by Staff Writers
Koriyama, Japan (AFP) March 6, 2012
A year after being forced to abandon homes and businesses in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant, tens of thousands of refugees are still in limbo, unable to return and having to battle for compensation.
Some of those who fled the clouds of radiation that spewed from the plant after it was swamped by last March's tsunami could be allowed home over the next few years as areas are decontaminated.
But others may be unable to return for decades. Some towns will effectively pass into history, little more than names on a map where no one lives because it is too dangerous.
Twelve months on from the disaster, few have received the compensation payouts they expected from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), an enormous utility whose tentacles reach far into Japan's political machine.
Pitted against the sometimes fearsome power of the company, refugees say they feel helpless, with one describing the battle for compensation as akin to "ants trying to tackle an elephant".
"We are still alive. We are not dead yet," said a 70-year-old rice farmer, whose now worthless paddies lie four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the plant.
"Some say we can go home after 30 or 40 years, but what are we going to live on until then?" said the man, who asked not to be named when he met AFP at the evacuation shelter where he still lives.
The government-backed alternative dispute resolution centre said that as of late February, only 13 cases out of the 1,000 filed with it since September have been settled.
The centre's head, Hiroshi Noyama, said he thought progress would have been faster.
"TEPCO has been hesitant about negotiating (compensation), much more so than expected," he said.
Nearly two million people are expected to be in line for some sort of payout from TEPCO, including refugees from the 20-kilometre no-go zone immediately surrounding the plant.
Outside the zone in Fukushima prefecture as a whole 1.5 million have been affected, with livelihoods lost as farmland has been polluted and businesses -- such as hotels or shops -- closed.
Lawyers acting for victims say TEPCO is dragging its feet over paying out for now worthless assets -- land and houses -- inside the exclusion zone.
The utility has offered nuclear refugees a provisional payment for "mental suffering" amounting to 120,000 yen ($1,500) a month, but now requires claimants to re-apply every three months via a lengthy and sometimes confusing claim form.
Tsutomu Aoki, one of the lawyers assisting people from Futabamachi, home to the crippled plant, said the money was not coming quickly enough.
"These evacuees need cash to live off now," he said.
"Their problem is how long the money will last for their daily life. TEPCO has shown no consideration for their desperate living conditions."
For the 1.5 million people outside the exclusion zone, TEPCO has offered a lump sum of 400,000 yen for pregnant women and children, plus 200,000 yen for those who voluntarily evacuated, and just 80,000 yen for everyone else.
The money is intended to cover the period from the disaster until December 31st last year.
The company as yet has nothing in place for any time after that, and wants those accepting the payouts to agree that they will not try to seek additional compensation for that same period.
Lawyer Izutaro Managi said it was unfair for TEPCO to try to close down cases in this way because the effects of the radiation might not become apparent for many years.
"The accident is ongoing, and nuclear victims still don't see a clear picture of how much damage they have suffered," he said.
A TEPCO spokeswoman said the company was trying to clear the backlog of claims and had increased the number of workers processing paperwork from 3,000 to 10,000.
"We are sorry for taking so long but we are trying to make sure no mistake is made. We will continue working," she said.
For organic rice farmer Mamoru Narita from Koriyama, some 60 kilometres west of the plant, the 80,000 yen he is entitled to barely scratches the surface of what he believes he has lost from the disaster.
"I cultivated my rice field without using chemical fertilizers or pesticide, so that I could ensure food safety and do good to the environment," said Narita, 61.
"Now the entire environment has been tainted, and we get that amount of money? Should we farmers remain quiet about this?"
Mia Isogai, 31, who fled with her husband and two-year-old son to Yokohama, said the family was struggling to make ends meet and without more compensation faced bankruptcy.
"We are paying for food and utility expenses from my part-time job. We can't even pay rent," she said, adding her husband is still looking for a new job.
For the household of three, the Isogais are entitled to a total 760,000 yen from TEPCO -- the equivalent to approximately three months of the average Japanese salary.
"Out of goodwill, the current landlord says he won't demand rent until summer. But that will end soon," she said. "I don't know what we will do then."
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Radiation fears haunt Japanese food shoppers
Tokyo (AFP) March 1, 2012
For Japanese shoppers, food safety was taken for granted until the Fukushima crisis. Now many have lost faith in government guarantees and fear that radiation could have contaminated their diet. Meltdowns at the nuclear plant in the aftermath of last year's tsunami sent poisonous radioactive particles into the air and water, blanketing crops grown near the power station and polluting waters ... read more
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