By Mika Otsuki and Keita Aimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersThe reconstruction effort in Fukushima Prefecture, where an accident took place seven years ago at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, is entering a crucial time as municipalities where evacuation orders have been lifted ramp up efforts to encourage residents to return.
Yet the essentials of life such as employment, infrastructure and welfare are intertwined in complex ways. Restoring residents’ everyday lives, which were upended by the disaster, requires resolving multiple problems simultaneously.
Uncertain new industries
The national government is undertaking a project called the Fukushima innovation coast plan, which seeks to concentrate new industries like renewable energy in the prefecture’s coastal areas.
One important part of this is the Fukushima Robot Test Field being built in Minamisoma and Namie. The facility aims to develop unmanned vehicles and heavy machinery robots for use in practical situations such as disaster areas, and a part of it is set to open next fiscal year. Total construction costs are estimated at ¥15.5 billion.
Numerous large-scale projects aimed at rebuilding industries and creating jobs are under way in the prefecture. However, not everything is going as planned.
The Fukushima Medical Device Development Support Center, built with ¥13.4 billion in state funds, opened in Koriyama in November 2016. The center is equipped to handle everything from research and development to safety testing, and to provide support for personnel training and expanding markets.
Major makers have had production bases in the prefecture since before the nuclear disaster, so the prefectural government wanted the center to serve as a symbol of recovery.
However, in fiscal 2017, the center was only used for 50 projects, less than one-third of what was anticipated. These generated ¥39 million in income, also much less than the ¥300 million that was expected. The center is now ¥600 million in the red, twice what was anticipated.
“We want to support it, but honestly, our own facilities are enough,” a representative of a major manufacturer said.
An official at the prefecture’s section in charge of industrial creation said, “Maybe we worried too much about drawing up policies that stood out, and were too optimistic in our income and expenditure projections.” Right from the start, the center is having to reexamine its operations.
Almost all the industries that are being promoted to aid Fukushima’s recovery are in the field of cutting-edge technology. Coastal residents who made their living farming and fishing remain uncertain whether they could find work if they returned to their hometowns. People need to be shown the benefits of returning.
The evacuation orders that were issued in 11 municipalities were lifted in nine municipalities by last spring, apart from sections where returning is considered difficult. As of March 1, the population of the areas where evacuation orders were lifted was about 11,000 people, only 15 percent of the number before the nuclear disaster. Maintaining public services could become untenable.
Five towns of eight municipalities that surround the nuclear plant — Hirono, Naraha, Tomioka, Okuma, and Futaba — have formed a water company association. Income from water charges in fiscal 2016 was one-fourth of pre-disaster levels. Compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings was used to make up for the shortfall.
“If the compensation payments are cut off, we’ll be forced to raise rates five years later. Will residents accept that?” A person in charge of the matter said.
The pace of recovery differs depending on the town.
Of these five towns, only Hirono was not issued evacuation orders. “So far, we’ve been right there alongside them. It’s tough to say, ‘That will harm us, so count us out,’” a senior Hirono official said.