. 'We're not asking for luxury,' he said. 'All we want is compensation, so we can live in a relatively comfortable way.'
He said all he and his neighbours hear from officials is that they 'will pass the information to their superiors.'
'The government has been extremely slow to react,' Sekizawa said, echoing a widely heard complaint among those still living in temporary housing.
Many survivors depend on volunteers like Horikawa. Some simply wait for the government to improve their lot, but Horikawa said the survivors need at some point to be able to stand on their own two feet.